I often begin my classes on negotiation and dispute resolution by showing a picture of a graveyard and saying, “This is the only place where there’s no conflict.”
Conflict is a part of life. The question is not, “Will I experience conflict?” but rather, “How will I manage conflict?”
This semester I decided to end my class on an equally dramatic note. Fleshing out an analogy and some examples from the great social psychologist Morton Deutsch, I told my students that one insight I want them to take away from the class is this: conflict is like sex. After lots of giggles, we explored some of the ways that conflict and sex are alike. Here are the results:
1. Conflict is relational.
While both sex and conflict can be experienced alone—Woody Allen once quipped, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone you love.”—they don’t properly happen unless (at least) two interdependent parties are involved.
2. Multiple Parties Complicate It.
As more parties join a conflict it becomes messier: you have to account for more perspectives, needs and interests.
3. Healthy relationships require it.
Research on relationship resiliency shows that healthy couples are not without conflict, but rather know how to manage it.
4. It’s in your head.
While both sex and conflict have an objective quality to them, a good deal of both activities resides in our heads. The stories we tell transform—for good or ill—the relationships we embody.
5. It often produces anxiety.
Anxiety in conflict often leads to avoidance or an extreme tendency to seek out conflict to prove one’s worth. Anxiety in conflict can also lead to premature resolution (a tendency to solve conflicts too early) or resolution dysfunction (an inability to solve conflicts at all).
6. There’s an overemphasis on positions.
In conflict, we tend to get stuck with our default positions. One of the key lessons in both negotiation and conflict resolution is to go deeper and explore the reasoning behind a person’s position. Looking at people’s interests and needs allows us to come up with multiple options for a given problem.
7. Reading about it is not the same as doing it.
No matter how many books and articles you analyzed or how many in-class simulations you experience, your efforts will be for naught if you do not put your knowledge into practice.
8. Religion complicates it.
Anytime someone declares, “But God says…” in the bedroom, boardroom or war room, you can be certain it’s bad news. Sacred identities and dogmas make compromise extremely difficult. More so if the parties feel threatened.
9. It requires a balanced concern for self and other.
When we approach conflict (and sex) only with concern for ourselves, we make terrible partners. At best, we’ll reach our goals in the short term. But no one will want a long-term relationship with us. On the other hand, if we only have concern for the other, we fail to get our own needs met. Thus, in order to meet our needs and maintain a good relationship, a balance between self and other is required.
10. The best practitioners are flexible in their style.
In conflict, people often develop chronic orientations—approaches to conflict that resist change over time. Some people habitually collaborate, compromise, compete, yield or withdraw. The best practitioners, though, fit the situation and the person they are engaged with.
Conflict and sex are, of course, as interesting in their differences. For example, being even-tempered is not a virtue in sex, while emotional regulation is essential for conflict resolution. Power asymmetries can make resolving some conflicts seemingly impossible, whereas getting dominated by a more powerful and aggressive party can be a turn-on. Conflict is more pervasive within families as without, whereas sex (hopefully) goes in the opposite direction.
And finally, bad sex can lead to bad conflict, whereas passionate conflict can lead to passionate sex.
Author: Roi Ben-Yehuda
Editor: Alli Sarazen