CONFLICT COMPETENCE

Difference always produces conflict – ALWAYS.

And now your mind is shouting "But that's not true!" Good – that means you're alive and listening. The reason you have that reaction is because we've been conditioned to believe that all conflict is negative. But that's not the case. There are two kinds of conflict – constructive and destructive, and guess what? We have the power to choose between the two.

 

We’re going to assume that you're already pretty familiar with destructive conflict, so let's focus on the constructive version. It's actually a fundamental process of human life, and in its most basic form, we call it learning. Here's how it works: our brains establish mental frameworks (psychologists call these schemas or schemata) that we rely on for everyday functioning. These frameworks are how we make sense of the world. If we don't encounter any information that challenges these frameworks, our behaviors remain essentially constant.

 

But, when we encounter information that differs from the information in our schemas, we experience conflict and must choose how to process the difference. We can either reject the new information or modify our mental frameworks to incorporate it. In other words, learning cannot take place until our brains experience conflict. Learning is thus arguably the most elemental form of constructive conflict.

 

A step further

 

So let’s go back to our opening assertion – i.e., difference ALWAYS produces conflict. According to one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, that bold proposition falls one step short of reality. In her 1925 lecture on “The Psychological Foundations of Business Administration,” Mary Parker Follett asked her audience “to agree for the moment to think of conflict as neither good nor bad; to consider it without ethical prejudgment; to think of it not as warfare, but as the appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests. For that is what conflict means – difference.”

 

In other words, difference doesn’t produce conflict; it IS conflict! Yes, this is wordplay to a degree, and we ask you to forgive us for engaging in it. But we think it’s an important exercise to help us reframe our thinking about conflict. As we noted on our homepage and at the beginning of this page, many (if not most) of us have been conditioned to think of conflict as a negative process, when in fact it’s valence-neutral; “neither good nor bad,” as Ms. Parker Follett suggests. And when we understand that it’s also natural and inevitable, we are well on the way to harnessing it for positive purposes. Or as Ms. Parker Follett so charmingly proposed, “As conflict is here in the world, as we cannot avoid it, we should, I think, use it. Instead of condemning it, we should set it to work for us.”

 

Construction: Putting conflict to work

 

To continue our reframing process, let’s focus on the word constructive. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary (via the Lexico portal) has to say about it:

 

  • Definition: Serving a useful purpose; tending to build up

 

  • Synonyms: positive, useful, of use, helpful, encouraging, productive, practical, valuable, profitable, worthwhile, effective, beneficial, advantageous

 

We’ve underlined some key terms to emphasize the fact that constructive conflict is conflict that creates value. It’s not just destructive conflict re-packaged in the hope of making it less harmful. It’s conflict employed for positive purposes. As we mentioned earlier, learning is an elemental example of constructive conflict. It produces one of the most valuable commodities known to humankind – i.e., new knowledge. Likewise, when we harness the power of constructive conflict in our interactions with others, we can produce not only new knowledge, but a wealth of other extremely valuable social commodities such as goodwill, trust, loyalty, socioeconomic progress, equality, unity, and so on.

 

That’s all well and good, but …

 

Now we come to the hard part. To harness the power of constructive conflict, we must consistently employ the skills, knowledge, and attitudes of conflict competence. Before we describe the elements of this competence, we want to provoke your thinking by proposing that most of us are conflict incompetent. Consider this slide from one of our DDC workshops:

Conflict incompetence.png

We propose that these behaviors are all-too-common in conflict situations. They’re driven primarily by emotion – specifically anger and fear. Now consider this version of the slide:

Conflict incompetence 2.png

We propose that anger is the primary driver of the destructive conflict behaviors, and fear is the primary driver of the conflict avoidance behaviors. We could spend a lot of time discussing the passive-aggressive behaviors, which we believe are especially nasty ways of avoiding direct confrontation and are perhaps the most harmful of all of the conflict incompetence behaviors. However, we chose to include them as conflict avoidance behaviors to emphasize the fact that fear of direct interpersonal interaction is the primary motivation behind them.

 

Remember the “avoid at all cost” and “win at all cost” approaches to conflict that we mentioned on our homepage in the “Problem” box? The diagram above is our attempt to identify the typical behaviors associated with each of these strategies (using “destructive conflict” as a proxy for “win at all cost”). There are obviously many more behaviors of conflict incompetence; we just identified what we believe are the most common. And likewise, there are many more emotions than just fear and anger that drive the behaviors of conflict incompetence (especially in the case of destructive/win-at-all-cost behaviors); we just happen to believe that these are the primary drivers.

