Conflict is . . .

Conflict is described in many ways. I offer here my own description of conflict in three parts: 1) Conflict is where past and future meet, 2) Conflict is learning, 3) Conflict is a complex dynamic. With each part, I offer a link to the elements of HSD thought that best connect with my description, and I provide simple questions to help readers apply the theory in practical ways.

Conflict is where past and future meet

I see conflict as the space between where we have been and where we will go. It tests the strength of our bonds, our commitment to riding out difficult times, and challenges our assumptions about the future together. In this space we design the next iteration of the relationship by opening or closing the field of possibility.

It is a space of emergence and uncertainty, where our only real guide is the questions we choose to ask and the answers we are open to hearing. HSD offers three simple questions for leveraging uncertainty: what, so what, and now what. This is called Adaptive Action.

When I coach individuals to use Adaptive Action, I start by getting them to describe the conflict in three sentences. This three-sentence description becomes their “what.” From there, I ask them to explore what this description means to them? This exploration of meaning is their “so what” and is done by asking open-ended pattern-based questions, and conflict dynamic questions. Finally, I ask them to reflect on possible actions they can take within the next 24 hours (their “now what”).

The key here is to take wise action. Each time you do so, you influence the dynamics and set conditions for the emerging future.

Conflict is learning

I believe conflict is a chance to see others for who they really are, and to see myself in new ways. The learning may be painful or pleasant, fast or slow, but always powerful to growth and change. It is an opportunity to learn about the boundaries, needs, values and identity of self and other. It is a pathway into the action / reflection cycle, leaving us at the crossroads of integration and disintegration. For the former, we learn to incorporate something new into ourselves. For the latter we learn to let go of something.

What you learn is entirely up to you, and is entirely within your control, if you are actively engaged in the process. A simple way to ensure you are engaging with the process is to stand in inquiry. HSD offers simple breakdown of that that means:

  • Turn judgment into curiosity
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Turn assumptions into questions

When I coach individuals to stand in inquiry, I take the HSD process of inquiry and turn it into questions to explore the situation and my client’s space in it. For example I ask my clients:

  • Where do you feel judgmental? What questions could you ask yourself about that? When you feel that judgment, what does it mean to you, and how can you be curious about it (first for yourself, then for the other)?
  • What are the items in disagreement? Are they about the problem? The Process? The Solutions? How can you sit together to look at this as a situation drawing you to work together, rather than one that is pulling you apart?
  • Where are you feeling defensive? What patterns do you notice about this defensiveness? What do you need to do to take care of this feeling? And, what will it mean for you when you do it?
  • What assumptions are you holding about the other, and about the situation? How certain are you that these assumptions are accurate? What are the evidence, the facts, and the patterns that allow you to hold these assumptions? Where is there doubt? How can you ask questions into that doubt?

Conflict is a complex dynamic

I notice that the way we each show up, engage, and respond to conflict matters. I believe each party to a conflict can influence the patterns, sometimes with intention and sometimes out of reflection. One person does not control the dynamic; it is always complex and interactive. This reality is best expressed through the lens of complex adaptive systems (CAS). A CAS is a view into how patterns emerge from the interdependencies around you.

In conflict, as in life, we are engaged in massive interdependencies, some more visible than others. Some patterns are visible and can be clearly seen, like when one person attacks another and that other moves to defend. Other patterns are present but less visible; these patterns are tied to relationship history, personal triggers, environmental stimulus, the presence or absence of other people, etc. Our chosen way of responding to another is in entirely within our scope of influence, however this complex reality can make that influence feel less pronounced. This can make us feel stuck.

To take action in a complex reality, I believe we need to recognize two things: we always have some degree of influence within ourselves, and we are always influenced by something outside of ourselves. The key to getting unstuck in conflict situations is to identify where your influence is, what it means, and how you can act on it.

Conflict is many things to different people. What is it for you?

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