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Dialogues about race, gender, religion, politics, organizational goals, and even family budgets can be very difficult.
Conflict competence makes them productive.
When different perspectives collide, dialogue often turns to debate and eventually to destructive conflict. Because we've all experienced this process, we tend to adopt one of two strategies for dealing with conflict - we either try to avoid it at all cost or we try to win at all cost. Neither of these is healthy nor are they optimally productive, especially in difficult dialogues like the ones mentioned above.
Give people the tools (skills, knowledge, and attitudes) for the psychologically safe sharing and processing of multiple perspectives. In other words, equip people to consistently engage in constructive conflict, which pioneer social and organizational analyst Mary Parker Follett described as "a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned."*
*Creative Experience, 1924, p. 301, emphasis added
We don’t tell anyone what to think about important topics like the ones we mentioned above – we give people tools for thinking together. We thus empower them to move beyond debate (the "win/lose" and often “no win” battleground of multiple perspectives) to co-creative dialogue (the “all gain” foundry where multiple perspectives are collaboratively forged into new inclusive shared knowledge). When people can consistently employ the skills of conflict competence in co-creative dialogue, they are then (and only then) ready to engage in difficult dialogues on what to think about important topics .
You might be a little skeptical about our use of the term constructive conflict in the "Solution" box above, and we don't blame you if you are. Most of us are probably familiar with the term, but our experiences have taught us that it’s usually just destructive conflict that’s been “toned down” or “softened up” so it hopefully doesn’t hurt quite as much. It’s a lot like the difference between getting hit with a bare fist and getting hit with a boxing glove – they both hurt, but the boxing glove hurts less. We get it. That's how we used to think about constructive conflict.
But after spending years of studying and dealing with conflict, we've come to realize that constructive conflict isn't just "softened up" destructive conflict; it's a way to create value, or as Mary Parker Follett proposed in the above citation from her book, it yields "the enrichment of all concerned." In a 1925 lecture on “The Psychological Foundations of Business Administration," Ms. Parker Follett also made the profound observations that "The three main ways of dealing with conflict are domination, compromise and integration ... Compromise is about giving up something; it does not create, it deals with what already exists ... Integration is about finding a solution in which both (party’s) desires have found a place." In our terminology, domination is "win/lose", compromise is "no win," and integration is "all gain." If we can wrap our minds firmly around the fact that when people engage in constructive conflict they move beyond "win/lose" and "no win" to "all gain" (i.e., all parties work together to create something that is valuable to each individual), we can begin moving away from our "avoid at all cost" or "win at all cost" approaches to conflict.
The DDC Team knows that the successful transition from conflict avoidance or divisive debate to co-creative dialogue depends on our motivation and ability to be "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry."* And we also know that to consistently behave this way, we can't just try to follow a list of "rules of engagement" or "conflict resolution procedures" whenever we happen to find ourselves in a difficult dialogue. Instead, we have to proactively learn and practice specific skills (perspective-taking, affirming, I-messaging, reflective listening, and suspending judgment) so they become routine. The good news is that anyone can learn these skills, and Difficult Dialogues Consulting exists to make the learning psychologically safe, fun, and ultimately transformative.
*From the Book of James, chapter 1, verse 19
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