Conflict is a broad term. It can range from minor disagreements to out-and-out war, with various degrees of antagonism in between. Relatively minor conflicts can escalate to much more serious situations, and so it is understandable that people will so often be very wary of entering into even a minor conflict for fear of it developing into something of more major proportions.
However, this wariness comes at a price, as it means that we can become reluctant to air any disagreements. One unfortunate consequence of this is what is known as ‘groupthink’. This refers to a group of people who are involved in a process of decision making in which some members – sometimes the majority, even – disagree with the direction that one or more people are taking the group in. They foresee difficulties, even potentially catastrophic ones, but do not speak up for fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and of being seen as out of step with the group. A common consequence of this is that the decision made backfires and results in a poor outcome, and those people who had not spoken out wishing that they had. Those who are brave enough to admit that they were not happy with the group’s decision (but did not say so at the time) could well then find themselves being pilloried for keeping their concerns to themselves.
In a group context disagreement has a positive role to play (provided that it is done in a civilised way), in so far as it can highlight difficulties, provide opportunities for learning and, as in the case of groupthink already mentioned, avoid poor decision making. Having someone disagree with you can introduce new perspectives and insights and help you gain a fuller and more helpful picture of the situation.
But it isn’t just in a group context that disagreement can be positive. We are all different people, with our own unique perspective on life, and so it is inevitable that differences and disagreements will arise. Pretending these differences don’t exist is not a wise strategy, of course. It is much better to be aware of these differences and use them constructively – this is part of what is meant by ‘valuing diversity’, recognising that differences in perspective are potentially very useful as a source of learning, broadening our horizons and avoiding unfair discrimination.
It is important to realise that disagreement is not simply a matter of one person being wrong and another being right – both might be right in their own way, reflecting different aspects of the situation, or different perspectives on it. You don’t have to look far before you come across one or more examples of this. It is quite common for people to be arguing about something that they actually agree on in large part!
What is really important when it comes to disagreement is to do it in what I referred to earlier as a ‘civilised’ way. What I mean by this is an assertive approach – that is, one that does not involve trying to force the other person(s) to accept your point of view, nor allowing them to force their point of view on you. It is about being open minded and being prepared to consider other people’s views and perspectives – it is essential that we do not confuse disagreeing with fighting. Fights have winners and losers (or sometimes just losers on both sides), whereas disagreements can be positive and constructive, with everyone winning if they are handled tactfully and sensitively.
So, while disagreements can escalate into more serious conflicts, they can also be helpful and productive for all concerned. The key to it is about how we disagree – in a spirit of moving forward constructively or in a spirit of antagonism.