The Commitment Under the Conflict

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

My colleague, Cynthia Way, and I were having a heated discussion on a topic we both cared deeply about in the presence of her intern. We were doing a pretty good job of listening to each other but it was clear we had different perspectives. At the time, we reached what felt to me like an inconclusive resolution.  Shortly thereafter, we had a follow up conversation. In spite of some tense moments, we were able to establish common ground and use that as a springboard for thinking creatively about future collaboration possibilities.

A couple of days later, we received an email from her intern. She wrote, “You two are very inspiring. The picture of you two arguing in the Day 2 debrief is still seared in my brain. I saw your commitment there. Very motivational.”

That got me thinking: Underneath at least some conflicts is a deep commitment by each party to a value or aspiration they hold dear.  That commitment might show up as defensiveness or protectiveness of one’s own viewpoint. If the parties can successfully identify the commitments that lie underneath each person’s defensive stance and explore potential overlaps, then it’s possible to use the conflict as fuel and energy for moving forward together.

Of course, most of us have had experiences where that didn’t happen and where the conflict went unresolved or even escalated.

So what are some conditions that might support the kind of success we had this time?

  • A large pool of social capital and trust. Some of that can come from having had disagreements and successfully worked through them in the past.
  • An understanding of how to have these kinds of conversations. Well-developed dialogue tools, practiced in low stakes conversations.
  • A stance of openness, curiosity, and a willingness to set aside one’s own views.
  • The capacity to see that different perspectives can be equally valid, which can serve as the basis for finding common ground.
  • The willingness to stay in the conflict, to hold the tension, to live with differences and not rush too quickly to reach a superficial resolution.

What experiences have you had with finding the commitment under the conflict? What has helped you to do that?