I have always loved John Dewey’s statement:
Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.
It’s eloquent, hard-hitting and uses the word gadfly in a sentence—something you just don’t see every day. However, as I look at conflict through the lens of Dr. Elias Porter’s Relationship Awareness Theory, I must humbly suggest that Dr. Dewey’s use of the language of conflict could be more precise. Bold as it may be to challenge an intellectual giant of his stature, a more accurate definition of our terms determines whether conflict is a creative spark or a cold bucket of water that extinguishes people’s desire to engage in imaginative problem solving in the first place.
The English word conflict has a wide range of meanings. Everything from all-out war to marital discord and quarrels in the workplace are often referred to as conflicts. Using Relationship Awareness Theory as a guide, I define conflict as an emotional reaction to perceived threat to self-worth. In short, conflict is when it gets personal. We experience conflict. On the other hand, opposition is about disagreement, different points of view, and the stimulation of the intellectual powers of problem solving. More than mere semantics, these definitions are crucial if we hope to fan the creative fires of creativity.
Conflict usually begins as a disagreement. For example, my wife and I generally like different types of movies. She is the romantic comedy type and I’m more of an action adventure, shoot-‘em-up, kind of guy, so often times we don’t agree on which movie we want to see. Of course, there is nothing wrong with respectful disagreement; whenever two people are together, there will be disagreements. However, it’s when rationale discussion over the merits of the films devolves into accusations of “you always get your way” or “before we were married, you liked seeing romantic movies…have you lost your romantic sense?” or even the infamous question, “don’t you care what I want?” we’re at risk of entering into real conflict and ruining a cherished date night.
Simply put, we’re not at our best in conflict. The reason for this is because motivation, the reasons people do what they do, changes in conflict. The same drives we experience when things are going well are supplanted by a predictable sequence of motivational changes that drive changes in behavior. In conflict, people often report much higher degrees of stress, anxiety, and disengagement. Whenever motivation changes in this way, the people involved are in defensive mode with less capacity to contribute to creative solutions.
Initially, people tend to react to conflict in one of three ways. They assert themselves by rising to the challenge and wanting to address the issue immediately. Other people will try to accommodate. They want to smooth things over and keep the peace. Still others, will pull away to analyze the situation. If the conflict remains unresolved, motivation can shift again and the other parties involved fall out of view and solutions based solely on self-interest are sought. The key to managing conflict then is the ability to spot these changes quickly and give others what they need in the moment.
Putting our new definitions aside for a moment, my sense is that Dewey was endorsing healthy debate and the respectful presentation of opposing views as an approach that almost always leads to better results. After all, no one has a corner on good ideas. However, the key is to prevent our communication from creating negative perceptions that violate others’ sense of self-worth, thereby triggering conflict. Fortunately, we can learn to have nice conflicts with a healthy dose of self-awareness, a proactive approach and by applying a defined set of skills. I call these skills the five keys to having a nice conflict.
The real answer to the question of whether conflict can spark creativity or drive people away from the table is determined by how well it is managed. If we can prevent people from feeling exposed and at risk, we keep them engaged and pushing for answers. In those moments, new ideas are developed and creativity reigns. A proactive approach to managing conflict, coupled with the application of a solid set of skills, can be the difference between having a roaring fire of creativity or a pile of smoking embers.