Roberto Tecchio, a well-known Italian facilitator and counsellor, coined a concise definition of conflict: “Conflict is the result of two factors: disagreement and personal discomfort.” In other words: conflict is not proportional to intensity of disagreement, it is proportional to the level of personal discomfort stemming from disagreement. Topic of discussion, implications, magnitude of the decision etc. do not lead to conflict in and of themselves. (See the 9 steps of conflict building.)
The real catalyst is discomfort. Discomfort deeply impacts relationships and impedes people’s ability to participate constructively in decision-making, implementing decisions, and even in everyday living. Everything becomes difficult, unclear, confusing.
Disagreement can be a gift to the group. It reflects difference in opinion and perspective, brings fresh ideas and proposals and widens the horizons. It is the antidote to conformism and passivity, and preserves group resilience by constantly tapping into collective intelligence and stirring the energy.
Discomfort, on the other hand, is elusive and, at times, mysterious. Since time immemorial humanity has tried to answer the question “Why do we suffer?” Multitude of answers in countless religions and philosophies only touch upon the surface of the issue. In recent decades theories centred on suffering have come up in psychology, researching how suffering correlates to various conditions and events in maturity, childhood, birth (the imprinting theory), before birth, and even in relation to our ancestors up to four generations and beyond (constellations work). Much seems to derive from ancestral fear of death and abandonment, which people obscurely perceive every time they feel disaffirmed, or in simpler words, ignored. Disaffirmation is a subtle weapon to obliterate dissent and erase disagreement out of sight (and the disagreeing person along with it).
We would like to illustrate how conflict work on two examples.
- Maria and Nadia are speaking heatedly next to the coffee machine. The argument is about whether or not the association should invest a relevant sum of money to participate at the upcoming fair trade festival in town. The cashbox is low and Maria raises concerns that the group just can not afford it. Nadia believes the opposite, and they talk at length about pros and cons of the choice. Both have strong beliefs, and hold their respective positions. After a long while, Nadia invites Maria to leave the discussion for later and join her for a walk. They thank each other for passion and commitment and off they go.
- Beth and Judith are sitting at a meeting. The agenda looks like “business as usual”, normal everyday stuff, mostly of minor relevance. Beth is talking about rearranging the dishwashing rota. Judith is silent. She shakes her head but says no words. After the turns are assigned Judith stands up and goes in tears to the corner. Beth is startled and can not believe this is happening. She “does not have a clue” as to why Judith has reacted this way. She vaguely remembers that Judith was often critical of her proposals, has recently missed several meetings, and seldom spoke her mind. Judith leaves the room and tells her friend Ana “I’m leaving for good. I quit the group”.
These two cases tell us two different stories. Nadia and Maria had an intense discussion that did not affect their relation. Beth and Judith hardly discussed at all, but the relationship was damaged to the extent that one had to abandon the territory: it’s the story of conflict and the impact it can have – and indeed has – on people’s lives.
In a conflict one can either win or lose, and in the long run we all end up losing as we see our groups and communities decrease in number and energy, get bogged in endless discussions and finally dwindle, die out or break in two (or more) fractions, only to start all over again in a new setting.
Maria and Nadia strongly disagreed, but neither of them felt uncomfortable in the discussion, and their relationship was not in danger. Spaces were found to listen to each other on different levels in order to address emerging tensions. An effective way to honour and manage disagreement is by using meeting facilitation, and choosing decision-making processes that respect the different positions instead of dividing the group into majority and minority (such as consensus or consent, versus majority rule). Creating dynamic social structures that allow mobility and direct participation of members, such as sociocracy, is also a good strategy to address disagreement and contextualize it in spheres of influence and competence where individuals can be seen, heard and appreciated by their fellows.
Has Beth ever listened to Judith’s opinion about the dishwashing rota, or has she turned a deaf ear to her, simply ignoring her dissatisfaction? Is Judith rancorous towards Beth and others in the group, who do not seem to value her opinion very much? Does anyone even notice if Judith is or is not attending the meeting, or care about what she thinks?
When emotions come up and manifest themselves, it is not the time to try to be rational and work on a proposal or a plan of action. It’s time to stop and listen, to pay respect to a person’s feelings without judgment, criticism, unrequested suggestions or advice. Just listen.
Social tools such as sharing circle, forum and mediation council are useful to release pressure and help people build bridges and stay attuned with the shared vision and mission which shine like a beacon, showing the way forward towards mutual recognition, and possibly acceptance.
Practical conflict resolution methods or theories can be found on the CLIPS webpage.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning Arnold Mindell’s theory on rank and privilege, a basic and ingenious tool to read and understand social dynamics not only in groups, but also in society at large. All theories have a value and are worth exploring, but the message is: to manage conflict, we need to address disagreement and discomfort with the appropriate instruments, in the appropriate context. It is a long and challenging path, but well worth following on the way to a less conflicting and more collaborative society.
To conclude: every community is encouraged to create some conflict resolution mechanism that fits its membership. Some communities operate with internal mediators who can assist in interpersonal conflicts, while others make regulations which induce individuals to get educated in conflict resolution, thereby demystifying it. What is crucial is to take the necessary measures in time. This pays off since the only worse thing than heated conflict is an ongoing heated conflict.