“One of my colleagues (Dave Dyck) likes to say that conflict is ‘differences plus tension’. (I like to say it now, too.) Think about this. If we accept this basic idea, how might that change things?”
Communication & Conflict
An interesting online dialogue recently began after my colleague, Sandy Koop Harder, posted the above four sentences on LinkedIn. The deeper exploration got rolling when someone took the time and risk to engage with both vulnerability and intellectual curiousity (a beguiling mix, if you ask me!). This dialogue partner admitted that tension made her nervous before posing the question of whether tension and communication can co-exist.
I, among others, responded by suggesting that indeed they can and do. I added that what I find particularly helpful about conflict = differences + tension is that this simple, equation-like definition allows us to realize that conflict and combat are not (or should not be) synonyms.
Many people hear “conflict” and immediately think “fight” or, maybe “communication breakdown.” But conflict exists first in a nascent state, inside our hearts and minds: i.e. whenever we first notice the tension.
So, if conflict is not necessarily a fight but rather exists first in the internal state of noticing differences + tension, then it begs the question of what other approaches we might pursue in response to it. One of those approaches is we could communicate about it.
As we take seriously the professional discipline of developing and honing our practical skills to communicate during or about conflict, my own experience has been that, over time, some of the nervousness (at least the paralyzing kind) begins to go away.
The Role of Power
The above, in turn, prompted yet another interesting response from another person. He suggested that conflict often arises in the context of power imbalance and that it is the presence of “power asymmetry” that usually makes effective communication difficult.
His contention was that it would be important to in some way create a “more level power dynamic” before an effective conversation could take place. He wondered aloud if this power balancing wasn’t actually central to the role of the mediator.
I found his reply thought-provoking.
My own experience is that differences + tension eventually surface in all but the most superficial, fleeting relationships. There is no such thing as the conflict free intimate couple, family, religious community or workplace. One could also argue that there is rarely a relationship with absolute power symmetry.
That said, my firsthand experience as a mediator for the last 27 years (and, for that matter, as a human being for the last 48 years!) is that we all partake in many relationships of relative power symmetry that still include “knotty” conflicts and the need to communicate about those dilemmas. And that this communication can often be very challenging regardless of power dynamics. In other words, while power imbalance can definitely play a role both in creating and exacerbating conflict, conflict between relative equals, who then also struggle to talk about it effectively, happens all the time.
Furthermore, even in relationships of clear power imbalance, people can – and indeed do – communicate about their tensions and they certainly do not always need the help of a mediator to do so effectively (especially if they have had some education/professional development or other forms of coaching and support).
Finally, even when mediators like me do need to get involved, I am actually quite wary of trying to “build a more level power dynamic” for fear of creating a false homeostasis. Instead, I see my role and the role of our firm as empowering individuals and groups to communicate about what they have experienced and need in spite of and “across” power differentials so that their capacity to communicate well about difficult issues is sustained well after we take our leave.
What about you? What do you think about conflict, communicating in conflict, and/or the role of power? What about the role of third party helpers in sorting through all of this?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, even embryonic ones!
Thanks for reading.