Creative Conflict: Generating Innovative Ideas
By Jagoda Perich-Anderson, 2001
Conflict is a life force filled with creative tension and energy. We can learn to use it to increase the health and learning potential of any pair or group of people and to open the door to new possibilities.
Most of us feel about conflict the same way we do about sharks-it’s best to avoid them at all costs. In fact, a participant in one of my workshops on conflict management once told me, “When there’s conflict in a staff meeting at work, I feel like I’m swimming in a tank with sharks.” The fear and unease brought on by conflict is understandable, after all just as some sharks have been known to attack humans, some conflicts have been known to hurt people. However, the attitude that conflict is often harmful is only a part of the story. This partial and limiting belief sets us up to miss powerful opportunities to take advantage of the creative forces of conflict. To reap the fullest benefits from conflict, we have to change how we think about it.
Just as sharks help to maintain life balance and health in their marine ecosystems, conflict helps to maintain a creative tension in human systems. It invites us to explore new possibilities, combine or rearrange ideas to arrive at wholly surprising solutions or to gain important insights into ourselves and about those with whom we interact.
Insights, inventions and innovations hardly ever come about when we are feeling satisfied and comfortable with the status quo. They come from the energy created when there is a push, a need or a desire for something to be different-a tension between what is and what could be. Sometimes the push comes from outside pressures: our boss wants us to change a procedure, colleagues criticize our work or a chronic and complex work issue haunts us, seeking resolution. It may be inspired by larger social and economic visions such as improved race relations or mutually beneficial global trade agreements. It may be that conditions have evolved to create new opportunities such as the advent of the World-Wide Web. Wherever the impetus for change comes from, we feel it as a compelling call to action-we feel energy being unleashed that we didn’t know we had.
For many of the desired changes we quickly recognize that we can’t do it alone. We will need to seek and incorporate multiple perspectives in order to have meaningful dialogue and broaden the array of ideas. We will also increase our chance of long-lasting success if we include stakeholders who don’t see things our way. Therefore, it behooves us to actively invite divergent ideas, opinions or experiences into the conversation. To make the most of this diversity, we need to learn to become more comfortable and skillful with conflict. We need to learn how to have creative conflict–the kind where people come together and have spirited and lively discussions and brainstorm sessions. There is argument and disagreement, but it feels alive and exciting, like something important is happening, like something new might be born.
Creative conflict is recognizable for its spirit of curiosity and mutual respect and its commitment to learning and finding the best solution or direction to take. When conflict is creative, interactions are characterized by questions and by a lot of listening to try to get to know and understand the other points of view, without necessarily having to agree with those views. Personal stakes, ego needs and preferred positions are temporarily suspended so that people can listen deeply to try and hear the legitimate truths or core essence of other perspectives and incorporate these into a larger reframing of the needs being addressed. It is true that some people are easier to deal with than others. Therefore, an important set of skills to learn is how to recognize and include legitimate interests even when someone’s manner makes it difficult to accept them.
Let’s take a polarized social issue like sex education in public schools as an example. One side of the pole doesn’t believe sex education should be taught in schools at all-that sex ed is the prerogative and responsibility of parents. The other side not only wants it taught in schools, they want it to begin earlier and include more than just the biology of sex. Policy makers using the creative conflict model would take into account the essence of each position. At a minimum, any decision they ultimately make would have to incorporate the importance of respecting family rights and values as well as the legitimate public interest concerning sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. And they would need to consider the childrens’ social contexts and real-life pressures, especially those outside the direct control of parents and educators.
Working from this larger frame already places policy makers beyond the parent versus school argument. Therefore, the door is opened to discovering creative solutions that could not have been part of the discussions previously. Now the will and energy is available to explore, to experiment and to use a variety of techniques for developing new approaches. There is a sense that this is bigger than any one of us and if we make progress on this, we really will have contributed in a significant way. Substantial side benefits include that people will often feel closer to one another afterwards, previously contentious relationships may improve, and people will want to have this kind of experience again.
None of this is meant to suggest that there aren’t potential dangers when engaging with differences. It is saying that we can learn to anticipate those dangers, take appropriate precautions and learn the skills and attitudes needed to channel the creative energy of conflict so it works for rather than against us. Knowledgeable and skilled divers can and do swim with sharks without getting hurt. We can too.