Conflict is something that occurred in the past, but conflict resolution is an act of the future. Difficult conversations and efforts at organizational conflict resolution get stuck when too much time is spent re-hashing the past and too little time orienting to the future.
Difficult conversations that focus on these parts of the past are likely to escalate, get sidetracked and get stuck. These are the gerbil-wheel producers of more conflict at work:
- What really happened. It’s simply unknowable. Your story about what really happened is built on your own mental models and the neural pathways you formed telling yourself and others your version of the story over and over.
- Whether or not someone had bad intentions. Don’t let the three common mistakes that entangle intention and impact derail your conversation.
- What “the truth” is. Your perspective and “the truth” are not the same.
- Whose fault it is. The blame game and blamestorming are sure to get you good and stuck. Forget fault and focus instead on contribution.
What you do need from the past
It’s not that the past is unimportant. It’s what we talk about and for how long that makes difference. This kind of information and understanding from the past is very helpful:
Understanding impact. Understanding the impact of what happened on you and the others involved or on those whom they represent. A significant component of conflict is negative impact or perceived negative impact.
Understanding contribution. The blame game is a waste of energy, but understanding contribution is helpful. In most workplace and organizational conflict, contribution comes from multiple places (both from the people involved and the way the organizational system, policy system, or departmental system is structured) and is worth understanding.
Understanding what didn’t work and why. We don’t usually need much help identifying what didn’t work because traditional problem solving orients us to this kind of identification. It’s critical, however, to understand why it didn’t work because the “why” helps unlock problems and notice solutions that would otherwise be missed.
Understanding what did work and why. In organizations the traditional problem-solving approach is to focus on what isn’t working and figure out how to fix it. Yet such negative “spotlighting” can actually have a limiting effect on the potential for creative conflict resolution. When you focus on what’s wrong, you see only part of the picture. When you also focus on what is working, you discover things that should be amplified as part of your solution.