Conflict - What's the Root Problem?

In this class on "Peak Everything", which begins a whole new EcoTechnology module, we make an an unusual proposal: that a core problem, a key reason we are unable to resolve even our most pressing problems (climate change, peak oil, economic crises, etc.), may be something as mundane & un-questioned as our fear of conflict.

Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree

Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Margaret Heffernan shows us, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren't echo chambers -- and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.


of the above talk

0:11In Oxford in the 1950s, there was a fantastic doctor, who was very unusual, named Alice Stewart. And Alice was unusual partly because, of course, she was a woman, which was pretty rare in the 1950s. And she was brilliant, she was one of the, at the time, the youngest Fellow to be elected to the Royal College of Physicians. She was unusual too because she continued to work after she got married, after she had kids, and even after she got divorced and was a single parent, she continued her medical work.

0:43And she was unusual because she was really interested in a new science, the emerging field of epidemiology, the study of patterns in disease. But like every scientist, she appreciated that to make her mark, what she needed to do was find a hard problem and solve it. The hard problem that Alice chosewas the rising incidence of childhood cancers. Most disease is correlated with poverty, but in the case of childhood cancers, the children who were dying seemed mostly to come from affluent families. So, what, she wanted to know, could explain this anomaly?

1:23Now, Alice had trouble getting funding for her research. In the end, she got just 1,000 pounds from the Lady Tata Memorial prize. And that meant she knew she only had one shot at collecting her data. Now, she had no idea what to look for. This really was a needle in a haystack sort of search, so she asked everything she could think of. Had the children eaten boiled sweets? Had they consumed colored drinks?Did they eat fish and chips? Did they have indoor or outdoor plumbing? What time of life had they started school?

1:54And when her carbon copied questionnaire started to come back, one thing and one thing only jumped out with the statistical clarity of a kind that most scientists can only dream of. By a rate of two to one, the children who had died had had mothers who had been X-rayed when pregnant. Now that finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom held that everything was safe up to a point, a threshold. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which was huge enthusiasm for the cool new technology of that age, which was the X-ray machine. And it flew in the face of doctors' idea of themselves, which was as people who helped patients, they didn't harm them.

2:46Nevertheless, Alice Stewart rushed to publish her preliminary findings in The Lancet in 1956. People got very excited, there was talk of the Nobel Prize, and Alice really was in a big hurry to try to study all the cases of childhood cancer she could find before they disappeared. In fact, she need not have hurried. It was fully 25 years before the British and medical -- British and American medical establishmentsabandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women. The data was out there, it was open, it was freely available, but nobody wanted to know. A child a week was dying, but nothing changed. Openness alone can't drive change.

3:44So for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale,and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn't. So, Alice was very outgoing and sociable, and George was a recluse. Alice was very warm, very empathetic with her patients. George frankly preferred numbers to people. But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, "My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong." He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.

4:55It's a fantastic model of collaboration -- thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking.

5:21So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find peoplewho are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.

5:57And the more I've thought about this, the more I think, really, that that's a kind of love. Because you simply won't commit that kind of energy and time if you don't really care. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds. Alice's daughter told me that every time Alice went head-to-head with a fellow scientist, they made her think and think and think again. "My mother," she said, "My mother didn't enjoy a fight, but she was really good at them."

6:35So it's one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we've experienced, mostly haven't come from individuals,they've come from organizations, some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives. So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don't. And that isn't because they don't want to, it's really because they can't. And they can't because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

7:19In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Afraid of the conflict that that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose. Eighty-five percent is a really big number. It means that organizations mostly can't dowhat George and Alice so triumphantly did. They can't think together. And it means that people like many of us, who have run organizations, and gone out of our way to try to find the very best people we can,mostly fail to get the best out of them.

8:14So how do we develop the skills that we need? Because it does take skill and practice, too. If we aren't going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking, and then we have to get really good at it. So, recently, I worked with an executive named Joe, and Joe worked for a medical device company. And Joe was very worried about the device that he was working on. He thought that it was too complicated and he thought that its complexity created margins of error that could really hurt people. He was afraid of doing damage to the patients he was trying to help. But when he looked around his organization, nobody else seemed to be at all worried. So, he didn't really want to say anything. After all, maybe they knew something he didn't. Maybe he'd look stupid. But he kept worrying about it, and he worried about it so much that he got to the point where he thought the only thing he could do was leave a job he loved.

