Over the past year, I have written a series of EDR Blogs sharing my thoughts about how and why we tend to go so wrong with conflict, and what we need to do to make conflict productive. In this blog, I want to pull these concepts all together by explaining what conflict is, what conflict competence is and why it matters, and what basic skills—or what I refer to as “conflict competencies”—are required to make conflict productive.
What is conflict?
To understand conflict competence, we first need to understand what conflict is—and what it is not.
Conflict is simply the intersection of different perspectives, ideas, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other and not easily reconciled.
We will not always see eye to eye. We will not always want the same things. That is just a fact of life. In other words, as I like to say: conflict just is.
If dealt with skillfully, conflict provides opportunities for positive change and growth. For example, decision-makers can work together across their differences to create innovative, out-of-the-box, highly effective solutions to complex public problems. Or family members can gain a deeper understanding of themselves and each other, and they can deepen their connection and trust in each other, by working through their relationship difficulties.
Unfortunately, however, when not dealt with skillfully, conflict tends to result in negative outcomes such as arguing, fighting, or outright war. It is important to be clear that these detrimental outcomes are not conflict; they are the result of failing to deal with conflict productively.
Which brings us to the idea of conflict competence.
What is conflict competence and why does it matter?
The word competence means “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently” or “possession of sufficient knowledge or skill.”
Conflict competence is about having the awareness and skills needed to work through conflict successfully and efficiently—i.e., to make conflict productive.
Conflict competence is critical in all aspects of our lives. To be in relationships—whether personal or professional—means to experience conflict. The question isn’t whether we will see eye to eye with other people; it is how we navigate things when we don’t see eye to eye with people.
Additionally, we often experience conflict within ourselves. For example, we may simultaneously want to stay up and watch a movie and, at the same time, want to go to bed. Just as conflict with other humans is a normal part of life, conflict within ourselves is perfectly typical and healthy. Again, the question isn’t whether we will experience it, but how we navigate it.
When we poorly navigate conflict inside ourselves and with others, it takes a huge toll on us, other people, and our lives. This can show up as stress, anxiety, negative impacts on our relationships, lost opportunities, and a variety of poor outcomes at home and at work.
Our failure to navigate conflict skillfully within ourselves and with others is also taking an enormous toll on society. Take for example Congress’s recent failure to productively work through differences to create a new spending bill, which almost led to a government shutdown (and still could lead to a shutdown in November). Legislators hold and represent different views, perspectives, and interests; this is healthy. What isn’t healthy is that they seem to have lost sight of the fact that their job is to work together to effectively govern this country, and that doing so requires productively working through their differences to create effective solutions and strategies—including to create and pass federal budget legislation to keep our government running. Instead of productively navigating conflict to create mutual gains solutions to pressing public challenges, our elected officials often engage in unproductive, unskillful, positional fighting and hard bargaining—and the public bears the price.
This is only one of many examples of how our lack of conflict competency is playing out in societal challenges; indeed, one need not look far to find many other examples, ranging from lack of progress on critical social and environmental issues to wars that are ravaging communities and countries.
All to say, our unskillful treatment of conflict results in a wide variety of frustration, inertia, and losses at all levels—from the personal to the global.
It doesn’t have to be this way. With the right awareness and skills, all humans can effectively navigate conflict to work together to create productive, mutual gains outcomes.
Which raises the question: what do we need to know and do to make conflict productive? Or, in other words, what are the core conflict competencies?
Core conflict competencies
To make it as easy as possible for people to effectively navigate conflict, I have spent the last few years seriously pondering: What do we really need to know and do to make conflict productive?
My thinking about this continues to evolve, but as of now, I have boiled this down to the following key conflict competencies, or what I call the “Cs” of conflict competence:
The first, overarching conflict competency is what I refer to as conflict comprehension–i.e., an understanding of the basic mechanics of conflict and what it takes to make conflict productive. Conflict comprehension entails understanding that:
- Conflict is simply the intersection of different perspectives, ideas, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other and not easily reconciled.
- Arguments, fighting, and war are not conflict; they are responses to conflict.
- Conflict is not inherently win-lose or a threat. Instead, if skillfully handled, it can be an opportunity for growth, positive change, and mutual gains.
- To work through conflict productively, we must focus on what really matters—i.e., interests, not positions—and co-create mutual gains solutions.
- How we choose to respond to conflict will determine whether it leads to productive or destructive outcomes.
For more information about conflict comprehension, I encourage you to read my prior blogs on Conflict Just Is. Let’s Make It Productive!; The Problem With Conflict Is That We See Conflict as a Problem; and Why We Tend to See Conflict as a Problem and Why It Matters.
By developing conflict comprehension, we set ourselves up for practicing the second conflict competency skill: approaching conflict from a calm state of mind and body. Only when we approach conflict from a well-regulated, calm state of being can we skillfully choose how we respond to conflict and practice the other core conflict competencies. See my blog on The Power of Calm When Dealing With Conflict for more information about what it means to approach conflict from a state of calm and how to do it.
