When you are in the middle of a conflict, it can be hard to see a way out. Conflict analysis is a useful tool to understand the different causes of conflict in the workplace and navigate your way towards a resolution.

Conflicts can be caused by various things, and often the thing that sparks the conflict is not the real cause.

The American psychologist M Scott Peck came to realise that most psychological illness is overdetermined – by which he means that there is more than one cause. He found that addressing the apparent cause of the psychological distress that one of his patients was suffering rarely resulted in a “cure”.

The same is often true in conflict. When trying to understand the roots of a conflict we may be experiencing, there may be more than one root cause. If we have tried to resolve the conflict but the conflict still continues, this is probably the case.

In fact there are four basic roots of conflict, and each requires a slightly different solution. They are:

  1. Different Information
  2. Different Interests
  3. Different Personalities
  4. Past Pain

This is the first of a series of blog articles which will look at each of these in turn. Each has its own particular challenges. But in some ways, as you go down the list, each is a little harder than the previous one.

1. Different information.
This is the easiest to deal with. An example would be an agreement where two people have different understandings of what the agreement actually means. It might be something as simple as thinking you are due to meet your partner at 1pm for lunch when she has been waiting since 12.30. Or it might be something more complicated like a legal contract where each side has a different interpretation. In my experience if there is any possibility that something I can say will be misunderstood, it inevitably will be misunderstood. Consider the sentence: ‘She didn’t marry him because he was rich.’ Can you see the two different possible meanings? Or what about this line from Groucho Marx: ‘I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.’ The English language is full of ambiguity.

Another example might be two different sets of assumptions about a situation. One person assumes that they are in a growing market while another assumes that the market is static. One person assumes that a project can be completed in a certain time while another person assumes it will take longer.  As well as assumptions about conditions, we frequently make assumptions about each other’s motives for doing something, which can also lead to conflict. For example, Susan thinks that the reason Paul was asked to work on a particular project instead of her is because Anjali, her boss, has no confidence in her. In fact Anjali’s reason is that she has another more challenging project coming up that needs Susan’s skills.

Either way, when the problems are informational the solution is more communication until both parties are on the same page.

Read next in this series on the causes of conflict in the workplace>>.

These articles have been compiled into a free ebook, with an additional conflict analysis questionaire at the end to help assess the different components of any conflict. If you would like to download a copy, just fill in your name and email address in the form here, and it will be emailed to you. Click here to access the ebook

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow

Conflict analysis – four causes of conflict, part 1. Different information
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