We face conflict often as we encounter contradictory goals. Agreeing on what to cook for dinner, where to go on vacation, who washes the dishes, or what car to buy are examples of the many simple conflicts we may face each day. Choosing between communism, dictatorship, and democracy; electing the democrat or the republican; pro-life vs. pro choice; nuclear energy, conservation, or burning more oil; the safety and comfort of an SUV vs. green transportation alternatives, and many other mega-conflicts are at the center of the most important issues facing our world. Conflict is unavoidable; fortunately we can learn to transcend conflict as we avoid false dichotomies.
- Contradiction between goals
The words: battle, clash, collision, competition, contention, contest, discord, dispute, dissension, dissent, dissidence, encounter, engagement, incongruence, opposition, rivalry, strife, and striving all describe conflicts or approaches to resolving conflicts. A negotiation is a discussion intended to produce an agreement.
Emotions Rooted in Conflict
Several emotions emerge from conflict, for example:
- Fear or anxiety result from a conflict between the need for safety and an actual or imagined threat.
- Anger results from a conflict between your goals, including your sense of justice, and actual events.
- Guilt, shame, and contempt result from a conflict between a desirable standard of behavior and actual behavior.
- Envy and jealousy result from a conflict between what you want and what you have.
- When you blame another for causing conflict you may come to hate them.
- Ambivalence describes a conflict within yourself; an inability to choose a clear goal or direction.
We each adopt a particular style when managing conflict. Five important styles are shown in this illustration, adapted from material originally presented by Dr. Mary Nikola, Rutgers University:
The diagram plots five styles along two axes. The horizontal axis indicates the degree of cooperation; the importance of the relationship between yourself and the people holding or representing goals that contradict yours. The degree of cooperation can vary from non-supportive—where the relationship is not important, to supportive—where the relationship is considered valuable. The vertical axis indicates the degree of assertiveness; the importance of the issue. This ranges from submissive—the issue is not important, at the bottom, to dominant—the issue is important, at the top. These two dimensions are sometimes referred to as “need for affiliation” and “need for achievement” or as “getting along” and “getting ahead”. While these labels are linguistically clever, they may inaccurately suggest that the two dimensions are incompatible or conflict with each other.
These five positions on the grid characterize typical conflict management styles or modes:
- Avoidance: “I can't deal with this now.” Neither resolving the issue nor preserving the relationship are important. The goal is to delay consideration or resolution. It indefinitely defers the need to confront a problem, so the problem goes unsolved, and probably continues to get worse.
- Accommodation: “Whatever you want is OK with me.” The issue is not important, the relationship is important. You yield to whatever the other wants. This is grace without truth.
- Compromise: “Can't we find some middle ground here”. This is an attempt to share the rewards and disappointments. This is a step toward both grace and truth.
- Competition: “Its my way or the highway.” The issue is important, the relationship is meaningless. The goal is to win at any cost. This is usually a violent take-it-or-leave-it approach based on a significant disparity in power, or a hit-and-run exploitation (rip off) that recognizes you will never meet again. This is truth without grace.
- Collaboration: “Let's keep working at this until we find a solution that meets all of our needs.” Both the relationship and the issue are important. The goal is to find a creative alternative that satisfies the goals of all of us. Specific techniques for transcending conflict and arriving at a collaborative solution are described in the next section. This is both grace and truth.
While it is tempting to say that collaboration is the preferred mode, the wide variety of the circumstances of conflict; the importance or trivial nature of issues; the depth, fragile nature, or superficial nature of relationships vary greatly. As a result each situation has to be assessed individually to decide on a particular style. The important point is to understand these alternatives and choose the most constructive style for the issue at hand.
If you have decided on a collaborative approach to the conflict, it is important to know techniques that can help you transcend the conflict.
Consider this simple but all too typical story. Donna and Don are a happily married couple living in Portland Oregon. Unfortunately even their happy marriage is tested by conflict as they plan their next vacation. Don wants to vacation at Mount Adams. He enjoys alpine hikes and mountain vistas. Donna prefers the cool comfort of a lake where she can swim to exercise and cool off; she wants to go to Siltcoos Lake. As they try to resolve this conflict, Don begins by selling Donna on the advantages of Mount Adams. She gets impatient because he is ignoring her wishes as he tries to get his way. She counters by trying to sell Don on the benefits of Siltcoos lake. After a few rounds back and forth in this classic skirmish, Donna gets exasperated and says, “Maybe we should skip the travel and just stay at home for this vacation. We can spend time together, catch up on chores around the house, and also save some money”. Don replies, “No, we should get away from here. How about three days at Mount Adams, and then three days at Siltcoos Lake. If you prefer, we could take separate vacations, I'll go to Mount Adams and you can go to Siltcoos Lake”. Donna protests “The extra travel is too much hassle, and I want us to vacation together, not apart, we hardly see each other as it is. I'm tired of arguing, let's drop this for now”. The next day their son, who is away at college, calls. Donna describes the conflict to him. Immediately he says, “That's easy, go to Crater Lake. It is a beautiful lake set inside of a massive mountain. You both get what you want with no hassle, no separation, and no compromise”.
