“Conflict is the Beginning of Consciousness” –M. Esther Harding (1888-1971)

Recent media reports concerning the clash between Joan Rivers and her mentor, Johnny Carson, remind me of how uncomfortable I feel when conflict escalates and relationships dissolve. Apparently Rivers and Carson were close, yet never spoke again after Rivers hosted a show scheduled to run at the same time as Carson’s on a competing network. Although I have studied conflict resolution and know better, I prefer to move through life conflict-free.

Conflict is manifest in four domains: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup. Causes may be economic, such as when resources are limited. Ideological or value differences are another source of disputes. The desire to exert influence and wield one’s power is a third cause. Five styles for managing conflict include accommodating, avoiding, collaborating, competing, and compromising (Types of Conflict.org). The style selected depends on the situation and one’s personal style. In the Rivers-Carson relationship, it seems none of the above was used successfully because their relationship ended.

The absence of conflict is a true concern. Leaders who surround themselves with “yes men/women” stifle creativity and innovation and limit their potential for making sound decisions. Employees watch leaders closely to uncover cues that signal their preferences. Organizations with tall hierarchies risk information loss as important developments are stuck as they try to move up the chain. Filtering information to protect the leader and the messenger is a natural inclination; however, withholding facts delays consequences and may prevent timely responses to trouble. Creating an environment in which it is safe to broach difficult topics is essential.

Groupthink, identified by Irving Janis in 1972, is a dynamic that results in flawed decisions because team members are insulated from critical information. Symptoms of groupthink include:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions (PsySR).

Leaders can thwart groupthink by abstaining from sharing their predispositions at the beginning of a meeting, assignment, or project. Norm-setting is critical also. Each member of the team should be encouraged to offer dissenting views and to evaluate ideas of everyone on the team critically. Asking team members to share deliberations with others they trust, then reporting back the reactions of their trusted-others promotes creative idea generation. Inviting outside experts to meetings to challenge thoughts, requesting members to play “devil’s advocate” to challenge the team’s assumptions, and examining closely the actions of competitors to anticipate possible scenarios are other strategies that prevent groupthink (PsySR).

If managed poorly, the consequences of conflict are negative and include reduced productivity, low morale, unprofessional conduct, and more frequent and persistent clashes. Constructive conflict leads to a heightened awareness of important business challenges, an improved focus on organizational priorities, a broader recruitment of employee talents, and an appreciation of the benefits derived from people’s differences (Managementhelp.org).

The adage “There are three sides to every story. Yours, theirs, and the truth” applies to conflict. Although we cannot control others, we do have the choice to examine ourselves with a critical eye and to listen to the concerns of others with an open mind. If conflict resolution were easy, we wouldn’t have wars, divorces, lawsuits, mediation, arbitration, or dissolved partnerships and friendships. Making a concerted effort to engage productively in constructive conflict seems a worthy goal. I can’t help but ponder what the world of comedy would have been like had Rivers and Carson worked through their differences.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved

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2 thoughts on ““Conflict is the Beginning of Consciousness” –M. Esther Harding (1888-1971)

  1. While reading your blog post, I couldn’t help but wonder if conflict resolution should be taught much earlier in schools. For a variety of reasons, our society is struggling. Many of those same reasons result in people having a greater propensity for conflict while simultaneously possessing a weaker skill set for dealing with that conflict. The results of this are evidenced by the list of consequences that you shared: “wars, divorces, lawsuits, mediation, arbitration, or dissolved partnerships and friendships.”

    From another angle, as the parent of a teenaged child, this is a constant topic of conversation and a place that we return to often in our household. Part of growing up is learning how to manage conflict. Parents are primarily responsible for equipping their children with the necessary tools for managing conflict, but the task can be daunting when this lesson is not routinely reinforced by other role models in other environments that a child also frequents. In this day-and-age of angry hockey dads charging the rink and tackling referees, impatient and enraged drivers running people off the road, and people stampeding each other to death in a rush to get the last $19 boombox at a Black Friday sale, I suspect we – as a society – have really dropped the ball in regard to passing on the essential skill of conflict management to the last couple of generations.

    The word conflict has a negative connotation that it has not earned; rather, our reactions to conflict are the problem.

    The example of Rivers and Carson highlights the importance of not leaving conflicts unresolved. Often, we harden our hearts toward the other individual when a conflict has taken place – out of stubbornness. We may then go months, years, or even decades holding out hope that the other person will invite us along on a walk down the path to resolution. Sadly and invariably, time has other plans, which will not wait forever…

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    • Ryan, thank you for sharing your insightful reflections. Because conflict is inevitable, I agree that constructive conflict-resolution skills should be taught early in our school systems. The negative examples you mention, e.g., “angry hockey dads charging the rink and tackling referees, impatient and enraged drivers running people off the road, and people stampeding each other to death in a rush to get the last $19 boombox at a Black Friday sale,” suggest that the “collective we” does a poor job as role models for our children. Avoiding conflict, as you so aptly mention, certainly does harden hearts and makes it even more difficult to heal relationships.

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