Can All Conflicts be Resolved?

How many of you think that all conflicts can be resolved? This is one of the first questions I ask the participants in my conflict workshops. The majority of the participants say yes they believe that all conflicts can be resolved by talking things out. And, of course, this is a trick question to set the stage for exploring the difference between resolving conflicts and managing conflict. As a result, by the end of the workshop those participants who said yes have a different perspective.

What I have discovered over the course of 35 plus years of doing counseling and workshops is that conflict is a troublesome issue for almost everyone. Isn’t that a great revelation? What makes this statement so critical is that everyone one sees conflict so differently. As a result we end up spending some time to define conflict and determine how individuals perceive and deal with it as part of the workshop.

During this work the participants begin to understand that resolving a conflict means that all the parties must be willing to participate in determining the solution for the conflict. This usually is the case when the relationships between the parties involved are important and everyone wants to maintain the relationships. It means that the parties must be willing to come together and spend enough time to hear and understand the other person’s point of view. It does not mean that each individual must agree and accept the other person’s viewpoint as his or her own. It does mean that each individual must hear and understand that viewpoint. It means that each individual must acknowledge and accept the feelings of those involved. And it does mean that each individual must build on common interests, not personal positions, to create an acceptable solution to the conflict.

If these factors are not possibilities, things are not hopeless. It just means that we need a different approach to addressing the conflict. We need to look at managing the conflict. In our larger society we do this through governance and rule of law. We have a court system that provides an opportunity for people to make their case and let a judge or jury, a source of authority, decide the outcome. We have a political system that allows debate, compromise, and rule by majority.

Managing conflict can also work in a less formal settings as well. We do this a lot in work environments where individuals are not willing to come together and workout the difficulty. Instead those involved want someone else, someone of more authority to make the call. That person, usually an employee who has more authority or at least authority in the environment that is experiencing the conflict, needs to be ready to hear all sides of the conflict and determine a solution that will address the conflict. That decision may involve a number of actions. But whatever the action taken, it needs to result in reduction of the conflict because the parties involved do not have the opportunity to continue the conflict. Decisions may range from removal of one or more of the parties form the environment to restructuring the environment to prevent the conflicting parties from interacting with each other. Again you can see this happening in our world at a variety of different levels from the next door neighbor to the school classroom to the workplace to the interaction of nations. In these cases, maintaining the relationships is not the primary issue. It is more about maintaining a sense of order that is needed. The key is not which approach is best, resolution or management.

The key is which approach is most appropriate for the conflict situation. To use the correct approach requires understanding the conflict and all individuals involved. If you don’t have the in depth knowledge and understanding of the situation you probably are not the best person to decide which approach to use. I really find this to be the case in lots of conflicts with which I get involved. Everyone knows what is best and what is needed to solve the conflict. There is no shortage of experts on any one conflict. Therefore, it is very important to study the situation and interact with a variety of individuals about the situation before deciding which approach to use.

Hopefully, you can see that dealing with conflict is not a simple or easy process. It really does need to involve someone with some knowledge and skill. However, we can all work at increasing our knowledge and skill of dealing with conflict. Maybe, we could even identify skills of human relations that we need to improve upon that would result in preventing conflicts in the first place.

Regardless of your place in life, you will have conflicts. It is only a matter of when and what kind. Therefore, I encourage you to work at improving your skills for handling conflict. Then maybe your conflicts, when you have them, can be happy conflicts.

Until next time, happy conflicts.