This story can be analyzed using the following diagram:
In the language of game theory, the red regions correspond to zero-sum (win or lose) games, while the blue region corresponds to nonzero-sum games (lose-lose, tie, or win-win). If the conflict can be recast from a zero-sum game to a nonzero-sum game, then opportunities for mutual gain have been invented.
Goal “A” represents Don's goal of vacationing at Mount Adams. Goal “B” represents Donna's goal of vacationing at Siltcoos Lake. The discussion becomes heated as soon as they fall into the trap of polarized thinking, consider only two alternatives, and fixate on a false dichotomy. Don argues for position #1, Pole A while Donna argues for position #2, Pole B. The argument increases in intensity as they each skillfully and passionately defend their chosen positions represented by the two poles. Fortunately they begin to consider other alternatives. Five possible outcomes are discussed below.
Position 1, Pole A: Don prevails, they vacation at Mount Adams. Goal A is fully met, goal B is not at all met. Don gets his way for now, Donna loses. This position is won at the cost of Donna's hurt and may result in her retaliation in some form, probably at some later time. She probably harbors some resentment and anger, even if she denies it. In a more serious conflict it could lead to violent retaliation and on-going conflict.
Position 2, Pole B: Donna prevails, they vacation at Siltcoos Lake. This is symmetrical with position 2, but with Don now feeling hurt. Considering only positions 1 and 2 frames the conflict as either / or: either I get my goals met, or you get your goals met. This is a false dichotomy. Fortunately, there are three more alternatives to consider; they all lie along the cooler colored diagonal.
Position 3, Negative Transcendence: They cancel the vacation and neither achieves their goal. Each gets nothing toward their goal. This is symmetrical, but not very constructive.
Position 4, Compromise: They spend some time at Mount Adams and some time at Siltcoos Lake. Each goal is partially met, and partially unmet. The additional travel introduces unwanted hassle.
Position 5, Positive Transcendence: They discover Crater Lake, a beautiful place to vacation together that includes both a lake and a mountain. Both goals are fully met. No hurt remains, no revenge is sought, no violence occurs. The conflict has been transcended and the work is complete with no debt remaining. Instead of having to choose “either / or”, the solution provides “both / and”.
The three often overlooked options 3, 4, and 5 lie along the peace diagonal of the diagram. This corresponds to the transformation of the conflict from a zero-sum game to a nonzero-sum game.
Going up one or two levels in each person's goals hierarchy can often reveal common goals and opportunities for resolving apparent conflict through positive transcendence.
The bitter conflict of Intelligent Design against Darwin's theory of evolution that raged through Dover Pennsylvania may have a simple positive transcendent resolution: If the theory of evolution is correct, then God deserves full credit for inventing it and Darwin gets credit only for describing it. The contributions of both God and Darwin are fully preserved in this reframing of the evidence.
The TRANSCEND method describes these steps for transcending conflict:
- Identify the goals of each party. Here Don's originally stated goal of “Vacation at Mount Adams” was more accurately and more flexibly understood as “Vacation at a mountain”.
- Identify and eliminate any goals that are invalid or illegitimate. These include any goals that deny the needs of another. In our example, the proposal to have separate vacations was invalid, because it denied Donna's valid need to vacation together.
- Explore creative options along the peace diagonal, positions 3, 4, and 5 shown above in blue. Often position 3 is easy to see. Negating the elements of this alternative may hint at options for position 5. Keep creating more alternatives as you increase your empathy for the other's goals.
- Choose the best option from all the alternatives that have been suggested. Often, but not always, the best alternative is at position 5, positive transcendence, but also carefully consider other positions on the peace diagonal. In the 15th century when Portugal and Spain were arguing over control of South America, they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas which specified a demarcation line dividing South America into territory ruled by Spain and territory ruled by Portugal. This compromise at position 4 is perhaps better than the two polarized positions, however a much better solution exists. The better solution is at position 3, negative transcendence, where neither Spain or Portugal rules South America. This negative transcendence solution recognizes and protects the needs of the indigenous people of South America, who have every right to continue living on the land as they had for centuries.
- “Think through the consequences of your actions for the next seven generations.” ~ Native American wisdom
- “The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations.” ~ David Friedman
- “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” ~ Walter Lippmann
- “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” ~ Jonathan Kozol
- “No problems, no progress.”
- “As a species we are exquisitely suited to thrive in an environment of threat where resources are scarce, but not always ready to reap the benefits of harmony, peace, and plenty.” ~ Benjamin Zander
Transcend and Transform: An Introduction to Conflict Work, by Johan Galtung
A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger von Oech
Peace: A World History, by Antony Adolf
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright
Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover area school district case no. 04cv2688 Memorandum opinion December 20, 2005, Judge Jones
The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly, by Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, Tom Callanan, and John Ott
The Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM), by W. Barnett Pearce.