People associate conflict with its common manifestations – a lawsuit, a business dispute, or organizational infighting, all things we try to avoid if possible. But what if we viewed conflict differently?
Nate Regier, in his excellent book, Conflict Without Casualties, offers us a different paradigm for viewing conflict. Regier posits that conflict, in its broadest form, is simply the gap between what we want and what we are experiencing. That gap may be fueled either by our own internal desires, by external forces, or some combination of each.
Viewed in this manner, conflict becomes an engine for change. In its best sense, it energizes us to move forward – to bridge the gap between our present state and the future we strive to achieve. It is responsible for much of human achievement whether in the form of striving for social justice or in the determined hunt for a vaccine to end disease.
But conflict can also be destructive. It can ruin relationships, create untold pain, and distract us from moving forward with our lives.
So how do we reconcile these two very different views of conflict? And, more importantly, how can we help people move themselves from one type of conflict to another? Regier devotes almost his entire book to exploring these questions, and his exploration is well worth reading. In a nutshell, however, Regier distinguishes between negative and positive conflict based on a several key attributes. Negative conflict focuses on the past and is fueled by drama and anger. Positive conflict focuses on the future and is fueled by empathy and understanding.
Understanding this helps us to realize the essence of mediation. Mediation involves compromise. And with compromise, neither party comes away completely fulfilled by the results. As a result, each party may continue to experience conflict – a gap between what was wanted and what was achieved. But at the end of the day, a successful mediation involves putting the parties in a position to move forward with their lives – from drama and a destructive focus on the past to the future and an opportunity for change.
The best mediators don’t resolve conflict. They transform it.