Why do conflicts arise?
And what can we do to minimize the negative outcomes of conflict?
These are some of the important questions that conflict management seeks to answer. In order to understand conflict management, you have to start with the obvious fact that humans are always trying to meet their needs and reach their goals. Sometimes it so happens that other people come in the way of meeting their needs and reaching their goals. Probably because other people are also trying to meet their own needs and reach their own goals.
Conflict and power
So how do the two parties that are in conflict go about resolving the conflict?
If you know that the other person is much more powerful than you, there’s no point in engaging a conflict with them. It’s too risky. They’ll most likely exert their power on you and crush you.
Since the other party also wields nearly the same power, they can easily fight back to get their power back or become more powerful too. The result is a constant power struggle leading to never-ending conflicts.
Then there are conflicts that occur between parties where there exists a large power gap. Think employer and employee, parents and children. In these dominant/submissive conflicts, the dominant party is often easily able to impose their will on the submissive party. The submissive party, in order to win, will have to take drastic measures that significantly increase their power to reach the same level of power as the dominant party in order to be able to put up a fight.
The same dynamics operated when people revolted to topple kings and despots. Together they had equal or slightly more power than the despots than what they could ever hope to have individually.
Assertiveness is communicating your interests and needs to the other party while cooperativeness is the willingness to take into consideration their needs and interests.
- Problem-solving= High assertiveness, High cooperativeness
- Yielding = Low assertiveness, High cooperativeness
- Inaction = Low assertiveness, Low cooperativeness
- Contending = High assertiveness, low cooperativeness
If it’s impossible to arrive at an equal compromise, then the party that sacrificed more should be compensated somehow, like providing or promising them some kind of benefits.
Conflict management and misperception
Conflict resolution is often a challenge but sometimes it can be very simple. The first task of any conflict management strategy is to identify the problem and make sure it actually exists. Sometimes conflict arises not because there is an actual problem but because one or both parties believe there is. They may have misperceived the actions or intentions of the other party. In these situations, conflicts can be easily resolved by clearing the misconceptions arising out of misperceptions. People, out of fear, tend to hold on to their misperceptions. Hence, they need to be given solid proof to calm their fears.
You should try and get into conflicts only with people you know can deal with it reasonably and maturely. Most of them can’t. They’ll be blinded by their own interests and not see things from your perspective unless you’re skilled enough to make people see things from your perspective. In such cases, as Sun Tzu pointed out in his book The Art of War, the ideal strategy is to ‘subdue the enemy without fighting’. Try to figure out how best you can protect your interests without getting into a conflict.
I was once caught in a similar kind of ‘unreasonable conflict’ when I was doing an internship with a company. I was in the last couple of weeks into my compulsory internship for my master’s degree. While many of my classmates acquired internships via their connections, it had taken me a while to land an internship because I was not from the city and didn’t have many connections. So one morning, I find my boss yelling at me because I had apparently made a mistake. Of course, I was upset and felt like storming out of the place right away. But then I remembered something.
He hadn’t been like this during the initial days of the internship but lately, he had been yelling the interns rather frequently and some of those interns had left the organization. Since this was a paid internship, the interns were going to get paid when the internship period was over. I figured he was finding an excuse to fire the interns, making them leave by yelling at them because he was supposed to pay them soon. This way he could save a lot of money and those interns who left had already worked for him.
As a rule of thumb, whenever people trigger an emotion in you try asking yourself how they might be trying to manipulate you.
Open any book on conflict management and you’ll see them laden with jargons, matrices and authors chasing their own tails trying to come up with models of conflict management. At the end of the day, conflict management is all about understanding that person you’re in conflict with- knowing your enemy. The more you understand people the less you’ll find yourself engaging in conflict with them because you’ll know what their interests are and you’ll try to protect them, all the while trying to protect your own.