 

Okay, so that’s conflict incompetence; what does conflict competence look like?

 

The following diagram is by no means an exhaustive list of the behaviors of conflict competence; it’s what we consider to be "the basics."

Conflict competence.png

We believe that these behaviors are quite uncommon in conflict situations – they’re unnatural, not driven by emotion, and most important, they're intentional. To fully appreciate the significance of respectful engagement, it may be helpful to compare the behaviors of conflict incompetence and conflict competence:

Conflict competence and incompetence.png

To summarize, we propose that the following are necessary elements of conflict competence:

 

  • Skills: The five competence behaviors listed on the diagrams above. These behaviors are the product of disciplined study and practice, so we consider them the essential skill components of conflict competence.

 

  • Knowledge: A basic understanding of cultural self-awareness, ethnocentrism, and cross-cultural awareness (without stereotyping).

 

  • Attitudes: Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (as noted on our Team page, this list is drawn from the Bible in the book of Colossians, chapter 3, verse 12).

 

Again, we must emphasize that these are what we believe to be the fundamental elements of basic conflict competence. As with any type of competence, individuals develop along a spectrum from novice to expert, and we propose that the skills, knowledge, and attitudes identified above are the minimum essential elements of the capability to consistently engage in constructive conflict. There are many more skills and attitudes, and certainly much more knowledge, available to the novice who is motivated to grow in her/his conflict competence. However, without those listed above, it would be folly to suggest that competence has been achieved.

 

Your personality type doesn’t matter

 

For some people, the heading of this section may be a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. It’s important to note that we deliberately exclude personality types from the knowledge required for conflict competence. And note that we didn’t say “your individuality doesn’t matter” – individuality and personality type are not synonymous (especially when considering an individual's identity in both intrapersonal and social contexts). The ongoing debate about the legality and morality of using personality testing for employee hiring and other corporate human resource decisions is a prime example of the controversy surrounding personality types, and we firmly believe that a score on the ABC-XYZ Personality Inventory doesn’t tell you much (if anything) useful about how individuals actually behave in real life. In fact, that score can lead us down a very dangerous path if it’s factored into a conflict situation.

 

You see, we label or categorize each other as a way of attempting to understand (and sadly in many cases, to control) each other. When we do this, we assume that the labels we apply (usually via some psychometric assessment) provide us with predictive data – i.e., information that will allow us to anticipate behaviors. This drive to label each other is the fuel for the multi-billion-dollar commercial psychometric testing industry.

 

But the underlying assumption that psychometric testing gives us useful data is at best questionable. Most of these tests rely on self-reporting (which is a notoriously unreliable means of gathering data for scientific analysis). Many of them, when analyzed by objective professional researchers, fail to demonstrate that they reliably measure what they’re attempting to measure. And even if they meet this basic standard, the theoretical foundation (usually some version of trait theory, which posits that personality traits can be measured and used to understand behavior) is by no means beyond criticism, despite its widespread acceptance in the field of psychology (for a brief critique of trait theory, see the first two pages of this article). Thus, even though we're familiar with research on both individual and situational variables that may influence behavior, and we're aware of the assurances offered by the various test developers, and we've seen and heard countless glowing testimonials from people who use personality tests, we are unconvinced that what these tests claim to measure actually matters in the real world of human interaction.

 

There’s a very simple reason for our skepticism; it's the fact that every human interaction is co-created within a specific context. Situational variables (most notably, the behaviors of the person(s) with whom we are interacting) significantly influence our behaviors, and while we may have a certain preference or propensity for particular behaviors, situational variables will very powerfully influence whether or not we choose to engage in those behaviors. In simplest terms, our human interactions are not static mathematical equations (e.g., Personality Type ABCD + Personality Type WXYZ = Interaction Q). Instead, our interactions are dynamic dances, and the complex interplay of individual and situational variables in each interpersonal engagement renders reliable behavior prediction impractical if not impossible. We believe that Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) is a more promising perspective than trait theory for research on human behavior, but even the affordances of DST are unlikely to yield tools for reliably predicting individual interpersonal interaction behaviors.

And perhaps our most significant concern with personality type labeling is that it not only fails to give us the ability to reliably predict individual behaviors, it can actually prevent us from interacting as individuals. Once we have the "data," there is a VERY strong tendency to structure our interactions around the stereotypes that are expressed by those labels, and not around the unique individuals with whom we are (or will be) co-creating an interaction. And self-stereotyping with personality labels is especially problematic; i.e., identifying ourselves as personality stereotypes is a very unhealthy approach to self-efficacy.

