Conflict as a clash of strategies and a vector for change

Map of conflict

I've been practising Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for several years. It helps me to better understand my feelings and needs. The concepts of NVC can also help to look at conflicts. I would like to introduce a way to look at conflict using the basic concepts of NVC:

  1. Humans have needs. (I would add that this applies to other sentient beings, too).
  2. It's okay to have needs.
  3. When needs are satisfied, we experience pleasant feelings (joy, love, happiness, etc.).
  4. When needs are unsatisfied, we experience unpleasant feelings (sadness, anger, grief, etc.)
  5. To satisfy our needs, we employ strategies. (Example. Need = well-being. Possible strategies = sauna, sleeping, walk in nature, etc.)
  6. When conflict occurs between two parties, it's not the needs that conflict, but the strategies that are employed to satisfy the needs.

An example.

May has issues doing all the work they're supposed to do and seeks to talk to their manager about it. The manager repeatedly refuses to receive them, as the manager is very busy. May had the hope to be able to sort their issues out with the manager but now they feel frustrated, and helpless, on top of feeling stressed out. Week after week, May tries to get in touch with the manager, as they don't know how to solve their issue alone. But as their demands become more pressing, the manager starts to feel annoyed, tense, and insecure, and keeps ignoring May's requests.

May's needs: communication, cooperation, being understood, being seen, autonomy.
Manager's needs: efficacy, independence, respect, autonomy.

Both their needs are legit. Some of them even overlap.

The conflict occurs at the level of their strategies: the manager makes the conscious decision to deny May's discussion requests, effectively denying them to voice their concerns and worries, which makes May feel helpless, frustrated, and angry. When May chooses to make their demands more explicit, the manager starts to feel more and more insecure.

Working on our strategies

There are always different strategies to satisfy our needs. Out of habit, we sometimes fail to see them, and keep using the ever same strategies. How could May deal with the situation differently?

  • May could request a meeting through written communication, and possibly set a deadline date by which May will drop certain tasks from their impossible todo list.
  • May could escalate the conflict to the manager's superior.
  • May could talk to one or more colleagues and ask them for advice.
  • May could talk to the works council.
  • May could try to challenge their beliefs: apparently May thinks that they cannot make a decision without first talking to their manager. This is very hard, but if May succeeds in noticing this belief, they can ask themselves: Is this true? Why do I believe this? Can't I make this important decision myself? Should I just do it? And eventually inform the manager by email?

When we are aware of the need → strategies dynamics, we can work on strategies without compromising our needs. When we are not, we are running in circles, effectively worsening the situation.

The manager could also employ different strategies as they start noticing that they are feeling tense and insecure. Which ones could that be? There are also inappropriate strategies, and if not aware, the manager could well end up employing one of those:

  • Continue to ignore May's request
  • Telling May off
  • Suppress their unpleasant feelings to get on with work
  • Sharing unpleasant feelings with other colleagues, but not discussing the situation with May

What would be appropriate strategies for the manager?

Transforming organizations

Working on strategies is a good first step. But generally the emotional work effectively lies on the shoulders of the individual with lower rank in the organization — who lacks control and corresponding privileges to deal with the conflict.

I believe that when conflict occurs in the workplace, it is important to draw further conclusions that would benefit the organization as a whole. In the above example, such conclusions could be:

  • Make regular 1-to-1 discussions between manager and managed compulsory
  • Set up regular feedback processes within the organization
  • Assess the lack of autonomy experienced by May
  • Assess existing decision making processes and why they fail
  • Make it clear who is accountable to whom
  • Establish an organization wide mechanism that allows employees to seek advice, for example by talking to a colleague, within their paid work time
  • Institute a works council
  • Create a better climate for cooperation

These are just some ideas for a fictitious conflict, but you get the idea.
Conflicts effectively are chances for the organization, or the involved parties, to grow in maturity.
More about working with conflict and conflict mapping tools in this great publication.