Over the years I have run very many training courses on conflict management and a common theme that has emerged right at the start has been a strong tendency for participants to bring with them the idea that conflict can be equated with hostility or even fighting (physically or otherwise). Of course, there is a significant potential link between conflict and these other issues, but it would be a big mistake to see them as one and the same. It is better to understand that hostility is not the same thing as conflict; rather, hostility is what emerges when our efforts to manage conflict have not worked out as we would have hoped. It is perfectly possible to have conflict without even the slightest hint of hostility, aggression or violence – in fact, it is quite normal for this to be the case.
Conflict is where, in a sense, people get in each other’s way. What I am trying to do is being blocked by what someone else is trying to do, or vice versa. It is an everyday occurrence for people to disagree or have conflicting aims or intentions. But – and this is a key point – in the vast majority of situations, we will handle such conflicts very skilfully and effectively. It is only on relatively rare occasions that we will actually fall out about such matters. This is testimony to the fact that we tend to be very effective conflict managers in our everyday lives – just look around you as people interact and it won’t be very long before you see people demonstrating exactly what I mean.
Unfortunately, though, because conflict can cause tension and there is always the potential for it to escalate into hostility and beyond, many people have developed unhelpful defence mechanisms that involve avoiding conflict – running away from it in effect – that can cause significant problems. These problems include the following three:
- Smouldering If we try to turn our back on conflicts instead of facing them and dealing with them constructively, there is a very real danger that they will smoulder over time, creating considerable ill-feeling, lowering morale and generally being very counterproductive. And, as so often happens, when things smoulder, there is always the risk that they will burst into flames at any moment and do even more damage – often at a very inconvenient moment.
- Festering Again, it is a matter of failing to face up to conflicts causing significant problems over time. But what differentiates festering from smouldering is that, in this case, there is no bursting into flames, no clearing of the air that allows you to move on and put the conflict behind you. Conflicts that fester rather than smoulder can carry on for weeks, months and even years – causing untold harm throughout that time.
- Destroying credibility Imagine a manager, say, who is aware of harmful conflict between two members of their staff; everyone knows they are aware of the conflict, but everyone also knows that the manager is doing nothing about it. Just consider for a moment how that manager’s credibility is going to be significantly undermined by their unwillingness to grasp the nettle. And, of course, it is not just managers that this applies to.
Consequently, anyone who runs away from conflict, rather than deal with it, runs the risk of doing great harm through smouldering or festering and is sabotaging their own credibility (and thus their ability to influence people) into the bargain. They are also losing out on all the benefits that come from developing your conflict management skills to the full.