Come, let us reason together…

“Conflict is the beginning of consciousness.” – M. Esther Harding.

What do you think about the above statement? At first glance, you may look at it and nod your head sagely, thinking to yourself, “that’s a great quote, I should repost/retweet that.” But why is it so great? Did you ponder it, turn it around in your mind for a few moments, hours, days? What does it mean, really?

I have been mulling over that statement for a week now. I asked my partner what they thought of the phrase. They took a few moments and responded with the following statement, which was strongly worded and full of food for continued thought:

“Conflict can become a practice of consciousness or ignorance. It depends on how invested someone is in finding solutions. Conflict for the sake of conflict can create willful ignorance and a further entrenching of beliefs.”

How fitting, given the state of the world these days. I knew where their thoughts were stemming from, the lens through which they are making these observations, as they are actively involved in several online groups. The digital extension of our social circles we have created since the early 2000’s has contributed to how we view and engage in conflict.

Much of what we can view in social media sites is polarized belief systems which grind up against one another, or which segregate and cloister their thoughts and opinions to their own groups of like-minded individuals. For myself, other than posting an occasional facebook video or photo, I have begun to detach from this aspect of technology… as the tweeting and retweeting of world leaders has left a sour taste in my mouth.

As a sidebar, I will just comment further that I truly find it abhorrent that we have been reduced to a culture of twitter wars, thinking back to the great speeches and orators of history. I truly wonder what Gandhi, Sitting Bull, Jesus Christ, Plato and Socrates, and many others would think of today’s online conflicts. These men had powerful ideas which were the subject of heated debate. Would they have limited themselves to 280 characters?

But let’s step away from the current social media shenanigans and save that topic for some other forum… Make no mistake, this is an important topic to discuss, especially as many professional groups now have online forums and social media groups for networking, and conflict can arise.

Is Conflict Beneficial?

“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” – Max Lucado

In discussing conflict with my former professor, they stated that not only is conflict inevitable, it is necessary. How can we hope to grow as professionals if we only ever live and work in an echo chamber? We discussed the importance of a good ‘ego bruising’ now and again. This is important if we are ever to shift and grow stronger as individuals and professionals. One important part of conflict is what comes after the conflict… the recognition of mistakes, the adjustment of actions, the taking responsibility. The act of ‘humbling’.

“What we need is collaboration, where tension, disagreement, and conflict improve the value of ideas, expose the risks inherent in the plan, and lead to enhanced trust among the participants.”

Liane Davey – If Your Team Agrees on Everything, Working Together is Pointless” Harvard Business Review

Think about this quote. Contrast it with Max Lucado’s statement above. Are they in opposition? Or are what both Liane and Max saying congruent? Does conflict necessitate combative language? Can there be tension, disagreement, and conflict alongside a non-combative stance?

I firmly believe that there can be tension which necessitates discomfort, while still being respectful to all parties involved in the conflict. Challenging ideas is not to attack the person who brought the idea. Nor is it to say the idea is invalid, lacking in value. But is it the right course of action? If you believe differently, then you need to present why and what and when will be a better decision, a better collaborative effort.

How to prepare for conflict: what’s important?

Jordan Peterson states that it is important to engage in conflict with prepared arguments. This requires forethought, investment, and purposeful verbal exchange. This then means that purposeful conflict is not about tempers flaring, but rather about an exchange of ideas, and the grappling of opposing views. This requires us to decide what is important. I love Jordan’s closing statement that we need to become a master of words. Our thoughts and words have the greatest impact if we choose carefully and speak in an educated and powerful way.

Becoming comfortable in conflict

Clair’s 3 keys to transforming conflict:

  1. Acknowledging what the conflict is really about. What’s really underneath?
  2. Recognizing when you’re stuck. Acknowledging when you’re using justification to ignore your own responsibility.
  3. Start learning to speak responsibly, using the following traits:
    1. Vulnerability: Creating the potential for connection
    2. Ownership: “My emotions are my responsibility”, “I too am accountable in this situation.”
    3. Communication: This is a 3 part process: ask –> listen –> express (using both vulnerability and ownership to express)
    4. Acceptance: Embrace reality and ‘let go’ of what we cannot control. (This one is hard….)
    5. Boundaries: Setting ground rules, establishing trust through saying ‘no’.

Clair notes that the above process is not easy, and that just like any language we learn, we need to practice it to create fluency.

Is conflict the beginning of consciousness?

As I’ve come to discover more and more through the process of reflecting within my own career and personal life, there is a clarity in conflict. Without the friction of opposing ideas, the necessity of stretching our brains in new directions, and the discomfort of being ‘wrong’ once in a while, we cannot become conscious of who we are. We need to examine our values, ethics, our moral basis for existence in order to become conscious of our reasons for acting.

To act impulsively without reflection is an indefensible error, in my view. We know we must engage in self-reflection as a part of our practice. If we neglect this vital piece of our professional life, our conflicts within the workplace may be combative, without substance or truth. We may scratch exhaustively on the surface without delving downward. Being stuck in a cycle of justification is not productive, and it creates a career-crippling sense of entitlement and unhappiness. How does this serve us, and how does it serve our clients? Our relationships?

Challenging this concept a bit further, conflict is most evident within our own mind as we grapple with a challenging concept. How many times have you been slapped in the face by contentious topics and felt the inner conflict as you tried to justify your worldview against what you were learning or what you were experiencing in your practice? I’ve felt this many times. I still face challenging ideas every day. Blows to my ego. Things I learn from, things I am still grasping onto with all my strength which I need to let go of.

Just like anything worth having, conflict requires commitment. My argument is that for us to truly grow, to be engaged in the process of professional rebirth, we must be committed to the labor of self-examination, self-direction, and challenging our colleagues to join us in collaboration and reasoning. It is hard work. But doesn’t this make it worth engaging in?

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