Ineffective Responses to Conflict: Part 1. The Competitive Approach


The Competitive Approach - one of the ineffective responses to conflict
Would you rather be ‘right’ or be happy?
In this post and the next one, Ineffective Responses to Conflict: Part 2. Treating Conflict as a Problem to be Avoided, I will describe the two common ways in which we all respond to conflict at different times in such a way that it will never be resolved, simply because our actions are not directed towards doing so.

It’s not ‘wrong’ to respond in these ways, they just don’t work, and they feature in all unresolved conflicts. What mediation and conflict coaching help us to achieve is a return to the ways of responding to conflict that do work – the creation of  the  ‘3 – Cheers for Conflict’ – although we are quite capable of creating them without using mediation or conflict coaching. But sometimes we just don’t, and we get stuck in a rut or a continuous repetitive cycle of competing, or avoiding.

Apparently, Einstein defined insanity thus:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

And we can see that insanity in ourselves if we can become conscious of how we are trying to resolve a conflict in a way that doesn’t work, but then we keep doing the same thing and wonder why it leads to stress, anger, frustration, depression, fear and many other difficult emotions for ourselves and others affected by the situation.

So what is meant here by a ‘competitive approach’ and why is it an ineffective response to conflict?

A competitive approach is characterised by the focus on proving that ‘I am right and you are wrong’, or, when things have also become more personal, that, as well as this, ‘I am good and you are bad’.

In the ‘3 -Cheers for Conflict’ we will see that when we resolve conflict there is an acknowledgement that ‘ I see things like this, you see things like that’ and neither is wrong or right.

The debilitating, powerless position of ‘I am right, you are wrong’ leads to continuous attempts to change others and when they won’t change, or in turn they are trying to get us to change instead, there is a movement towards ‘they are bad and I am good’, where we use belittling, critical, derogatory, sarcastic comments towards the other person to try to further undermine them. And often, in turn they will do the same to us.

If we are lucky, they will not do the same and will be content in their own view of the world and will not try to change us or force us to see things their way, or belittle us, in which case our ‘game’ of competing with them will soon run out of steam. This is where conflict coaching can help individuals to ‘step out of the competition’ and find their own peace with their own view of the world without having to change others towards their view.

But where both of us are continually involved in ‘winning’ the competition of ‘I’m right, you are wrong’ and particularly where we both back it up with ‘I’m good you are bad’ (crazy, arrogant, unreasonable, difficult, serial complainer and other, perhaps stronger, labels used to try to belittle and denigrate the other person) enormous stress will follow and will NEVER lead to resolution as the energy that goes into this is not directed towards that aim.

As a famous poster once proclaimed ‘Bombing for Peace is like F***ing for Virginity’. The competitive approach to conflict is an attempt to suppress others who we see as different to us in some way. It is the approach which puts the lid on the boiling pot and presses it down to keep it there. But it is a response that is full of fear because there is always a risk the lid will come off. It is a response that is immensely tiring as there is a constant need to watch out for threat and to quash it. And it is a response that contributes nothing towards the resolution of conflict. It tries to ‘blow it away’ in the hope that we can then imagine it isn’t there, but all the time know it is there in the background. Resolution, in my interpretation of the word has no such ‘hangover’. We know it is resolved, we have no ongoing fear or association with the difficulty. As we will see in the future post on the 3-Cheers for Conflict, we resolve conflict every day in this manner, so unconsciously we barely register that a conflict has existed and then been resolved.

There are many examples and analogies that can be given for the competitive response. Gunslingers in the wild, wild west always had another challenger to face until the day they eventually lost.  But don’t think that meant the conflict between the winner and loser was resolved. Often ‘son of gunslinger’ would take up the fight and carry on the dispute. Members of street gangs experience a similar, continuous threat amongst young people today – if one member is killed, revenge and ‘righting the wrong’ is on the remaining members’ agenda.

Dictatorships use the competitive approach but always fail because nothing can continuously respond to conflict in that way without eventually running out of steam. The question in such cases is, does the structure which replaces a dictatorship (at the family, community, organisation, national levels in which dictatorships can exist) continue with a competitive approach or adopt an effective response to conflict? And before we associate ineffective responses to conflict just with gunslingers and gang members and dictators, and assume we don’t do that, well perhaps we don’t use physical violence to the same extent – but we all do it, one way or another.

Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.— Winston Churchill

But the good news is that if we can recognise where we are using one or both of the  ineffective responses to conflict (and usually we use both, we rarely just compete or just avoid), we can start to move towards creating the effective responses to conflict which I like to call the ‘3-Cheers for Conflict’ – Learning, Connection and Insight. This is not instead of, but as well as the ineffective responses that we are very caught up in practising. Very few of us can just ‘flick off the switch’ of competing or avoiding, even when we realise it is what we are doing.

Ineffective responses to conflict - the competitive approach. I'm right, you are wrong!
Right and Wrong, or just ‘different’ depending on where you are standing?

But we don’t have to.

We can just start to redirect some of our energy towards learning, connection and insight. Mediation and Conflict Coaching can help with that if we want some help, but ultimately they can only help us to take responsibility for ourselves – it will always be and can only be ourselves that creates a more effective response to our conflict.

So, are YOU involved in an unresolved conflict at present (with a friend, work colleague, family member, in your community, organisation?) Can you see situations where you are competing, or where you are avoiding?

Can you see opportunities for creating Learning, Connection and Insight? Even while you are still angry, upset, frightened, frustrated by your experience of the conflict?


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