The way we frame a problem has a powerful impact on the solutions we can see. Each of the following three metaphors orients us differently to a conflict and influences how we think, act, and resolve it.
Metaphor 1: Conflict as competition
Viewed through this lens, the natural question we ask about such conflict is, How can we win it?
For conflict in ongoing business and personal relationships, this approach leaves debris behind and ultimately creates lasting friction.
Metaphor 2: Conflict as problem
When we view conflict as a problem, the question we necessarily ask is, How can we solve it? or How can we fix it?
This is a more useful metaphor than the first because it creates an opportunity for people to focus together on how to address the problem.
One downside of adopting this metaphor is that a too-quick focus on “fixing” can cause us to problem-solve prematurely, before we have a good understanding of the problem. Another downside is that it signals that conflict = relationship problem, or conflict = problem employee, or conflict = trouble. None of these may be true.
Metaphor 3: Conflict as lesson
Viewing conflict as lesson causes us to ask, What can we learn from it?
This can be a very powerful metaphor for putting us in a preventive frame of mind, instead of a reactive one — it invites us to consider how we might approach the problem differently next time.
One downside of this metaphor is that we can be tempted to answer it in a blameful way (“I’ve learned not to trust him anymore” or “We’ve learned never to disagree with her in public”), so we need to push ourselves to look beyond the ego-soothing answer.