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Fire As A Metaphor For Conflict

Having the skill and knowledge (ability) to deal with conflict productively goes a long way toward conflict management competency. But what about our attitude toward conflict? Does it matter that we view conflict as an unwelcome intruder in our lives? Something that is best avoided? And when it does intrude and we can’t avoid, that fight is the best form of defense?

When we say that attitude is everything, we acknowledge that wanting to behave differently is as important (or more so) that having the ability to do so. A horse can drink, but getting a horse to drink is an entirely different matter.

Fire, as a metaphor for conflict, presents a useful frame for us to view conflict. And a way to gently disturb the dominant perception about conflict as something bad.

Ask any group of people what they think of conflict and you’ll get a long list of words that chart conflict’s undesirable side: frustration, war, annoyance, fight, pain, loss, difficulty, etc.

If you’re lucky you’ll hear about the potential of conflict to transform and change. But even when you do hear about the opportunity that conflict brings, the dominant impression most groups have, is of conflict as something undesirable.

At the very least, through the process of exploring our immediate associations with conflict, we discover that we have all experienced conflict in our lives and that to that extent it is inevitable-like fire. And if we explore the metaphor further, we find that like conflict, fire has the potential for destruction but also for opportunity: warmth, light and cooked food.

What is crucial is our attitude toward fire, and by extension, conflict. If we see conflict as something bad, when it surfaces we run. Or fight. When we allow another view, of conflict as inevitable with the potential for destruction and growth, then we discover our choices.

We learn about the dynamics of fire and what is needed to sustain and snuff a fire. Some fires benefit from water (electrical) while others die when we douse them with water. Sometimes smothering is the way to go. At others spraying with chemicals can help.

As we discover the dynamics of conflict-how it emerges, what leads to productive rather than destructive outcomes, we also discover the different ways that we can engage in conflict. Sometimes we need a decision made that will provide direction for the community. At others, allowing disputants with long standing relationships to work things out on their own is important. Sometimes we benefit from leaving things be, allowing time to work its magic. At others an immediate response is called for.

Difference can be ignored some of the time, but when the underlying tensions are not resolved, and new ways of being are suppressed rather than surfaced, we develop “baggage”. Emotional energy that we carry.

In forests where fire is left to occur naturally it helps keep the forest floor free of materials that cause destructive forest fires. When we overprotect our forests and prevent fire from doing its job, our forests burn to the ground.

Developing the ability to deal with conflict is crucial. As important, is an exploration of our attitudes toward conflict. It helps to remind ourselves that conflict is similar to fire-inevitable with the potential for positive and negative. And that we have important choices!


John Ford

 John Ford is the author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy. He mediates; trains; and consults to organizations that have accepted the inevitability of conflict and are seeking to approach it with greater clarity and confidence. He was the managing editor of from 2000… MORE >

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