The Problem With Conflict

Relationship expert and author John Gottman says 69% of all conflict is unresolvable — That’s the bad news. The good news: Conflict doesn’t have to undermine relationships — professional or personal. The simple reason so much conflict is unresolvable is that it touches on who we are as people, and we are unwilling to give up who we are as people, especially when it comes to what we value and how we see the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Conflict is different for everyone; one conflict is trivial and solvable in one relationship and monumental and unsolvable in another. But, just because a conflict remains unsolved, doesn’t mean it has to cause an impasse or be negative. The difference between unsolvable healthy conflict and unsolvable unhealthy conflict that undermines relationships is how you treat each other in the process.

Think about it this way: every business problem is a people problem. And in the end, the problem is never that people made a mistake; the problem is how others react to and are affected by those mistakes. Do they become wedges driving people apart, kicking up the dust of judgements, grudge and distrust? Or do they become opportunities to solve a problem, figure out how to connect on a more human level, and build increasing trust?  We live in a culture that wants to feel no pain. In fact, we live in a culture that will do just about anything to avoid pain and discomfort. We don’t want the awkwardness of disagreement — or even the discomfort of fluctuating temperatures, for that matter. But guess what? Temperatures fluctuate. We feel pain in our body that doesn’t need medication. And we will inevitably experience disagreement. And, as Gottman points out, by trying to bypass it, we’re barking up the wrong tree. The problem isn’t “How do we solve conflict?” If 69% of conflict is unsolvable, the real question is: “how do we live in conflict in a healthy, respectful way?” If we can do that in the workplace, or any place, conflict is an invitation to a part of the body-relationship that needs attention. We would no sooner yell at fire, or disrespect our arm because it hurts. So why would we do something like that to people? We’re supposed to be on the same team. If a sports teammate was hurt, we would come to their aid and cheer when they got up. What if did the same with each other?

The root of every business problem is people. The root of every people problem is relationship. If it’s unresolvable, don’t resolve — instead, seek to understand their perspective and their emotions around the issue. Be willing to admit the way in which you have contributed to the conflict. Ask what a respectful outcome would look like and collaborate to find ideas that respect each others’ values. Adapt. Find solutions that result in a stronger more respectful relationship, one that honors the differences and the values those differences represent so you can find a new ‘right.’

Remember Rumi?  “Out there beyond right and wrong is a field — I’ll meet you there.”  Unresolvable conflict is best addressed in that field. Let conflict be okay; learn to engage within conflict, and you’re setting your team up for success.