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Conflicts are normal

Where there are apes (primates) there is conflict. And conflicts should be resolved. Frans De Waal describes what we can learn about ourselves when studying the social behavior of chimpanzees and other primates. In a way De Waal has shown the humanity of animals. Or vice versa, he has shown that what we see as human traits are not exclusive. We share them with other animals.
Where there are people, there is conflict. And conflicts should be resolved. It has been like that for ever and it will be like that for ever. Life without conflict is unthinkable. And so we should accept that conflicts are there and make use of them. However, many people are afraid of conflicts and would do anything to avoid them. These people are conflict averse.

The disturbing nature of conflicts

Conflicts are disturbing. They disturb the flow of life. They are the consequence of friction between people (or apes). A conflict can arise when people’s interests diverge. Conflicts can be about power, territory, status, vision… They seem to make coƶperation harder. Everything is more easy when there is no conflict.

The opportunity of conflicts

Conflicts hold an opportunity within them. First, a conflict makes it clear what people think and what they want and do not want. It signals that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. Teams that have a conflict can benefit by solving them. Patrick Lencioni described how not having conflicts is one of 5 dysfunctions of a team. So conflicts have potential. If we get to see conflicts in this way, they become less menacing.

Needed: Openness and emotional stability

Research (cf Bradley e.a., 2013) has shown that teams can handle task conflict better when team members have openness to experience and emotional stability. In this case task conflicts will enhance a team’s performance. Open people will not avoid having conflicts and because of that a team will benefit from the disagreement and take better decisions. People that are emotionally stable will react calmly to conflict. They will be able to define conflict resolution strategies and have a positive view of others. This will enable them to be empathic.

How to solve conflicts

There are many ways to solve conflicts. The most famous model of conflict resolution is the model by Thomas Kilmann. The main key to resolving conflicts is assertive empathy. Empathy enables you to listen to the other, while assertiveness allows you to keep your interests in mind.

Conflict Resolution

Here are some steps to think about conflicts and how to resolve them.

  • The first step: accept that conflicts are normal.
  • Take the conflict in the open. Talk about it. Acknowledge that there is a conflict according to you.
  • Try to understand what the conflict is (really) about. Sometimes we have forgotten the real cause. Or maybe we cannot define the exact scope of it.
  • Find out how the conflict affects you. Try to distinguish facts from emotion.
  • Try to understand the point of view of the other and avoid judgment. Be open.
  • Find out how the conflict affects the other. Use your empathic skills.
  • Try to see the benefits of resolving the conflict and the disadvantages of maintaining it
  • Define an acceptable way to resolve the conflict. Try and find a cooperative way to do so. Know that capitulation, compromise, avoidance, competition might lead to other lingering conflicts.

Even the Apes

The “even” in the title of this blog refers to the conflict resolution. We are not surprised that apes have conflicts as we generally see them as territorial and aggressive creatures. We might be surprised that they have social ways of resolving conflict. Resolving conflicts can be very rewarding both for apes and human beings. The world would be a better place if we would learn to deal with conflict more proactively. There are conflicts on all levels of society. And yet, by seeing conflicts as something negative that is to be avoided, we loose. Conflict resolution is a skill that can be trained. Let’s do so in the early stages of life. If conflict resolution becomes a natural behavior, we win.
Bradley, Bret H.; Klotz, Anthony C.; Postlethwaite, Bennett E.; Brown, Kenneth G.
Ready to rumble: How team personality composition and task conflict interact to improve performance.
Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 98(2), Mar 2013, 385-392. doi: 10.1037/a0029845

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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