Conflict is a 'hot' topic trending among researchers and businesses. There is a large body of existing resources which discuss tactics for minimizing conflict among teams and between individuals.  Yet, at least a portion of these materials characterizes conflict as the root cause of disharmony, something to be avoided at all costs. 

A few truths about conflict:

  1. Conflict isn't new.
  2. Conflict isn't bad.
  3. Conflict isn't a problem.  
  4. Conflict isn't preventable.
  5. Conflict is natural.
  6. Conflict is inevitable.
  7. Conflict is beneficial.
  8. Conflict is communication.

Conflict gets a bad wrap because of the responses that we have to it.  Each of us has a choice about how we respond.  Conflict becomes harmful to ourselves and our relationships when we decide to use destructive tools like aggression and condescension rather than reconciliation and understanding.   

Wait, I'm one step ahead of you.  I bet you're thinking something like, "Chris, aggression is also natural.  It happens in business and at home.  I have teenagers..."

Or what about, "Chris, aggression as a conflict response is unavoidable.  When I get frustrated I get angry and aggressive. Don't you?"

One last time, "Chris, aggression is how we win."

I see where you're going and it's tempting, but those three above statements hinge on two traditional views of relationship.

  1. We don't need each other.
  2. There is is no cost in being a conflict aggressor. 

Frans B.M. de Waal has long studied relationships among primates.  Through his research, De Waal built out the notion of a 'post-conflict attraction hypothesis'.  Basically, and I'm grossly oversimplifying here, De Waal noticed that primates sought to reconcile with each other after aggressive conflicts. Why?

Primarily, because for the primates studied non-reconciliation was too costly.  Like us, primates are social beings and non-reconciled aggression led to upheaval in the social order.  Since De Waal's initial research others have studied various mammal groups and found that a form of 'post-aggression' reconciliation is at work.

Alright, but so what? Even though we are descended from primates, we've evolved and our situations aren't the same. Sort of, we do live differently, but the lessons still apply. A few quick points:

First, in humans, most aggressive behavior involves individuals with whom we have an ongoing shared experience with.  We're actually more aggressive with those whom we've had a previously/ongoing relationship.

Second, aggression as a response to conflict actually does have negative consequences for the aggressor. In sum, responding with aggression increases an individual's level of anxiety and can erode trust, particularly among individuals on a team. 

Third, the more anxiety is introduced into a situation the greater some compensating approach will need to be used.  If people in a team feel more anxious because a team member is being aggressive, then a spiral begins to occur where the team needs more reassurance that cooperation and trust exist. Aggression sucks time and emotional energy from highly functioning dynamics.

Things to keep in mind about a conflict situation to prevent yourself from getting a ticket on the runaway aggression train:

  1. Aggression is only one of a range of responses to conflict.  There are other alternatives.
  2. Every relationship is costly.  Costly to maintain and costly to lose.  No relationship is inexpensive.  Cheapening the value of relationships denies optimal resolution.
  3. Reconciliation and cooperation are skills that can be taught.  Even if you don't do it you can learn.
  4. Designate a team member to be a point person for cooperation on your team.  At least have one go-to person who can model positive conflict responses.
  5. Recognize other individual's dignity and identity.  Repurpose the personalization of your aggression in a humanizing way.
  6. It's a myth that aggression is the most successful way to respond to conflict. Although you may get your way, be wary about what has been lost in that endeavor.