9:21In the end, Joe and I found a way for him to raise his concerns. And what happened then is what almost always happens in this situation. It turned out everybody had exactly the same questions and doubts. So now Joe had allies. They could think together. And yes, there was a lot of conflict and debate and argument, but that allowed everyone around the table to be creative, to solve the problem, and to change the device.

9:56Joe was what a lot of people might think of as a whistle-blower, except that like almost all whistle-blowers, he wasn't a crank at all, he was passionately devoted to the organization and the higher purposes that that organization served. But he had been so afraid of conflict, until finally he became more afraid of the silence. And when he dared to speak, he discovered much more inside himself and much more give in the system than he had ever imagined. And his colleagues don't think of him as a crank.They think of him as a leader.

10:42So, how do we have these conversations more easily and more often? Well, the University of Delftrequires that its PhD students have to submit five statements that they're prepared to defend. It doesn't really matter what the statements are about, what matters is that the candidates are willing and able to stand up to authority. I think it's a fantastic system, but I think leaving it to PhD candidates is far too few people, and way too late in life. I think we need to be teaching these skills to kids and adults at every stage of their development, if we want to have thinking organizations and a thinking society.

11:29The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we've witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we can't handle, don't want to handle, the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.

12:10Open information is fantastic, open networks are essential. But the truth won't set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it. Openness isn't the end.It's the beginning.


Conflict as part Relationship.

Much has been studied and documented of the skills that are required for stable & growing personal relationships, like long-term successfull couple relationships or friendships. This article is about couple relationships and gives us good aims for strengthening relationships in any group.

As a therapist once told us, you need to have conflict if you and your partner are going to grow as a couple.

The question is — how do you get good at it?

new study from the University of California, Berkeley, sheds a lot of light on what’s important. After a series of experiments, psychologists Amie M. Gordon and Serena Chen found that feeling understood by a partner makes people feel like conflict helps, rather than harms, their relationship.

“Conflict is only negatively associated with relationship satisfaction postconflict when people do not feel their thoughts, feelings, and point of view are understood by their romantic partners,” the authors write.

For one survey study, participants — all of whom were in their 20s or 30s and in relationships of at least six months — were recruited online . They reported on how the frequency of conflict influenced how they felt about the health of their relationship. The more conflict, the worse they thought they were faring — unless they felt understood.

In another study, couples were brought into the lab where they were interviewed in person about a conflict they had in their relationship. Before and after the interviewing, they rated their relationship satisfaction. As with the other study, individuals who felt understood by their partner had a higher rating of satisfaction after the conflict.

Gordon and Chen found that couples who use “affection, humor, or effective problem-solving” are the best at conflict.

The lesson: conflict is not something to be avoided; 

it’s something to learn how to do well.

John Gottman, one of the world’s leading relationship psychologists, told us that there are four components to  getting good at these uncomfortable conversations:

1 • Putting your emotions into words. Your partner’s best attempts at listening aren’t going to be fruitful unless you can articulate what’s happening in your head. It’s about “being able to put your emotions into words that really are what you actually feel,” Gottman says. “Knowing where you feel tense, what relaxed feels like, what truth feels like.” A meditation-like technique called Focusing helps with developing these skills.

2 • Asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow you to explore your partner’s feelings. “They open up the heart and have acceptance at the base of them,”Gottman says. For example, you might ask: So what do you feel about this living room — how would you change it if you had all the money in the world? What do you want your life to be like in three years? How do you like your job?

3 • Making open-ended statements. “These are exploratory statements,” he says, where you encourage your partner to tell you a story. For instance: I want to hear all of your thoughts about quitting your job. I want to hear all of your thoughts about your job.

4 • Empathizing with your partner. Rather than saying you understand, show that you understand. “Empathy is really communicating that you understand your partner’s feelings and they make sense to you,” Gottman says. “It’s really caring about your partner’s welfare, not just your own.”

When you do that, the conflict doesn’t harm the people involved. It helps both of them grow.

Originally published at: Understanding helps relationships last – Tech Insider


Because fear of conflict leads to avoidance of conflict & this naturally leads to us not developing the skills necessary for handling conflict creatively, which means we are un-able to come to agreements across fields, points of view, areas of experience ... which is of course crucial in creating real collective intelligence.

So on a personal & group level, once we are aware of this, we can consciously re-design with this pattern.  We can become more attentive about where we are avoiding  conflict and willingly embrace it when it arises, in order to learn how to navigate it creatively, to create fertile connections, learn more & more quickly & so improve life for all concerned.

So it may well be that the most crucial technology we have yet to develop, is what we call an 'invisible structure': our ability to turn conflict into collective intelligence, instead of what more often happens, collective stupidity or avoidance.