A former peace monitor in South Africa during Apartheid and now the founder of a niche consultancy called Questions of Difference says conflict is “our greatest natural resource”.
Charles Irvine argues that, if handled properly, conflict resolution can lead to new ideas and innovative solutions and can be used to transform people and businesses.
He cites the example of an organisation where there was a deep disagreement over paper from a supplier that was deemed too expensive. However, the technical people within the organisation insisted it was the only paper suitable for the job.
People from both organisations were invited to a lunch to resolve the issue. It emerged that the paper supplier’s vehicles were delivering to customers all over the country, but their vehicles were returning to base empty.
A solution was found that cut the paper company’s bills dramatically, enabling it to supply paper at a lower cost to its customers.
Honesty and a willingness to listen and learn are crucial to making the best use of a conflict, however. In some situations, an impartial mediator may be the best way to resolve conflict.
How can mediation help?
The advantage of having a mediator is that they have no vested interest in the outcome, beyond resolution, and are better placed to identify innovative ways and opportunities that can be hidden to those involved.
Neither avoidance nor sticking to one’s guns are helpful in resolving a conflict. Too often, particularly when a disagreement has been ongoing for a long time, people end up in entrenched positions and refusing to engage with their opponents. Alternatively, one side can choose to give in without their issues being properly addressed or resolved. Avoidance of the core issue is no solution.
Compromising is another option, but runs the risk of satisfying neither side nor resolving the issue once and for all.
Some mediators advocate keeping the two (or more) sides apart, allowing each to express its views in complete confidence. The mediator will then go back and forth between the parties clarifying, perhaps seeking suggestions and eventually arriving at a solution that is acceptable to all.
Other mediators, having taken initial positions from each party separately, will choose to engage in further discussion with both parties present.
Successful resolution of a conflict means antagonists being willing to engage, being open to looking for new ways of doing things and perhaps collaborating.
In that sense, a conflict can turn out to be a positive stimulus to innovation and creativity, as Charles Irvine suggests.