Differences: A Way to Understand ConflictGordon White, 09 Mar 01:47 PM I find the notion of differences helpful in generating a universal understand

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Differences: A Way to Understand Conflict
Gordon White, 09 Mar 01:47 PM

The existential reality of differences is the basis of conflict

I find the notion of differences helpful in generating a universal understanding of what conflict is.

In a marriage, one person might like to shop for vegetables, and the other for general groceries. One may prefer vacuuming and the other doing laundry. And so, shopping and household chores become divided by inclination and interest. We can have thousands of differences with others – literally innumerable differences – that do not cause a conflict. In fact, compatible differences are generally enhancing and enriching.

But, at the same time – interestingly – differences are the basis of conflict. In the case of conflict, the conflict-causing differences have a particular additional quality. They are in some way incompatible with the parties’ goals, values, or ease; the differences result in an experience of dissonance, concern, frustration, fear, or anger.

On a team, member ‘A’ is a source of creative and innovative ideas, whereas ‘B’ is a great organizer. These are specialized differences that are compatible. They add to the team’s quality of output and enjoyment of work.

But, let’s change the scene a bit to produce some conflict. B sees A as so lacking in organizational ability that it overshadows the value of A’s creativity, and A sees B as overly controlling and rigid in the way B goes about organizing various aspects of team functioning. Now the differences between the two have incompatible elements. Various conflict behaviours may emerge from the incompatible differences that the parties experience.

Medical science tells us that most bacteria are harmless, some are beneficial, and a small percentage are harmful. I view difference similarly. Most differences between people are neutral or beneficial in effect. A much smaller number have the potential to generate conflict.

The universal characteristic that distinguishes conflict–generating difference from beneficial difference is the compatibility of the difference. If the difference is compatible with the goals, values, or ease of the parties, it will enhance the relationship and produce positive effects. If the difference is incompatible with the goals, values, or ease of the parties, it may lead to conflict behaviours.

Four points of elaboration:

This understanding of conflict makes it clear that there is choice in how we respond to conflict. Conflict is characterized by the experience of incompatible difference. How well we respond to that experience depends on whether we choose to engage in constructive or destructive behaviours.

Conflict resolution can be understood as a transformation of incompatible difference into compatible difference.

Some mediators distinguish between ‘conflicts’ and ‘disputes’. Considering a conflict to be an incompatible difference sheds some light on this distinction, which will be the topic of a future blog.

Reality is of course more complex than any understanding we apply to it. In this case, most differences at the basis of conflict are neither wholly compatible nor wholly incompatible, as in the work team example above. B is a good organizer but others find her somewhat controlling. A is a creative powerhouse but others find him lacking in organizational ability.

Blogs related to this topic are:

#23 The Origins of Conflict and Creativity

#24 Differences and Creativity

#25 Highlighted Difference Result in Mediation Settlement

#48 Two Pathways to Compatibility

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