Our minds and bodies must be calm and well-regulated for us to practice the third conflict competency skill: compassion. Compassion means understanding that we and others feel the way we do, behave the way we do, and struggle with certain things for a reason; holding that understanding with kindness and non-judgement; and seeking to reduce sources of suffering for ourselves and others. Compassion also entails understanding that no one is solely responsible for conflict or unproductive dynamics; instead, everyone involved contributes in some way, and everyone involved must be part of the “problem solving enterprise.” As I explain in my blog on Compassion: A Prerequisite for Calm, Curiosity, and Creativity When Dealing With Conflict, compassion for ourselves and others is a necessary precursor to many of the other conflict competencies.
Productively working through conflict requires that we tap into curiosity and seek to truly understand what matters to ourselves and others. Only then can we work together to create mutual gains solutions that address all involved parties’ key interests. See my blog on Curiosity Is a Superpower When Dealing With Conflict to learn more about how to approach conflict with curiosity.
Approaching conflict with conflict comprehension, calm, compassion, and curiosity enables us to approach conflict with openness and an ability to understand what involved parties really need and to look for creative, mutual gains solutions that work well for us and other involved parties. To learn more about this and how to do it, see my blog on To Make Conflict Productive, Focus On Co-creating Mutual Gains Outcomes.
Throughout the process of working through conflict, effective communication is key. Effective communication is not just talking; it requires talking about the things that really matter and doing so in a way that helps all parties understand each other. Effective listening (i.e., listening to truly understand) and effective framing (i.e., framing things in a way that empowers positive change) are two critical skills for effective communication. I’ll further explore the conflict competency of effective communication in a future blog. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out our handouts on effective listening and effective framing and reframing.
Another conflict competency is that of making and upholding commitments. A commitment is any agreement, demand, offer, or promise made by involved parties before or during the conflict. Commitments can refer to agreed upon pathways forward for addressing the conflict, as well as to agreed upon “containers” and approaches for how to work through conflict. For example, commitments can include things such as:
- Committing to yourself and/or others to approach conflict in a skillful way. For example, a married couple might commit to applying these conflict competencies when having difficult conversations or working through important differences.
- Committing to use a set of ground rules to guide communication. For example, a family or professional team might work together to co-create a list of ground rules that they agree to abide by in their communications with each other.
- Committing to meet on a regular basis to talk about the relationship. For example, in a romantic partnership or professional partnership, partners might agree to set aside a few hours every other week to check in about the relationships, how things are going, and anything that could be improved. They might also agree not to discuss difficult things outside of this designated time, unless absolutely necessary.
- Committing to a certain course of action. For example, if a group of interested parties is negotiating a management strategy for a plot of land, they may reach agreement on a management plan and then commit to implementing it together.
A core part of commitments is not only making them but adhering to them—and committing to revisit and revise them if they are no longer working. I’ll explore the conflict competency of commitment further in a future blog.
All of the above conflict competencies require an overarching skill: courage. Courage is showing up, leaning in, and taking action when something feels scary, dangerous, risky, or potentially painful. Courage comes into play when working through conflict in everything from being willing to shift how you think about and approach conflict, to offering compassion to yourself and others when dealing with conflict, to getting creative in problem solving, to knowing when it is in your best interest to walk away from a conflict and doing so kindly but firmly. To learn more, see my blog on Courage: An Overarching Skill for Making Conflict Productive.
How to build your conflict competence
If you are convinced that developing conflict competence is worthwhile, which I hope you are, how do you go about doing so—and how do you help others do so?
Developing conflict comprehension—i.e., embracing the fact that conflict just is, it isn’t inherently win-lose, it can be productive, and that you need to focus on what really matters and respond to it skillfully to harness the opportunities it presents—is a critical first step. I hope this blog and my past blogs can help you and others with this step.
Learning the other skills of conflict competency and being able to apply conflict comprehension to real world situations, especially when the stakes are high, takes work. For most of us, it requires that we rewire our brains by unlearning tendencies that do not serve us and developing the ability to skillfully respond instead.
Fortunately, the EDR Program and many other organizations offer resources and training to help with this. And I can say after more than a decade of training people in the skills of conflict competency that it is well worth it: knowing how to productively navigate conflict pays off in better relationships, improved emotional wellbeing, and greater efficacy in our personal and professional lives. It also makes life easier and more fun. For these reasons, the people I train in the skills of conflict competence consistently say things such as “These skills will change your life!” and “This is training in how to be an effective human!” and “I wish I had learned this stuff 20 years ago!”
If this isn’t enough reason for you to want to learn conflict competence, just imagine what the world would look like if we had a conflict competent society where individuals and institutions effectively navigate differences to create innovative, mutual gains solutions that actually addressed pressing social and environmental challenges.
We can work together to create a better today and tomorrow—and we’re going to need widespread conflict competence to do so.
Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a Research Professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a Clinical Associate Professor in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the Founder and a Co-Director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.
About the EDR Blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program, the EDR Blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at edrblog.org.