Conflict, by peter b. grazier

Last August I taught a weekend course on team building to about 25 people participating in A Systems Approach to Quality Improvement at Madonna University in Detroit. Sponsored by the Association for Quality and Participation (513-381-1959), the six-month course leads to a certificate in quality and attracts management personnel who want to expand their knowledge of contemporary workplace concepts.

The Sunday morning agenda was open so that more time could be spent on participant needs. On this Sunday, the primary topic the class wanted to address was “conflict.” Although this topic is frequently brought up in sessions, on this particular day it started me wondering why we seem to have so much conflict in our workplaces and in our society, and why we have so much trouble resolving it.

Conflict Defined
My dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle to resist or overcome; a contest of opposing forces; strife; battle; a state or condition of opposition; antagonism; discord; clash; collision.”

Conflict seems to be ever-present in our lives….on the battlefield, on the football field, in the boardroom, or in the bathroom. The possibility of conflict looms anytime two or more people convene.

In team building, you will hear people say that “conflict” is good for teams, and so they encourage it. What I think they mean is that “disagreement” is good for teams. Conflict has an emotional component that tends to be destructive, whereas, disagreement is a non-emotional presentation of differing viewpoints.

Sources of Conflict
Conflict arises from a multitude of sources that reflect our differences: personality, values, ideologies, religion, culture, race, and behavior. It also arises from simple misunderstandings. As we have expanded collaborative concepts within our workplaces, we have dramatically increased the number of human interactions where one’s opinions can be heard.

New teams, for example, may find themselves in conflict as discussions lead them into uncharted waters. One person may have worked along side another for years, yet never “knew” them until they began unearthing deeply held beliefs. Reaching consensus when such differences are present is frequently difficult,1 and conflict is almost certain.

Resolving Conflict… The Current Model
I think the reason most people struggle with conflict resolution is that our past and present models of resolution are rooted in battles. These battles result in “winners” and “losers,” and our society seems to place a high value on winning. So we staunchly defend our position, no matter how shaky.

I have talked frequently in these pages of an exercise I use when working with teams. The exercise is simply a single paragraph story about five people. It is a straight-forward story that one can read in one or two minutes.

I ask participants to rate the five people from best to worst based upon their interpretation of the story. The results are astounding! In a room of twenty people, I will get fifteen different interpretations of the story and its characters. When they begin to discuss the story, they see other interpretations as plausible as their own, and the light goes on that their view of this story and its characters is just one way of looking at it. It becomes a powerful lesson in how our beliefs, having been shaped by our own unique history, are simply one interpretation of reality.