Conflict is a Good Thing when you Manage it
Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution are two titles given to what we mediators do, however I ask the question “is resolution the goal always”? I am tempted of course to say yes, the world would be a better place and we would all be happier without conflict. But is it true? The reality is that not all conflict is solvable and then, perhaps, conflict or dispute management would be a better description of what mediation aims to produce.
I often laugh when I hear of married couples who have never had a cross word between them, I wonder is that a desirable thing in a marriage. Personally I either don’t believe or don’t envy them because for that to happen it means one partner must have been submissive for the whole marriage and not expressed themselves fully. In fact I wonder is it possible to know someone fully without ever having at least one or two arguments or conflicts at some stage.
Conflict energises Ideas:
Conflict often provides both the impetus and the energy for change, without it we proceed almost subconsciously and certainly with a lower sense of awareness. However managed conflict recognises that there is difference and that some accommodation must be made for the parties to co-exist and it is this that provides the space for some alternative thinking and planning which enables practices to change and produce results. This holds true for both the workplace, commercial and international relationships. It is the process of sitting down, listening and brain storming, thinking outside the box, which produces the alternative resolutions to the dispute. It is the very conflict that brings two sides together in an attempt to solve the conflict. A good mediator will be able to highlight the issues, identify those where there is already agreement and then proceed to tackle the outstanding issues where there is significant difference.
Using the Difference:
Mediation should produce a discussion which identifies the differences between parties, and the potential for movement towards each other, just as in negotiations this produces the ZOPA, the Zone of Possible Agreement. In a commercial contract dispute there is always a buy/sell element which may initially appear to be purely price based. However mediation can move the conflict from being purely price based and include other issues like delivery schedules, service level agreements, returns policy, Sale or Return and the list of options is endless. The point is that it is the conflict on price which allows the space for imaginative thinking and the alternative resolutions, i.e. It is the conflict that caused the better thinking which lead to the solutions.
In a workplace dispute you can substitute the buyer/seller and price for the individuals in conflict and the issues which caused the conflict, but it will always be that which gives the space to make imaginative solutions. It may be for example, training, clarity of roles, other individuals involved and once again the list goes on.
Manage The Conflict:
So where it is clear that conflict can be resolved then a mediator will always work with the parties to achieve that, however if it looks obvious that a difference is irreconcilable, as often happens in international and war based conflicts then a solution must be made which manages rather than solves the issues. To a large degree that is what happens in most international agreements, it certainly happened with the Good Friday Agreement here in Ireland, it will happen eventually between the western world and the leaders of Jihadist groups because one cannot, nor should one seek to eliminate the other completely. In moving the conflict to some form of resolution it is key to utilise the energy that the conflict can bring. This is shown in the graph that conflict can improve the quality of thinking when moving towards resolution.
So therefore aim to solve conflict but recognise that sometimes the management of conflict can be beneficial.
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