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Conflict as Opportunity

Friday, March, 8, 2013

Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it.  That factor is attitude.” (~ William James, n.d.)

The good news in this message is that we have options when we find ourselves heading into a conflict whether it is in our closest relationships or in the workplace, community, or larger world.  We have the power to shape our attitudes about the conflict and the person(s) on the opposing side.  Perhaps there are other ways to think about conflict as well as specific do-able steps for addressing the conflicts that snag us. We can choose options that transform the conflict into an opportunity for growth, balance, and health.

Let’s begin with how we define conflict.  Although conflict is a part of everyday life, we rarely stop to give careful attention to its meaning.  When I teach workshops on conflict and communication, I ask the participants what they think conflict means. The responses range from a mere difference of opinion to the more startling response from a group of high school students who believe there is no problem with differences unless there is a weapon involved.

As a conflict specialist, my working definition is somewhere between those extremes. The International Journal of Intercultural Relations (1998) has a particularly useful definition: Interpersonal conflict is a symbolic product of human communication.  It is a process of interactions between two or more interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resource, and interference in achieving the goals.”

A step toward working with conflict in a productive way is to acknowledge that conflict just IS. It is not something to run away from.  If conflict is a product of our communication, then we can take a look at our pattern of communication.  If it is about our perceptions, then we can examine whether or not the goals and resources entangled in our conflicts are as incompatible or scarce as we believe them to be.

Here are several strategies for using conflict as a productive process.

1. Look at the situation and identify what really matters.

Often when we are in a conflict, we are quick to identify the solution that will “fix” the problem as we have defined it.  We hold onto that particular solution as the only way out of the mess. “My way or the highway” would be the perfect quote to symbolize this approach to the solution.  In mediation, we call these fixed solutions, positions. Before we engage with the other one, if we step back, breathe deep, and look at the situation from that distance, we can ask ourselves what underlying needs, fears and beliefs are driving the conflict for us.  Mediators call the underlying needs, interests. Once we get clear about what we really need and want, additional creative solutions bubble up.  And we are more prepared to listen to what is also important to the other side.

A classic example of exploring the underlying needs in negotiation is the story of two children arguing over an orange.  It is the only orange available and each of them claims that they must have it for a project.  If each child holds onto their position that they must have the whole orange, they will use bribes, bargaining or threats to get the orange.  If they step back from their position and ask themselves and each other what they really need, they find a surprising solution that satisfies both of them.  What they discover is that one of them needs the rind and the other needs the juice and pulp.  With care, they can divide the orange in a way that totally meets their needs.

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

With this phrase based on an old proverb, both Steven Covey (Habit 5 of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and the author of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis have captured the essence of effective communication and conflict management.  When we listen to the other one with the intent to understand what is important to them, we may find some surprising common ground. Or at least understand the depth of the difference between us.

My sister-in-law and I had a smoldering dispute over a contentious vote at our church council meeting.  For a month or so after the vote, any time the subject arose, each of us got agitated and defensive. Finally I reminded myself to practice what I teach and I listened more carefully, this time with the intent to hear what was deeply troubling to her. And I reflected back what I heard her say.  Although I still sensed that she did not understand me, this time it did not matter.  I heard her and the dispute dissipated.

  1. Consider your differences as assets.

While it is true that sometimes differences fuel conflict, there is an advantage to acknowledging that widely diverse perspectives and goals are valuable. Each perspective contains a facet of the larger whole.  The varying needs and views contain essential ingredients of a well-crafted solution.  So rather than resisting a contrary view, consider it a possible contribution to a creative outcome.

As part of my private practice as a conflict specialist, I provide information about the mediation and facilitation services available through the Michigan Special Education Mediation Program. When I meet with parents and educators, I hear stories of widely divergent views about the best plan for the education of children with disabilities. Over the years I have observed that it may be in the child’s interest to have adults in his/her life with differing views of the child, their abilities and the supports they need. When the adults are able to share their differences with a collaborative spirit, the resulting education plan is more likely to meet the needs of the whole child.

  1. Seek professional conflict specialists if needed.

Sometimes our best efforts to manage the conflicts in our lives do not bring the positive results we seek.  Fortunately, there are resources available. Seeking an objective outsider is a sign of resourcefulness, not failure.  Mediation is one of several dispute resolution options.  Arbitration and litigation are other options in the court system.  For additional ways that third parties support people through conflict, visit the Third Side website,

In mediation, the parties involved in the dispute are invited by the impartial mediator to describe the situation from their unique perspective and explore options that meet the differing interests of all parties. If they are able to reach agreement, the mediator records the settlement in their terms.  When disputing parties craft their own settlement, they are more likely to carry out the agreement than when the decisions are imposed on them.

In Michigan, there is a network of community dispute resolution centers established by the state legislature in 1988.  These centers provide mediation throughout the state for a wide variety of disputes, from civil to domestic to community conflicts.  Most courts also have a roster of available private practice mediators that meet the state standards.  Professional organizations such as the Family Mediation Council provide valuable information about mediation options and referrals to practitioners. ( When we change the way we view conflict, we begin to think differently about our options and move toward positive, constructive change. In conclusion, it may help to think of conflict as a thunderstorm.  You can sense the dark storm clouds forming off in the distance.  You can prepare for the storm’s arrival but you cannot prevent it.  A thunderstorm is highly charged and can bring destructive wind, rain, floods.

Conflict, too, can destroy relationships and wreak havoc with lives. On a positive note, the storm can also usher in a refreshing rain that brings great relief after a long drought.  After the storm moves on, the air is clearer, brighter.  Constructive conflict can bring festering problems into the light and provide clarity to a tangled situation.  We can use our conflicts as opportunities for growth.

Posted By:

Wanda Joseph

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