Conflict: The Nature of the Beast

fight club
Image by genitalssky via Flickr

Conflict. Why oh why do you plague us so?

You are an inevitability – it’s just a matter of time before someone or something disagrees with someone else, and they’re suddenly in a position of deciding between actions towards resolution, mediation, antagonization, or blissful ignorance. They may have to swallow pride, “take one for the team,” lose face, or spend extra time doing something they didn’t plan on. They may have be assertive when they would be more comfortable not doing so. We may not like conflict, but conflict is there, waiting for us to make our choice.

I can certainly recall times in my life that would have been much more pleasant had just one little thing been different – if only I got along better with this person (or they got along better with me), things would have been easier. If only that setback hadn’t happened, things would have been so much more perfect. If only more people saw things my way, we could all be in agreement and live more peacefully. If only conflict didn’t exist, everyone would be happier. Right?


But why does conflict exist in the first place? Ironically, it’s because we all believe we’re right, at some level. We may not always say it, or even be aware of it, but we only get one set of eyes and ears, and one brain to combine all that sensory information into a format we can use – something that ends up being called perception. The myriad steps in between sensing (by which I mean taking in sensory information from our surroundings) and perceiving (ending up with an experience that we can consciously label in some way), combined with vast individual differences, mean that the same basic environmental information can yield drastically different perceptions and experiences from person to person. Thus, the potential for conflict is born.

In a delightfully bizarre way, we can’t ever really know how another person’s experience of the world differs from our own. “Wait, can’t I just ask them?” you might ask. Sure, but does that really tell you anything? In a way, it doesn’t. To explain, I’ll attempt a thought experiment here, though you’ll have to bear with me as I’m no philosopher.

You’re in a room with one other person (we’ll call him Fred), and I put a piece of coloured paper on a table for you both to see. When I ask you, “what colour is this piece of paper?” you and the Fred both answer “red.” I then ask, “how do you know it’s red? Can you describe what ‘red’ is?”

“Well, red is… red!” you say. “It’s the colour of blood, of cinnamon hearts, of cranberries.” Okay, but you have only given more examples of things that are red, without telling me what makes red red.

Complete spectrum of electromagnetic radiation...
Image via Wikipedia

So, you decide to be clever and take another approach. “Red is a colour on the light spectrum with a frequency between 400-484 THz and a wavelength between 620-750 nm.” Alright, you’ve done a nice job of measuring red (not to mention using wikipedia), but still – how do I know that your experience of the colour red is the same as Fred’s? When I ask Fred the same question, he gives similar responses. But what if I told you that Fred’s experience of the colour red was actually the same as your experience of the colour green, and Fred’s experience of the colour green was the same as your experience of the colour red? There wouldn’t be any way to prove or disprove it, because you both call red red and you both call green green. The only way to know for sure would be to trade eyes and brains (without either of you losing your memory). You’d then probably think you’d gone crazy, because everything that was red before now appears to you as green. You’d say to Fred, “whoa – you’ve been seeing green instead of red your whole life!” Fred would say the exact same thing.

I hope the “red Fred” example makes sense. The bottom line is that we can’t assume that what we perceive is what other people perceive – in fact, it’s a safer bet that we’re all perceiving things somewhat differently, which is why working in teams can be really great, and also why it can be so full of conflict as to be unbearable. A big part of job interviewing is actually about trying to figure out what perspective an interviewee might bring to an organization, and certain interview questions are designed to allow different interpretations of the question to facilitate that assessment (although, ‘tell me about a time you dealt with a conflict situation’ isn’t really one of them).

Conflict is not only unavoidable, it is necessary. How much more boring the world would be if everyone saw everything the same way! How terrible movies and books would become without any sort of conflict in their plot!

We need conflict. So, how can we co-exist, nay, thrive, alongside it?

Read on next week for my perspective.

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.