Understanding and Managing Conflict

The recent story of aggression between "hockey dads" should help us understand the need to have good conflict resolution skills. At a pickup hockey game in Reading, Massachusetts, two hockey fathers, Thomas Junta and Michael Costin, were arguing about the level of body checking going on between the players. When the confrontation escalated into physical violence, Mr. Costin was assaulted by Mr. Junta, and died from injuries sustained in the fight two days later. Junta was arrested and charged with manslaughter, and is pleading self-defense.

While many news stories have focused on what is wrong with youth sports, the issue of resolving conflict effectively has been very lightly treated. In all of the hand-wringing over violence in sports, and particularly among parents of young athletes, who has heard calls for greater skills in managing conflict? Can good conflict resolution skills be applied at home, in the workplace, and in the arena?

Defining Conflict

It has been said that the chinese symbol for conflict is a combination of the symbols for "opportunity" and "danger." This suggests that, at least in the chinese culture, conflict includes the opportunity for resolution, and carries significant consequences if it is not resolved. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines conflict as the "competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)." As conflict increases, it usually results in an increased desire by the parties to "win," an increased desire to save face, and a heightened concern for vengeful actions.

The Levels of Conflict

Conflict generally falls into one of three levels. Each level is unique and brings its own set of challenges and possible strategies for managing the conflict that exists in that level. The levels are:

Level 1. Can't We Just Get Along? At this level of conflict, the parties involved are able to discuss issues and share opinions without threats of reprisal. Coping strategies for this lowest area of conflict tend to involve one or the other party either giving in or avoiding conflicts. In this case, the "live and let live" approach usually works best. At this level, the most important goals are harmonious ones--fitting in and belonging by both parties.

Level 2: I Intend to Win. At this stage, the attitude of competition takes over; trust levels decline and a "win-lose" mentality becomes paramount. The self-interest of each party takes precedence. Resolving Level 2 conflicts can be very challenging and frequently require the intervention of a third party. The third-party role is one of opening discussion on the issues and seeking middle ground. This intervention takes the form, most typically of mediation. Mediation is a dispute resolution process that uses an independent person called a mediator who assists disputing parties reach a mutually agreeable settlement. The work of a mediator is generally not binding, but relies on the goodwill of the affected parties.

Level 3: I Will Make You Hurt. At this stage of conflict, the focus shifts from winning to "annihilating" the other party. Both parties tend to lose their perspective of the issues and hand and move to a win-at-all-costs approach. The strategy for resolving this level of conflict requires meaningful third party mediation or arbitration. Normally, the ability to the parties to reach agreement has been exhausted without litigation or binding arbitration. Arbitration is a process by which an independent person called an arbitrator is appointed to decide a dispute after hearing from the people in dispute. The decision of the arbitrator is final and the results can be filed in court and enforced like a court decision

Finding Third Party Intervenors

Identifying the right third-party intervenor, whether an attorney, a mediator or an arbitrator, is the most critical part in predicting the success of a conflict resolution process. Suggestions for finding just the right intervenor include:

1. Ask Around. With the growth in the alternative dispute resolution profession, many professionals will have experienced it at one time or another. Work your network to get references.

2. Check with the Bar Association. Your local bar association may be able to recommend attorneys or non-attorney intervenors with experience in your specific dispute.

3. Look On-Line. Some excellent resources include the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, the National Association for Community Mediation, and Mediate.com.

By understanding the basics of conflict resolution, and by implementing the strategies appropriate to the situation, a person in conflict can find ways to successfully resolve the conflict and take the "danger" out of the Chinese character, leaving an "opportunity" for growth and learning.