I've always had an interest in understanding and practicing conflict resolution. In recent years I've realized just how important the ability to identify, mediate and resolve conflicts is as a skill in life and in professional development.
In our personal lives, being able to see conflict and move toward it with hopes of addressing/resolving it makes for better and deeper friendships, relationships, marriages and family dynamics.
In our neighborhoods and communities, being able to resolve conflicts without calling the police or filing a lawsuit is a way to build trust, connection and understanding with the people around us.
In our government institutions and with our elected leaders, the ability to engage in respectful dialog and work toward compromise around issues where we disagree prevents deadlock and leads to improvements in services, infrastructure and public life.
In our places of business, being able to see a conflict with a coworker or supervisor, actively trying to understand each others` underlying interests and needs and working toward a solution that is acceptable to all involved can mean the difference between being miserable or thriving in our careers and professional lives.
In activism and social justice work, the ability to speak clearly and boldly about the systems, laws and practices that are problematic and engage directly, respectfully and effectively with people who have a different point of view can be critical to making real progress.
Even in tech and software development, the concepts of conflict resolution can be essential for success. Maybe it's reconciling different approaches to software architecture, or moving toward the hardest, most complex technical problem to solve first so that you can untangle it and remove any unknowns or mysteries that might affect the rest of your project.
In these cases and more, it seems being able to handle and resolve conflict is critical. But I have also been learning just how hard this is for so many people.
We humans are so very good at finding ways to avoid conflict, deny that it even exists, act passively-agressively about it, or pretend to smooth it over but not really deal with it. It's amazing how much time and energy we spend not resolving our conflicts, and the ways that they can layer on top of each other to create seemingly intractable problems.
For me personally, some of my most difficult experiences in life were when I was resisting confronting some conflict with a coworker, friend, partner or family member. I try whenever I can to go toward conflict and know that it will probably get messier and harder before it gets better - but I still fail at this more than I'd like.
Maybe you've experienced the same?
I suspect we've all watched friends and loved ones struggle to find the joy they seek because they avoid confronting the conflict in their lives, or because they suffer under anger and resentment from conflicts they can't resolve.
We've watched neighborhoods fall apart because they chose to escalate conflict into anger, threats and violence.
We've watched our elected leaders struggle to get anything of real value accomplished because of political allegiances and attachment to power that overrides any ability to compromise - sometimes resulting in war, death and suffering on an incredible scale.
We've watched people suffer as they worked in environments where mutual respect and understanding were lacking, where everyone works around each other's conflicts, or where disagreements over seemingly small things turned into an adversarial approach that consumes everything else around it.
We've watched social movements rise and fall because their leaders couldn't resolve their conflicts with each other, or where demands and expectations were set up in a way that they could never really be met.
And we've seen software projects fall apart because the people working on them were so confident in their abilities and estimates that they couldn't be bothered to consider how unknowns, untested assumptions and hidden gotchas would affect their work.
Assuming that someone's basic needs are otherwise met, I'm convinced that improving (even just a little bit) one's ability to engage with hard, conflicting things head on and come to a successful resolution can make a huge difference in quality of life.
Now, when I'm interviewing someone for a job, I try to understand how they deal with the hard, scary, conflict-laden things in their life. Do they acknowledge that such things exist and have tools for tackling them? Or do they see themselves as someone who just gets along with everyone about everything, unrealistically expecting that everything will just work itself out in the end?
When I'm considering whether to volunteer my time for a project or not-for-profit organization, I observe how they handle conflicts and differences in perspective within their existing leadership team. Do they allow space for saying hard things that need to be said and then dealing with them maturely, or do they always try to keep everything upbeat and smiling, no matter what?
And when I do join a group of people for personal or professional purposes, I try to understand their individual conflict styles - where are their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to being competitive, compromising, avoiding conflict, and accommodating the interests of others above their own? And how will these styles interact with my own (which tends toward accommodating with aspirations toward compromising).
The answers seem to matter more than I would have previously ever expected.
I've recommended this before: Crucial Conversations is one of the best books I've ever encountered about how to identify, understand, work on and resolve interpersonal conflicts. It's a great read no matter how practiced you might feel in this area.
How does conflict resolution (or avoidance thereof) work in your own personal, professional and community life?
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