Conflict Doesn't Always Need to Be a Power Struggle
What happens when we use power against people we have relationships with to try to resolve conflict? Experience sometimes teaches us that the best way to get what we need in a conflict is to force the other person or people involved to do what we want. At times, this might be true, but it’s often not necessary. And it can come at a huge cost to everyone.
What approaches might increase everyone’s collective power to resolve the conflict, and reduce the need for people to use their power against each other?
Let me start off by saying that using power against people or institutions is not always a bad thing. Most of our rights as workers were won through strikes and other power-based strategies, which force employers and governments to provide fair working conditions. Indigenous land rights movements have successfully used power-based approaches - such as blockading roads to stop illegal mining on their territory - when rights-based approaches like land claims hearings are taking too long, and negotiation with companies and government has failed. When we are fighting with a friend, family member, or partner, sometimes the power difference is so great, for example in situations of abuse or bullying, that the person with less power has no option but to build and use their own power to equalize things, in order to change or escape the situation.
That being said, the issue I see in many of my workshops and coaching sessions is that people often assume that conflict between individuals has to be a power struggle. We sometimes default directly to using pressure, even when it might not be necessary, the relationship is really important, we are actively harming someone we care about, or the cost of continuing to fight would be devastating. For example, when we convince mutual friends to take our side in a conflict with a friend, we sometimes create further division, and breakdown of community. When we complain to our boss about a colleague not getting their work done instead of talking to them, it can be much harder to work together in the future.
In “The Conflict Resolution Toolbox” Gary T. Furlong discusses a useful model for conflict resolution that looks at different approaches as a staircase of conflict escalation. As you go up the staircase, the potential consequences go up, and the ability to control the process goes down. The lower you go on the staircase, the lower the costs, and the greater the control that the people involved in the conflict have over the outcome. Ideally, people start at the bottom, and move up the staircase only if they have tried all options at the lower level.
Interest-based approaches are at the base of the staircase. These approaches look for resolutions to conflict that meet at least some of the needs of everyone involved. Interest-based approaches usually involve negotiation and problem solving, and when successful, everyone usually feels satisfied (if not happy) with the outcome. This satisfaction means the agreement is more likely to last. Relationships can be maintained, and even improved, and the negative consequences in terms of time, resources, and emotional damage are relatively low. Everyone involved has some control of the process and is able to make choices. At the same time, interest-based approaches require that everyone be at least partially committed to making the situation better.
Rights-based approaches are the next step up the escalation staircase. They focus on one person or group’s human or individual rights being the most important aspect of the conflict. Rights-based approaches come from lots of official sources including laws, policies, contracts, etc., as well as beliefs about what is ethical or moral. These approaches tend to end when one person has won a legal settlement or some other recognition that their rights are more important than the other person’s. This can take a long time and lots of resources, and often involves giving up some control of the process to a judge or investigator. While this kind of process may end the active conflict, the relationship is often damaged, and can make it difficult to interact afterward.
Power-based approaches are the last step in the staircase. In these approaches, everyone involved in the conflict does whatever they need to do to pressure or force the other people to give in. In interpersonal conflict, power-based approaches include gossiping in order to gaining supporters, withholding important information, public shaming, threats, physical violence, or calling the police. Power-based strategies may be necessary when there is no common ground or relationship, no possibility of working together, and winning is the most important thing. However, the potential for further damage is very high, and there is little control of the outcome. Whoever is able to use the most power against the other person is most likely to win, and often everyone loses in one way or another.
Why are many of us attracted to using rights- or power-based strategies as the first resort? I believe there are a few reasons. First, being open about what we want and need in a situation makes us vulnerable, and this is terrifying and sometimes dangerous. Many of us have learned at some point in our lives that the best survival strategy when feeling threatened is to come out swinging. This is absolutely true in some threatening situations, but maybe not in all. Second, when we are angry, winning feels like justice, and justice seems like it will feel so good. Unfortunately, what feels like “the right thing” at our most angry often increases the conflict, and feels terrible when we have had a chance to come down from the anger. Third, North American society doesn’t generally prioritize building the sorts of communication skills that are needed for approaching conflict from an interest-based or problem solving perspective, so we often default to strategies we know the best.
Next time you are trying to decide how to respond in a conflict, take some time, pay attention to how you are feeling, and reflect on these questions:
Is this a relationship I want to or need to maintain for my own happiness or wellbeing?
Even if I don’t need this relationship, are there other people I do care about that might get dragged in if this escalates?
How might the situation be impacting the other person or people involved, and what might their needs and concerns be?
What is at stake if the conflict escalates? What am I risking if I try to de-escalate it?
Am I able to take small steps toward building trust with the person/people I’m in conflict with?
What might be the benefits of trying to strengthen the relationship?
Can I find small things I appreciate about the person/people even though I am angry with them, or they really annoy me?
How can I find some time away from this conflict to feel what I’m feeling, and then really think through my options when I’m ready?
Have I fully considered all the options that might decrease the conflict, before I try things that might increase it?
What are the consequences for me and the other people involved of escalating the conflict?
How could we combine our knowledge and skills to come up with a creative solution?
Finally, starting with an interest-based approach does not have to mean letting go of anger, or communicating only in “nice” ways. Sometimes, it means being brutally honest about how a situation has impacted us, and how angry or hurt we are. It also means being willing to listen when people express their anger about ways we have harmed them, even when that makes us uncomfortable, or challenges our sense of ourselves. When this honesty and listening can happen, sometimes we can get to a place where we can talk about what’s happening without having to “rally the troops.”