The English language is very malleable; incongruities and nuances often baffle those whose mother tongue it is not. For instance, the words nice and silly have transposed their meanings over time. First names have changed genders – Ashley was a male name not that long ago. Oftentimes, words are hijacked as euphemisms for provocative, controversial or even sinister ideas.
Conflict once denoted disagreements, differences of opinion, alternate points of view. Nowadays it connotes warfare, friction, argument, non-conformist behaviour, disruption, even imminent violence. These negative connotations blind us to the reality that conflict is a natural, healthy, and even positive human interaction. The occurrence of conflict may reveal certain realities:
The right to free speech: disagreeing with another’s opinion and having the means to express this without fear of persecution or intimidation is a freedom that not everyone enjoys.
The rights of the individual: having differing opinions or perspectives represents a culture where individuality and uniqueness are respected or upheld.
Equality: having both means and opportunity to disagree directly with the party represents some form of parity regardless of gender, race, orientation, or religion.
The real challenge of conflict resides in being unable to resolve it. Impartiality or objectivity is unrealistic when reason and rationale are overwhelmed by emotion. That the parties possess the appropriate conflict resolution skills might also be a poor assumption. We often see these mismatches play out: one person is seeking acknowledgment and affirmation while the other is listening only to formulate a solution; one party seeks genuine resolution while the other refuses to listen or responds in anger.
Creating the conditions for authentic dialogue is an opportunity to resolve conflict profoundly and perhaps even permanently. Using a facilitated approach allows others to pass through doors that they are unable to open for themselves. Some considerations:
Third party facilitation. A resource that is absent of bias and possesses the requisite skills to remain that way throughout. The facilitator should also be involved in both the design and delivery of the resolution process.
Active listening: modelling and emulation. The facilitator establishes a different tone by initially modelling the active listening behaviours and mentoring the parties in conflict into emulating and eventually adopting this practice into the dialogue.
Common ground exploration. The facilitator explores and maps the edges of commonality between the parties that reflects and amplifies empathy rather than distrust. Finding this Venn diagram is often difficult; sharing it is both powerful and necessary.
Intervention and adaptation. As easy as these words are to write or say, practicing them is quite another matter. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a facilitator, every nail requires a different hammer and not every nail needs a hammer.
Creating the conditions for authentic dialogue may seem unlikely or even untenable when positions have become entrenched, when olive branches are met with anger or derision, and when time has built higher or thicker walls. Let’s not forget how malleable we can be if we choose. Perhaps one day the word conflict might become a synonym for harmony.
© Peter S. Paul