Conflict – Productive or Destructive?
by Dries Lombaard
I recently watched an episode of the reality series “Top Shot”, where sharp shooters compete for a $100’000 prize as being the number one shot. In between shooting competitions, the all stay together in a house. Obviously there are some pretty interesting human interaction between them – being highly competitive in the way they are. In one of these situations, there was a showdown between two contestants, Mike and Jake. The confrontation reached boiling point when the two macho men stood face to face, daring each other to throw the first punch. Jake was especially intentional to intimidate Mike to throw a punch at him, which will lead to immediate elimination from the contest. The anger and aggression on Mikes face was clearly visible. The veins in his neck belted, and with clenched fists and gritting teeth he looked as if he was going to drop Jake with a tremendous blow.
Then something amazing happened. Suddenly Mike said in a soft voice: “Jake, I am not going to fight you.” Jake went on to lash out at him, calling him names and swearing at him in his face. Then suddenly Mike dropped his shoulders visibly, opened his fists and relaxed his muscles. It was so intentional you could clearly see the conscious self control in his actions. He calmly smiled at Jake, turned and walked away, with Jake fuming and shouting further insults at him.
It was the best example of self control that I have ever seen. It was intentional, conscious and deliberate. It was control that you could see flowing from a mindful decision towards his whole body. Although Jake (the weaker one in terms of emotional intelligence and self control) viewed Mike as weak and wimpy for backing down, everybody knew that Mike won the confrontation. He won it with self control.
Conflict is a given where two or more human beings interact. It is simply a matter of time before the sparks fly. Water colliding with water makes a huge splash, wind blowing against wind creates tornado’s, one rock cracks another and iron sharpens iron. No matter what you are made of, conflict is never gentle, quiet or smooth.
Is it productive? Now that is not a given. That is a choice. It is not a matter of pure luck, it is a matter of how you approach it, engage with it and handle it, which makes conflict either productive or destructive.
Conflict is not a monster.
The same can be said of conflict than is said of fire: it makes a a cruel master, but an effective slave. Conflict only dominates you if you allow it to. If you keep it within boundaries, and know when to give it fuel and when to starve it, conflict can be one of your most valuable companions.
True – just like fire, conflict is not always started or controlled by yourself. But, you always have the choice how you are going to react to it. Are you going to use it to your advantage, or allow it to consume you, your team or your organization. because it has the ability to do either. You decide if you engage the fire of conflict, or if you flee from it.
Conflict is both contextual, and personal.
Conflict is always born from the same soil: a “need”. Conflict starts where a need…or many needs, are not met. And we all have needs of some sort. Some of these needs are very basic, even up to a point of survival, and we will literally fight for those needs. Other needs are based on priority and value, and we constantly and daily consider these priorities against the energy, time and effort it may take to engage in conflict for the sake of the need.
Thus, conflict is personal. And contextual. The skill you need is to distinguish between the two, and respond accordingly. If you never contextualize conflict, you cannot add value through participating in it. If you never take it personally, you won’t grow.
Your emotional reaction to conflict is normal – but manageable.
We are wired to react with emotion towards conflict. The way we react is something we need to control. Some people are energised by conflict in various ways. Others again seek to avoid conflict at all cost, as they experience negative emotions with it. Understanding your own natural emotional reaction towards conflict is key towards personal functionality in all walks of life.
Our brains are naturally created to be on the constant lookout for danger and confrontation. We instinctively see or sense situations of danger that may lead to some kind of conflict. Our brains then trigger the release of certain chemicals like adrenaline that enable our survival within the emerging danger. We call this the “fight or flight” response. In normal situations this response is a reaction we cannot be without. But different circumstances, like stress to name one, can cause over reaction within either the fight or the flight response. This is also why we have to train our brain to be able to distinguish between the contextual and personal elements involved in situations. Conflict can thus be either productive or destructive. You can manage your reactions. Like any skill, it takes effort and time to master, but you need to start with a conscious awareness of what happens beneath and above the surface in situations of conflict.
Strengths Based Conflict Management
Each one of us is unique in more ways than we can ever imagine possible. We have our own unique combination of strengths (activities that strengthens us) and weaknesses (activities that drains us). Our personal patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving is one of a kind over all mankind. Therefor only one person can be the master of your personal skills and patterns – you.
When we try to manage conflict better or more productively than we do, it is important that we understand how our talents (recurring patterns of though, emotions and behaviour) affects our environment. Self awareness on many fields is the one important first step towards the skills of conflict management.
– Dries Lombaard is founder and owner of Africanmosaic and TALENTmosaic.
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