Creating Culture Through Conflict

The way we do conflict and where we set boundaries is a reflection of our family or corporate or community culture. The two go together.

Conflict happens. Where-ever there are humans, two or more. It’s no news. It is inevitable and normal. And it isn’t a problem until we allow it to become a problem.

It becomes a problem when we start to focus our reaction on the person as the problem, instead of that thing we are disagreeing about. We make it about me. What you are doing or not doing, or what you are saying, or not saying – is about me. My boundaries and beliefs are in the mix, my emotions follow.

However, usually their comments and actions are not a reflection about me. It’s about them. They are expressing, improperly perhaps, concerns that they hold about themselves or their needs or situation. Their focus is on this, not on me. I am a mask for this.

In general, people express and behave out of their own thoughts, their own needs their own fears. Even when they are not aware of this (or especially then.)

When you have in their mind or experience become connected in some way with their fears you become part of the mix and a target of push-back. True. You become tangled in the story they have got going on that defines or fears you as a threat. A belief has developed that you will get in the way of something that really matters – their place, ideas, ambitions, needs – so you cop it. Directly or indirectly.

So this disagreement isn’t about you yourself, but about a story they have about you. Something is feeding into their own world view, framed by the cultural environment or their experience or expectations. They are emotionally engaged and they act on this interpretation, as though it is the truth. In fact it is just an interpretation of some known and assumed aspects of the scenario, strung together to be a problem.

And of course, you have your own story going on. You have your own fears, your own confirmation bias, feeding your own expectations and interpretations and then your own behaviours, to which they react. Often, funnily enough to confirm what you expected and interpreted. And on and on it goes. We confirm each other’s worst expectations; we confirm our thoughts and fears.

It’s the way humans interact. It happens routinely, everyday. We can mostly get through it by learning what to confront, what to let go. We make assessments of the relative cost of taking it on or ignoring it. Do we have the power, the support, the confidence, the options, the resilience to deal with the consequences? These choices define operating norms and boundaries.  The way we deal with disagreement is a strong indicator of health or dysfunction in the culture.

The ‘stories’ each side of a disagreement holds usually have some truth in them because there is some truth in everything. The objective is not to remove conflict – conflict is necessary for a degree of healthy competition, for creativity, innovation, accountability.  However when the conflict escalates and becomes deeper, damaging, more complicated and more entrenched – and way more costly and damaging – then we should stop to explore the situation properly. If we don’t make some space to park the emotion and look for what is underneath as the true concern – we just keep acting on the symptoms and making it worse and worse and worse. It feeds the whole show, like poisonous yeast.

What is it that is really going on in conflict? Because we all have one. When you disagree with someone, why are you upset about it? What is it you want? And what else, and what else and what else? And why?

Start with questioning your self because this is where you have the most power. And frame up what you do want. It is too easy and unhelpful to focus on what you don’t want – turn it around. Get into understanding what you DO want. And why.

I don’t want the reports late. => I do want the reports on time. Because that allows me to make decisions in a timely way and meet commitments. It makes me able to deliver what I need to be competent in my job.

I don’t want you speaking over me and cutting me off when I speak in meetings. => I want to be fully heard and acknowledged. Because that allows me to feel that my contribution is valued, recognised and I am included as a contributing member of this team.

I don’t want to be doing this painful unnecessary work that feels like a punishment => I do want to use my time to do work that solves problems and adds value. Because I want to learn and be useful and increase my salary.

‘Why’ speaks to motives. It helps to assess the consequences of your actions as helpful or unhelpful to what you really do want.

We all do this, to some extent, at some time. On our worst days, if not every day.

Or if we don’t feel we can be safe to take it on, we try to be small, to stay out of the way of confrontation, to ignore it or work in spite of it.  To white ant, sabotage.  A highly stressful and very uncomfortable place to be.

There is another option. Be curious about your own story.

What might be happening for the others in the mix? What if your interpretation of things going on was mistaken? What if there is more information or some other motivation that is entirely valid? What if they are simply responding to their interpretation of what you are doing and saying? Or to their fear that what you do or say or represent in their mind, is threatening to something that matters to them. It might be damaging to their values, identity or belief about what is Truth.

If you don’t know what is happening for them – how can you find out?

Maybe it needs you to be willing to ask a question. State the observed facts in a neutral tone, state what is happening, the impact on you. Acknowledge that this concerns you, you want to check in with them. And ask the question – what is happening from your perspective? What is your view on this? What’s happening on your end of this?

This does assume that the context has some standards of civility – that it is not entirely unsafe to approach someone. That there are some norms of being responsible and reasonable in dealings with others. This is not always the case but it is mostly the case. Where power and privilege has allowed someone to be totally off the leash, made them feel unaccountable to anyone (or you), then some other options are necessary to keep you safe.

There are ways and other ways for skinning the conflict cat. But generally, early intervention, is the easiest. Be responsible for yourself.  Work out what you really want and why.  Go get some facts checked, before you allow your own interpretation to fire up your feelings and prompt rash reaction. The longer the problem situation goes on without enquiry, the more courage is needed and the greater likelihood of needing help from external parties, to sort it out.

As well as being responsible for exploring and resolving disagreement it is absolutely necessary for all of us to manage disagreement, to set boundaries and make accountable any action that is outside acceptable norms of behaviour as you or your organisation defines it. If you don’t take action to do this, whatever you do allow becomes your de facto standard. If you don’t act to set a boundary or make someone accountable, you are in fact re-setting the boundary. You are defining your culture.

We train people how to behave towards us by what we accept. We teach them what is ok and not ok within a culture, by the behaviour and modelled values of the social and hierarchical leaders.  It sets the standard. Everyone else rises or sinks to the level that they set as acceptable. Our behaviour as leaders (anywhere) in managing disagreements and disputes models much, conveying implicit messages about values and rewards, heroes and villains, insiders and outsiders.

We create the organisational, community and family stories of who we are, what matters and what we really want.  If you want cultural health or shift, pay attention to how conflicts and disagreements are managed. This is where the team values walk and talk – not from your Values Statement. Not your Mission Statement on the wall at reception.