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December 2013

The Causes of Conflict Defy Simplistic Explanations

I like reading history books, and I recently finished a book about the First World War. I am now reading a book about Ike Eisenhower.  My interest in the subject started early as my parents had dozens of books; most of them were non-fiction, and a fair number of them were history books. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much conflict existed in the context of the events discussed in these books. As an adult, what I find interesting in this study of history is how prevalent conflict is both as a precursor to actual battles and in the aftermath of battles/warfare.

I also find it interesting that Webster’s Dictionary states defines conflict, in part, as: 1) To Fight, Battle, or War, (as in armed conflict) or 2) competitive or opposing action of incompatibles:  antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons). However, in the 1960’s edition of the dictionary the definitions were reversed. I am not sure if this reversal in the order of definitions is correct, but whether it is listed as first or second, it is the competitive or opposing action of incompatibles that guides my thinking in this letter. As a mediator, the existence of conflict is an absolute, a fact always present, and when I sit down with parties attempting to resolve a dispute it is the primary dynamic on which I must construct the mediation.

To be successful in what I do, I must regularly study the facets, factors, and symptoms that give rise to, or are made evident by conflict. Unfortunately, when talking about something complex like this, almost everyone seems to default to the onion analogy. To spare my readers the use of that analogy, this letter will simply show that people understand conflict better when conflict is explained in terms of different levels that come into play depending on a combination of factors. For example, if you are angry at your boss over how you believe you were treated, this type of conflict is generally referred to as Intrapersonal, and how that conflict is ultimately resolved ultimately depends on how confident you are in your own ideas, emotions, values, and point of view.

The areas, or levels, most prevalent in my work are commonly referred to as Interpersonal and Intergroup conflict. I am often asked to mediate employee disputes and disputes between companies. Any parent who has mediated a dispute between siblings needs no explanation of what constitutes an Interpersonal conflict. Similarly few people, who have spent any time in the business world, have experienced a working relationship with another company that did not experience conflict on some level.

Whether it is at a personal level or at a professional level, it reinforces the basic premise that conflict is universal, and it is found everywhere human beings interact. That said there are a number of factors that frequently show up in most conflicts; especially in the examples provided above. Some of these include:

–       Incompatible goals

–       Individual differences/personality

–       limited resources

–       Ineffective communication

–       Differing values

–       Making assumptions

–       Creating expectations

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the factors creating or affecting conflict are invited to read a book on negotiation written by Messrs. Roy Lewicki, David Sanders, and John Minton, or a recent article by Lawrence Khan on “The Fundamentals of Conflict for Business Organizations”. I will touch on some of these in other letters and I look forward to receiving your feedback.