When it comes to confronting conflict, there is a wide array of valuable tools and tactics available for mediators, conflict managers, and individuals to learn and employ in the face of growing tensions. However, to see a conflict only in the moment it arises is to see it out of context. The norms and structures within an organization play an influential role in how conflicts originate and play out. Before you find yourself searching for a way to intervene in a destructive conflict, you can take account of the context in which it occurs and change the nature of conflict before it even begins to take place.
While the environmental characteristics of a setting can influence the tone of human interaction, conflict climate refers to the social and psychological landscape in which a conflict takes place. No matter the climate, conflicts of varying intensity are likely to punctuate any workplace, community, or relationship, but variables such as trust, power, conflict strategy, and behavioral patterns can have a tremendous impact on their constructive or destructive potential.
Climates harmful to conflict dynamics are characterized by power abuse or imbalance, deficits of trust, unhealthy competition, and defensive behavior. When a conflict climate becomes negative, it often affects the way participants and managers approach disputes, favoring avoidance tactics or increased competition. Let’s take a look at some elements of conflict climate, and how you can foster one that is positive and constructive.
Power is the ability to influence or control events or people, and it’s distributed through many mechanisms. Institutions often explicitly dictate structures of power distribution, such as a workplace hierarchy or seniority in a family. Certain power differences are legitimate and widely expected in order to serve the functionality of a community. However, when power imbalances are present, it is detrimental to the conflict climate.
Some power abuses are explicit, such as overt threats or intimidation through words, conduct, or physical presence. This kind of domination creates a climate of fear, and a tinderbox for igniting destructive conflicts.
Other destructive power imbalances seem more subtle. No matter what formal hierarchies are in place, interpersonal communication is a collaborative experience. When people engage with one another, on a basic level they all possess power and conversely become vulnerable. If an institutional power imbalance is internalized, the mutuality of interpersonal communication is lost. When power imbalances are internalized, the communicative experience is likely to be emotionally challenging for the participant with less institutional power. This will also have a negative effect on the conflict climate, and may encourage defensive behaviors. To avoid this, it is possible to exercise institutional authority, but foster an ethos of egalitarian communication.
We live in a society where competition is heavily emphasized, and to a degree competition can be a healthy element in workplaces or communities. However, when the threat of co-workers or team members advancing their self-interests at the expense of others around them becomes intense and constant, trust becomes harder to achieve and collaboration less likely to occur. Without an underlying foundation of trust and collaboration, the conflict climate is likely to be tense and volatile, with disputes and differences easily ballooning into conflicts that impede goals and communication.
Take a look at the power structures and communication norms in your organizations, workplaces, and relationships: Is it set up to foster constructive conflict exchanges or destructive escalation? Examine what you can do to create a more open and constructive conflict environment.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.