When you consider what a diverse society we live in, with so many different backgrounds, perspectives and approaches to life, it is not surprising that conflict is established as part and parcel of our everyday life. This is because people will have competing interests and competing perspectives in relation to the same issues, and so we should not be surprised when tensions exist between individuals and groups. The idea of ever achieving a society with no conflict is clearly a pipedream. However, this is not necessarily a problem, as conflict can also be creative and constructive. Many important changes in our society and in the organisations in which we work have occurred as a result of conflicts. The important question, then, is not so much: ‘How do we create a world without conflict?’, but, rather: ‘How do we manage conflict as constructively and positively as we possibly can?’. Conflict is concerned with difference. If we were all the same, then there would be little or no conflict. However, thankfully we are not all the same, and so part of the price that we pay for the richness of diversity is that conflicts will arise at certain times. Conflict can be seen to arise from the incompatibility of aims between individuals and/or groups – that is, what I am trying to achieve and what you are trying to achieve. If they are significantly different, they can lead us into conflict. Two main problems can arise there. First, we may feel uneasy about the conflict and the tensions that it raises, and therefore try to pretend it is not there, to fudge the issue or brush it under the carpet. This can lead to significant problems in so far as the situation may be allowed to fester and go on for a much longer period than is necessary if we are not prepared to deal with it and move on. Second, we may cause problems by dealing with the conflict in a way which escalates the tensions between us. For example, rather than deal with any conflicts between us constructively and amicably, we may use the opportunity to attack one another, thereby leading to unnecessary additional problems. These, then, are the two main (but not only) problems associated with conflict: fudging and escalation. The short answer to the question of what causes conflict is quite simply, life. Bringing people together in social interaction necessarily involves a set of interpersonal dynamics which sooner or later will lead to conflict. It is for this reason that we have to learn to deal with conflict, rather than simply hope that it will not get in the way of our plans and our dealings with other people. The time and effort involved in learning how to deal with conflict positively and constructively are therefore an important and worthwhile investment of our personal (and organisational) resources. We should be wary of making the common mistake of assuming that conflict is necessarily a problem and is something to be avoided at all costs. That is far too simplistic an approach to the complex subject of conflict management.
Neil’s website and blog are at www.neilthompson.info