A cloud is shown in the sky above.

Ah conflict, what an opportunity

Give me 3 minutes of your reading time before you dismiss this idea as crazy.

Point 1 – we WILL have relationships

The very best conflict avoidance strategy (and the only one that I know of that works for a sustained period) is to live as a hermit. No relationships, no misalignment, no conflict. At least, not with anyone else.

But ever since we discovered the value of hunting in packs, and division and specialisation of labour, isolation has not been the preferred path of those who wish to get ahead. 

Our economy is an incredibly complicated ecosystem of relationships. Every team represents a mix of people, and every leader seeks to hold teams in unity.

Point 2 – transactional relationships often serve us adequately

Many of these relationships are purely transactional. They are sporadic, time bound, substitutable with many alternatives, and close out with a simple exchange of roughly equivalent value. Our economy has become extremely effective and efficient at transactional relationships. Think swipe cards, self-check out and Apple Pay.

We regulate the risk of transactional conflict through incredibly efficient frameworks, governed by Terms and Conditions that we routinely click through without reading. The investment simply isn’t worth it.

Point 3 – not all of our relationships are well served by transactional models

Other relationships are different, deeper, more significant to those who share them. In a purely commercial context, the distinction may be that the alliance has a longer duration, involves more shared inputs, requires greater investment, or is less readily switched out for a replacement. Joint ventures, long term offtake or supply arrangements, partnerships, and relationships within work teams all provide examples. Let’s distinguish these from transactional relationships and call them collaborative relationships.

Point 4 – a collaborative relationship requires more investment

A well curated collaborative relationship involves give and take, shared story, alignment, regular communication, a sense of fairness. They hurt when we get them wrong, and make us feel more human and alive when they are flourishing.

Point 5 – conflict will emerge in collaborative relationships

In every collaborative relationship, misalignment and misunderstanding emerge sooner or later, in more or less impacting ways. Each participant brings its own expectations, objectives, social norms, organisational culture and metrics of success.

This misalignment need not come as a surprise, and is capable of being prepared for. Baked in feedback loops and fora for articulating emerging misalignment can allow the relationship to be preserved and deepened. But the opportunity for conflict is always present, and over any sufficiently significant collaborative relationship, is inevitable.

Here is where the opportunity arises.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the misalignment or misunderstanding that is the source of disputes – it is the response to the misalignment. This follows the familiar E+R=O (Event plus Response equals Outcome) model.  

Point 6 – Conflict is a time to invest, and to co-create

Commonly, conflict is felt as pain and prompts blame.

The opportunity is to reframe conflict as a sign post of a shared challenge, of misalignment or a misunderstanding that threatens the shared objectives which prompted the relationship in the first place. The contrast between an allocation of blame, and a request to cooperate to address an identified misalignment, could not be more stark.  

The conflict is the event. There is then a choice on how to respond. The opportunity is to generate an outcome in which trust is developed, and the importance of the relationship is honoured. A helpful mental shortcut is to view the relationship as an independent entity to be valued, and each participant in it having the responsibility to collaborate to generate that relational capital. At that point, it matures into a truly collaborative relationship.

There is nothing like a response to conflict which prioritises the relationship over a quick win to cement trust, loyalty and long term value.