It’s finally spring and soon the trees will be covered with new leaves. This month’s feature article discusses the importance of frameworks for analyzing and understanding conflict. Like a tree’s trunk and branches, frameworks give conflict structure and enhance our understanding of the human response to conflict.
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Frameworks help analyze conflict and the deeper our understanding of conflict the greater our ability to handle it effectively. Like the steel girders in a skyscraper, a framework, helps conflict have shape. How we see conflict will impact our attitude and approach to it. One framework for analyzing conflict, developed by Bernard Mayer, a well-known practitioner, author of several dispute resolution books, and one of my early trainers, is the three dimensions of cognition, behavior and emotion.
By cognition we mean our perception of conflict. This is a belief that one’s own needs or values are incompatible with another’s. It can be subjective, like you believe your manager’s style of leadership is inconsistent with your views on management or objective, where you want to build a playground in the neighborhood park and someone else wants to put in a much needed parking lot. Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, CA: Jossey Bass, 2000 at 4. If at least one person believes there is conflict then it exists even if the belief isn’t shared by others. Id at 5.
Conflict involves an emotional reaction to a situation that signals a disagreement and various types of ensuing emotions, such as rage, fear, sadness, hopelessness. When we experience these feelings in regard to another person we experience conflict. However sometimes only one person experiences an emotional reaction and the other person doesn’t share the same feelings and is unaware of the opposing party’s feelings. Emotions are the cause of many conflicts. When the emotions are expressed openly and discussed this can often resolve at least a portion of the conflict.
When someone behaves in a certain way or takes certain actions to express feelings and get their needs met and this interferes with someone else’s ability to satisfy his or her needs conflict will result. The behavior can be destructive, like yelling or striking someone. It can be more subtle like body language that connotes displeasure. Or it can be constructive and positive. Regardless of the tone, the purpose of conflict behavior is either to express the conflict or get one’s needs met. Id at 5. The beliefs people have about conflict significantly impact how they behave in a conflict situation and how they feel once the conflict is over. Roxane Lulofs and Dudley Cahn in Conflict: From Theory to Action. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2000 at 28.
Conflict in one dimension doesn’t necessarily cause a change in another dimension. Think of conflict as existing only when it clearly manifests itself along one of the three dimensions. “People can go in and out of conflict, and the strength or character of conflict along each dimension can change quickly and frequently.” Id at 6. For example, a person who expresses their feelings to their colleague may not feel the need to behave in a way that expresses these feelings indirectly, such as through cynical remarks about the person they were upset with.
Moreover, conflict rarely moves in a linear direction. A better analogy is a spiral that descends before it rises up to the next level. It’s like a child’s development that often gets worse before it gets better. “When individuals or groups are in conflict, they are dealing with different and sometimes contradictory dynamics in these different dimensions, and they behave and react accordingly.” Id at 7. This is what makes conflict so challenging to resolve. If a conflict is resolved on one of these dimensions it may still be percolating in another. For example people may behave in a way that is inconsistent with their expressed feelings. Someone might be offended by something their supervisor said but behave as if nothing is wrong. This is called a latent conflict. Over time this might build up into an expressed conflict.
Assumptions are defined as something we take for granted. Human beings make many assumptions about conflict, many of which are dysfunctional. These assumptions serve as another aid to understanding conflict. One common assumption about conflict that seems to summarize Mayer’s three part framework is the following: “People are responsible for how they feel, what they say, how they respond and how they act in conflict situations.” Id at 29. This is an easy belief to identify but a hard one to put into practice. This belief about conflict helps people to see their responsibility for the process of conflict and its resolution.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.