Destigmatizing Conflict

If I, as a conflict worker, call myself a conflict worker without any real context to what I do or what I want to do I run the risk of playing into a certain negative conception of conflict. I run the risk of playing into the idea that conflict is a problem wherein solutions are needed and oftentimes this isn’t the case. It’s worth taking time to explore negative conceptions of conflict and begin a long conversation that will help people destigmatize conflict.

Negative perceptions of conflict:

Conflict is generally understood to be more severe than a simple disagreement, and can be understood as a disagreement that leads to a deterioration of a relationship or relationships. This is also a fairly common understanding of conflict. To many English speakers even the word itself carries negative undertones and leads people to think of strained relationships, violence, and ambient hostility among other things. This is an understandable conception of conflict and if people hear of conflicts this is a reasonable understanding of conflict that they can operate from but it’s not the only perception of conflict worth understanding.

Positive perceptions of conflict:

If someone wants a positive perception of conflict they can think of conflict for what it brings to the surface: conversation and action. When people are in conflict they are having valuable conversations both with each other and with others. Another thing conflict brings to the surface is change. When people are in conflict they are generally in agreement that some problem exists even if they disagree about what the problem is. This problem requires some form of intervention or other action to be addressed. Where they differ such as what the problem is or what the best response to that problem could be is where conversations between them can occur.

Why should conflict be destigmatized?

Conflicts are generally perceived for what is lost when different parties are in conflict and the emotions that conflict evoke. That perception and that base cause people to naturally pathologize conflict. This is unfair.

In a variety of contexts including business there is an understanding that conflicts can have positive consequences provided conflicts are not avoided and are properly responded too. Business leaders and psychologists have noted that there are a range of positive aspects of conflicts that people who avoid conflicts miss out on. or have less access too Conflicts are also natural parts of being social animals and come with living with others. What matters more than avoiding conflicts or pretending that conflicts are inherently dangerous is developing a healthy and responsive framework which enables positive and safe responses to conflict.

By destigmatizing conflict we can have a healthier society where we understand that conflicts are not negative but rather provide us with opportunities to learn, opportunities to persuade people to our point of view, and opportunities to better society. But this of course requires action and conversation, dynamic action and sustained conversation. We have to be brave enough to disagree with each other and empathetic enough to try and understand other points of view. This is difficult but at least in my opinion worth doing.

A Vital Task Communicators And Mediators Have In Common

We’ve all seen a common tactic people employ when they’re angry at a specific group. At some point one of the groups involved in an intragroup conflict will make a false statement. This happens all the time in intragroup fights and disagreements. And what’s next is an event most people have seen: someone in the other group will accuse the group who made the false statement of lying. It’s a natural reaction and happens all the time. It’s also very often not accurate.

A lie is not a descriptor that applies to all untrue statements. An untrue statement can be made without it being a lie. A lie requires intention, specifically intention to deceive. If I go up to you and make a statement that is untrue that by itself doesn’t mean I’m lying to you. I could have made a statement that is not reflective of reality but sincerely believed it to be true, and that’s not a lie. In order to prove a lie it is necessary for someone to not only prove a statement to be untrue but also that someone demonstrate there was an intention to deceive. This is a high burden of proof and that matters. Not all, and possibly not even most untrue statements that people make are lies.

Mediators and communicators have a shared task:

If you’re involved in a conflict between two or more people and you’re taking it upon yourself to be a positive participant and conflict transformer you’re an informal mediator. As such when rhetoric escalates you have a certain level of responsibility and a specific responsibility: to keep the dialogue open and civil. Part of that means knowing when to call out conflict actors for acting in bad faith and oftentimes accusations that people are lying are folks acting in bad faith.

This is a task many communicators also have. This is a simple but continuous task that challenges pretty much everyone who has it. It’s a consistent task that will need to be repeated over and over in conflict settings and discourse as well as in messaging and in even friendly dialogue between competitors and folks who share resources, objectives, and relationships of various types.

How have you approached this task? What have you done to call out rash and frustrated accusations of lies that lack evidence? How would you approach this if you were a mediator or communicator who was tasked with keeping dialogue and conversations civil?