Commentary: The Issue of Conflict Resolution

Lead Author: Dr. Jeff Howe

Publish date: 02.01.2005


When 1 + 1 = 3!


Conflict is a good thing. Conflict is a source of creativity, motivation, and improvement. Today, there is significant conflict between a wide variety of organizations around the issues and approaches to environmental concerns.


Passion is a good thing, and anger is one manifestation of passion. Anger may not be the ideal approach, but it can provide a clear indication of an individual's priorities. Sometimes it can be beneficial to look at organizations and groups as individuals. This viewpoint may allow for greater insight and better strategy development to address key issues - especially in situations of conflict.


In general, there are five different possible responses to conflict: avoidance, accommodation, compromise, competition, or collaboration. Each of these approaches has value, and each of us applies these approaches at different times. The key is to maximize the time you utilize the right approach at the right time.


Avoidance and accommodation are passive approaches to conflict. Avoidance often arises out of fear, whether it is emotional, psychological, physical, or simply a fear of losing. There are times it makes great sense to avoid an issue; perhaps the situation is too emotional or even physically dangerous to engage in. It may be better to strategically withdraw, retrench, and try again later. But too long a delay can eliminate the opportunity to achieve a positive solution, and incurs other types of stress (emotional, spiritual, physical).


Accommodation is the act of giving in to another's tactic - or yielding. Again, there are times this approach makes sense, as when two competing ideas both appear excellent but are unique enough that a merger doesn't make sense. Accommodation also makes great sense when one approach is clearly better than another. Yet, giving in to a lesser approach is not creative, not motivating, and won't result in the maximum benefit. It is “settling” for what can be agreed upon rather than recognizing the best solution.


Compromise is often thought of as the ultimate solution to conflict and is the basis of much of our economy and training. How often have you said or heard “let's just split the difference”? There are times when this works well. However, there are at least as many times when the result is “milk toast”, the lowest common denominator. How often have you seen people take two great ideas and try to merge them only to result in an action that really doesn't address the needs of either side? (Sounds a bit like our political process, doesn't it?) In general, the greater the importance and complexity of the topic, the less the benefits of a compromise.


Competition and collaboration are active approaches to conflict. The ability to compete in favor of one side of an issue can be critically important, up until the point when the competition is no longer about the issue, but about the ego or just winning. Winning at all costs hinders identification of better solutions, the ability to identify when it is appropriate for accommodation, and generally when any of the attributes of the other approach are the best options. The greatest benefits of competition are full engagement of the individual(s), clarity about the differences, and passion about the issue. As a result, competition is the easiest position to turn into collaboration.


Collaboration is the win-win situation, when the debate between two conflicting approaches results in a third approach, better than either one individually. Literally, one plus one equals three.


Collaboration is the best approach for resolving complex, deep-rooted conflicts like those involved with the environment . The parties sit down, get all the issues on the table, identify the possible solutions, and select the best solutions for each issue rather than for each side. The key is for both parties to have a similar end goal in sight.


Today, industry and environmental organizations are typically in a conflict mode regarding environmental issues. The good news is that both groups are actively and passionately participating. In addition, neither group appears willing to accommodate or yield to the other, nor do “milk toast” solutions or compromises seem likely. Yet, with rare exceptions, neither group has engaged the other. This criticism is not to say that different approaches haven't been tried, and that both sides haven't tried to initiate conversations. But it is still too uncommon for one side to say to the other, “you know, that's a great idea, and to make it even better we would suggest…”


A critical issue is trust. Both sides are fearful, fearful that any association with the other will taint them somehow, or that they'll lose critical pieces of the puzzle in the debate. They both expect to have to compromise and aren't envisioning true collaboration.


A key to collaboration is defining a process that brings both parties to the table with the comfort that their separate concerns will really be considered and that a truly collaborative result is possible.


Maybe what is missing is adequate allotted time to fully build into the discussion all the varying possibilities. Maybe what is needed is more patience early in the process to define needs. Perhaps it is as simple as applying the old adage “ measure twice, cut once.”


In North America most industry people describe themselves as environmentalists; and foresters still become foresters because they love the forest, not because they want to cut all the trees down (then they would have become deforesters!), and environmentalists are still consumers that need and want to buy stuff for themselves and their families.


Perhaps the problem is not that the interests are so different. Perhaps the problem is that they are so brutally similar! If we could agree on a common end goal, maybe the rest would be history.


Dr. Jeff Howe