What is conflict?

To effectively deal with conflict the actual threats affecting the situation must be identified and systematically addressed by all involved.

Black and white chess piecesSometimes people say things that upset others only because the person’s original comment or message was misunderstood.

According to Academic Leadership Support, Office of Human Resource Development, University of Wisconsin – Madison, conflict is defined as a situation in which people believe there is some threat to their well-being. This is not a mere disagreement over some minor point of detail.

And, there may a real difference between the true conflict and a perceived conflict. If we can actually listen to understand the underlying aspect of the disagreement, then we can focus on the real problem that should be solved.

People will respond to a perceived threat rather than the true threat if they believe their “facts” are reality. Have you ever heard the phrase, “can’t see the forest for the trees”? Consider these examples of missing the most important points, for simply focusing on something else, i.e., the symptom, not the illness.

Refusing to stop arguing your opinions will only widen the gap to understanding the real issues. Active listening means that you have heard the other person well enough so that you can accurately paraphrase what has just been said. Ask if you are hearing correctly and repeat back what you think you heard. Ask if you have missed anything that should be restated. Maybe you are disagreeing about something totally different from your first thought.

Identify the real issues that are causing the conflict, and focus on solutions to address those problems. We all have different opinions and values on what is important. Issues are certainly complex and have personal emotions tied to identified fundamental concerns. Remember that people react based on what they perceive the facts to be, and those facts could be flawed. We all make judgments based on personal values, culture, beliefs, experiences and other factors. It can be a stretch recognize these filters and look at problems through a different set of lenses. “Walk a mile in their shoes” while considering those problem-solving solutions.

Nothing simple is ever easy, right? It’s not surprising that solving most conflicts (satisfactory to all parties) can prove so challenging and time consuming.

Be assured, conflicts are normal and can lead to positive or negative results depending on how they are handled. They are also predictable situations that naturally occur as people are involved with complex and often stressful projects. While people generally see conflict as negative and prefer to avoid it, better results can result from constructively using conflict.

Creative problem-solving strategies are essential to positive approaches to conflict management. We need to move the situation from one in which it is “my way or the highway” into one in which we see new possibilities that may have been otherwise tossed aside.

Michigan State University Extension offers training for improved effectiveness in several areas, including communicating through conflict, volunteer board development, meeting management and facilitation skills development, and organizational strategic visioning and planning. To contact an expert in your area, use the MSU Find an Expert tool or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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