by Peter B. Grazier

Last August I taught a weekend course on team building to about 25 people participating in A Systems Approach to Quality Improvement at Madonna University in Detroit. Sponsored by the Association for Quality and Participation (513-381-1959), the six-month course leads to a certificate in quality and attracts management personnel who want to expand their knowledge of contemporary workplace concepts.

The Sunday morning agenda was open so that more time could be spent on participant needs. On this Sunday, the primary topic the class wanted to address was “conflict.” Although this topic is frequently brought up in sessions, on this particular day it started me wondering why we seem to have so much conflict in our workplaces and in our society, and why we have so much trouble resolving it.

Conflict Defined
My dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle to resist or overcome; a contest of opposing forces; strife; battle; a state or condition of opposition; antagonism; discord; clash; collision.”

Conflict seems to be ever-present in our lives….on the battlefield, on the football field, in the boardroom, or in the bathroom. The possibility of conflict looms anytime two or more people convene.

In team building, you will hear people say that “conflict” is good for teams, and so they encourage it. What I think they mean is that “disagreement” is good for teams. Conflict has an emotional component that tends to be destructive, whereas, disagreement is a non-emotional presentation of differing viewpoints.

Sources of Conflict
Conflict arises from a multitude of sources that reflect our differences: personality, values, ideologies, religion, culture, race, and behavior. It also arises from simple misunderstandings. As we have expanded collaborative concepts within our workplaces, we have dramatically increased the number of human interactions where one’s opinions can be heard.

New teams, for example, may find themselves in conflict as discussions lead them into uncharted waters. One person may have worked along side another for years, yet never “knew” them until they began unearthing deeply held beliefs. Reaching consensus when such differences are present is frequently difficult,1 and conflict is almost certain.

Resolving Conflict… The Current Model
I think the reason most people struggle with conflict resolution is that our past and present models of resolution are rooted in battles. These battles result in “winners” and “losers,” and our society seems to place a high value on winning. So we staunchly defend our position, no matter how shaky.

I have talked frequently in these pages of an exercise I use when working with teams. The exercise is simply a single paragraph story about five people. It is a straight-forward story that one can read in one or two minutes.

I ask participants to rate the five people from best to worst based upon their interpretation of the story. The results are astounding! In a room of twenty people, I will get fifteen different interpretations of the story and its characters. When they begin to discuss the story, they see other interpretations as plausible as their own, and the light goes on that their view of this story and its characters is just one way of looking at it. It becomes a powerful lesson in how our beliefs, having been shaped by our own unique history, are simply one interpretation of reality.

The participants also learn that to resolve these differences, they must take the time to talk to each other and listen carefully for other, equally valid points of view. The problem is that we were never taught to do this, and so we go into our learned offensive and defensive behaviors to defend our position. Conflict resolution under the “win-lose” model leaves most people unfulfilled, particularly if the battle is a difficult one. Frequently, the emotional component inflicts a wound that may never fully heal.

Conflict Resolution… A Different Approach
Recently, my friend Steven Piersanti of Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco sent me a manuscript of a new book called Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict Into Collaboration.The book was written by Stewart Levine, a lawyer, consultant, and mediator with an illustrious track record.

As I began to read the manuscript, what caught my attention quickly were his opening words:

During my second year of law school I had my first “real” lawyer’s job. I was an intern at a local legal services clinic. On my first day I was handed 25 cases “to work on.” This would be my job for the semester. Three weeks later I asked the managing attorney for more cases. When he asked about the 25 he had given me, I told him that I had resolved them.


He was very surprised, and very curious. He asked how I had done it. I told him that I had reviewed the files, spoken to the clients, thought about a fair outcome and what needed to be done, called the attorney or agency on the other side, and reached a satisfactory resolution.

I knew nothing about being a lawyer. I had no inclination that the cases were difficult, needed to take a long time, or had to be handled in a particular way. With common sense and a beginner’s mind, I found the solution that worked best for all concerned. Simple? It was for me! I spent the next twelve years becoming a “successful” lawyer, and becoming less effective at resolving matters.

What a revelation! A law student whose ignorance of legal procedure led him to follow his instincts and have the clients actually talk to each other. Instead of preparing a game plan for battle, he simply approached each conflict as a disagreement looking for a solution.

The Costs of Conflict
Mr. Levine says further that conflict resolution in this manner isn’t soft, but practical, in that there are significant costs associated with how we currently resolve conflict. And many times these costs far outweigh the conflict itself. The costs he describes are:

1. Direct Cost
2. Productivity Cost
3. Continuity Cost
4. Emotional Cost

The direct costs are the fees of lawyers and other professionals. In 1994 alone, there were 18 million cases filed in US courts at a cost of $300 billion.

Productivity cost is the value of lost time, the cost of what those involved would otherwise be producing.

Continuity cost is the eventual end of relationships that would have continued without the conflict.

Emotional cost reflects the pain of focusing on, and being held hostage by our emotions.If you’ve ever been in a conflict, you can probably relate to one or more of the above consequences.

Conflict Resolution… A New Paradigm
Drawing on his extensive experience, Mr. Levine shares a model for conflict resolution very different than the current one. The seven steps of his resolution model are shown below:

Real Conflict Resolution

1. Develop an Attitude of Resolution

The above process will not work unless we first hold certain values that make up an attitude of resolution. Mr. Levine discusses values such as believing in abundance, being creative, becoming vulnerable, and relying on feelings and intuition.

In reality, this may not be easy because it requires us to step back and think about how we feel about conflict. These are beliefs that took a long time to develop and are deeply embedded.

2. Tell Your Story
Telling your story is listening to all stories, including yours. It is about understanding and being understood. Looking for “the truth” in their story is not as important as honoring their authenticity, and understanding “their truth.”

3. Listen for a Preliminary Vision of Resolution
Listening for a preliminary vision of resolution is thinking about a resolution that honors all concerns in the situation. It is about shifting from the desire to win, and get your way, to a vision that everyone can buy into.

4. Get Current and Complete
Getting current and complete is saying what usually goes unsaid. It demands saying difficult, sometimes gut-wrenching things, thereby escaping from the emotional prisons that keep us locked in the past.

5. See a Vision for the Future: Agreement in Principle
Seeing a vision for the future means reaching a general understanding of the resolution— a foundation of a new agreement. It requires letting go of the desire for what you know will not work and focuses on what will.

6. Craft the New Agreement: Make the Vision a Reality
Crafting the new agreement adds the specifics. The key point is to have a map or formula for the dialogue that will maximize the potential for everyone to obtain their desired results.

7. Resolution: When Your Agreement Becomes Reality
Resolution is moving back into action. With a new agreement, and a quiet, clear mind about the past, you can freely move forward. You will be empowered by the process.

Because we, as humans, are all different in how we perceive the world, conflicts will, at some level, always be part of life. How those conflicts are resolved, however, is a choice. We can enter into battles, defending our position, pushing our “truth, ” and, when all else fails, hire our gladiators to battle for us. In the end, the costs may take their toll on us.

Or we can approach conflict as a problem looking for a solution. We can take an approach much different than the culturally accepted one, with results that leave us intact.

Stewart Levine’s book came along at a time when I was in such a conflict. His approach supported my internal rumblings about how to resolve it. I took this path and found a solution—no costs, no lost time, and no emotional baggage to carry around for the next few years. Thanks Stewart….and to my friend Steven Piersanti for passing it along.

Quotes on Conflict…
“The quickest way to kindle a fire is to rub two opposing opinions together.””
Argument seldom convinces anyone against his inclination.”