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What Is Conflict And How Do We Approach It?

At the Mediation Service where I work, we do an exercise on our Mediator Training course that goes like this:

It’s called ‘4-Word Build’….. and could just as easily be ‘3 Word Build’ or ‘5-Word Build’…….but we use 4 words.

Each person is asked to write down any 4 words that come to them when they think of the word ‘conflict’. When they have 4 words they are asked to pair up and then, from the 8 words between the 2 in the pair, eliminate 4 words and keep 4, meaning they have to discuss and agree on the 4 they’d like to keep. This pair then has 4 words.

We then ask each pair to find another pair and from the 8 words they now have, reduce them down to 4 again in the same way. So now the 4 people have their group’s 4 words for conflict.

Depending on the numbers in the group the activity could continue to another stage, even to the extent of getting the whole group’s ‘4 words’ for conflict.

Of course every time we do the exercise the group’s 4 words are different, and many people gain new understandings that a simple word can mean different things to different people.

This is a great thing to acknowledge on a Mediation training course because destructive responses to conflict often arise when a word is interpreted differently by two or more people.

As a species we’ve gone to war over such things.

4-word build is a great exercise to use to enable a group discussion about any important concept you want to address in your organisation or family or class etc. so feel free to use it!!

However, interesting though the exercise is, it often throws up words which are more about our responses to conflict rather than conflict itself, such as war, aggression, anger, etc. (Although I accept that even that is based on my own interpretation of conflict which is also subjective like anyone else’s.)

So here’s the basis for looking at conflict that is used on this website, and, as stated elsewhere, this is based on the approach of Mediation:

Mediation sees conflict as an inevitable part of life arising from difference.

But conflict can be responded to destructively or constructively.

We frequently respond to conflict constructively without realising it, but when conflict has been responded to destructively, Mediation seeks to promote a return to constructive responses to it.

However, it doesn’t stop there:

Mediation sees conflict as an opportunity for learning, connection and insight.

Now that’s a little different from the ways in which conflict is often thought of in organisations, families and other areas of social interaction.

We do gain learning, connection and insight on a frequent basis when we respond to conflict effectively. But often we don’t even realise we’ve done it.

For example, that time when we had a negative thought or view about someone and then found out that we were quite wrong about them and realised that they ‘weren’t so bad after all’. When they were never bad in the first place really.

In those situations we stopped ‘speaking on their behalf’, that is we stopped making our assumptions about them. We acknowledged that ‘it is ok to make mistakes’ by allowing ourselves to change our view about them rather than continue to try to ‘prove’ it to be true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, because to be wrong would be too much of a loss of face and pride.

And we challenged our own behaviour and not ourselves : ‘mmmm I must be more careful about having preconceptions about people’….instead of ‘I’m such a horrible person, that’s why no-one likes me!’.

In those situations we responded effectively and constructively to a conflict arising from what we perceived to be ‘difference’ (in values, in language, in culture, in dress, in attitude, etc. etc…..)

But did we congratulate ourselves for being so insightful and constructive and for opening ourselves to connection with this person? Probably not, even though we deserved it.

Unfortunately the other ways in which conflict is responded to are not usually so constructive, insightful and educational. There are two main other ways in which conflict is approached and you will find many books and studies that identify these ways. They are:

Conflict as competition

Conflict as ‘a problem’

And so, together with the way we are promoting on this site, that is Conflict as an opportunity for learning, connection and insight there seems to be 3 common ways of ‘conceptualising’ or thinking about Conflict.


Alan Sharland

I came into mediation in 1994 from being a Mathematics teacher in a Secondary School in Camden, London. There was often violence in the area in which I taught and pupils that I taught were involved in violence, either as victims or perpetrators. It led me to attend a course… MORE >

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