 

Psychologist Albert Bandura defined self-efficacy as “an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments." Even if they are somewhat accurate, personality type labels are extremely limited in scope – they express only a fraction of our individuality and "capacity to execute behaviors." If we live into our labels, we subconsciously impose artificial limits on our potential to “execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.”

 

Think this isn’t really a problem? One of our team members personally witnessed a very capable individual with a wealth of experience and insight decline to participate in a planning session with the other members of the individual's work team because a psychometric test hadn’t put this person in the “strategic” category. We kid you not; that was the specific reason provided for declining the invitation to the discussion – “Oh, I wasn't 'a Strategic' on my ABC-XYZ test, so I wouldn’t have anything useful to offer.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. So was this just a convenient excuse to skip a meeting? Maybe, but all indications strongly suggested that the individual believed the limitation was real. Either way, the team suffered because an individual used a personality stereotype to make/justify a decision.

 

And even on our DDC team, one of us who definitely knows better (Rocky, and I’ll write in the first person singular for the remainder of this paragraph) still all-too-frequently lapses into dysfunctional self-stereotyping. I’m embarrassed to admit that on far too many occasions I’ve denied myself potentially rewarding experiences and opportunities to grow because I often choose to live into my “Introvert” label. I can easily convince myself that I simply cannot endure certain interpersonal interactions, and I have a test score to back me up – one that shows absolutely no indication of Extroversion whatsoever (yes, I scored a zero). So whenever I want to avoid potentially challenging social interaction, the “data” captured in my label gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I simply cannot do something that … well, actually I do quite successfully whenever I want to do it. I’m perfectly capable of doing what my test score tells me I have zero propensity to do. Is it more difficult for me than for someone with a high Extroversion score? Maybe, maybe not – it all depends on the specific situation, because again, each interaction is a co-creation; it’s a dance, the rhythm and steps of which are absolutely NOT dictated by the participants’ labels from their test “data.” The bottom line here is that whenever I invoke my personality label/stereotype in decision-making, I am limiting my self-efficacy unnecessarily and to my detriment.

 

So now you have our rationale for deliberately excluding personality types from the body of knowledge required for conflict competence. At best, they’re interesting discussion-starters that give the illusion of knowledge; we use the term "illusion" because personality types are an oversimplified and unreliable approach to understanding complex and dynamic human behaviors, especially across the spectrum of situational contexts. To be fair, the most objective proponents of personality type assessments (typically researchers) readily acknowledge the limitations of their test instruments and the narrow scope of the contexts in which their results may provide some limited value in predicting behavior. However, this level of objectivity is far too rare, especially among the sellers of personality type inventories and their customers.

 

In summary, we firmly believe that any benefit personality tests may offer in our attempts to understand human behavior is far outweighed by the risk of stereotyping. As we mentioned at the beginning of this section, personality type labels can very easily lead us down a very dangerous path; i.e., they can lead us to treat others as stereotypes rather than individuals, and/or to behave as stereotypes ourselves. As you might imagine, stereotyping of any kind can quickly turn constructive conflict into deeply damaging destructive conflict. We thus do not give consideration to personality types in our approach to the development of conflict competence.

 

DDC’s approach to conflict competence

 

On our Team page and also above we told you where we found our list of conflict competence attitudes. What follows is information about the sources of the skills and knowledge we’ve identified. The information from these sources was analyzed and synthesized primarily during Rocky’s doctoral studies, and yields an approach to conflict competence that prioritizes culture-general communication skill development, facilitated by multiple modes of psychologically safe engagement in a proactive group development design.

 

The skills component is heavily influenced by Allison Abbe's and her colleagues’ research on culture-general competence, as well as William Schutz’s research on the group development cycle (i.e., The Interpersonal Underworld, 1966, especially chapters 2 and 9). Also, a robust body of intergroup contact research (see following paragraph) confirms “the importance of intentionally designed and actively facilitated intercultural interactions” (2012 ASHE Report, The Need for Intercultural Competency Development in Classrooms). This repository (especially Nagda and Zuniga’s work) shaped the final selection of target skills and the resulting design of our activities for developing these skills.

 

The knowledge component was informed by numerous models of intercultural competence/sensitivity (Ang, Van Dyne, & Livermore; Arasaratnam; Bennett; Byram; Chen & Starosta; Deardorff; Fantini; Kramsch; Ting-Toomey; etc.) as well as a wide range of intergroup contact research (Allport; King & Baxter Magolda; Nagda & Zuniga; Pettigrew & Tropp; Schubert & Otten; etc.) and workplace diversity studies (Chrobot-Mason; Mor Barak, et al; Shore, et al; etc).