Genuine Conflict vs. Pseudo Conflict

W.D. "Dub" Rogers, PhD.

In any relationship, whether it is social, familial or in the workplace, conflict is inevitable. If we deal with conflict well, it can work for us. On the flip side of the coin, if we don't address it well, it can be very costly.

The book of Proverbs is filled with admonitions on communication. Proverbs 11:9; 12:13; 15:4; 18:21; 25:11 demonstrate the power of words. They can heal or destroy. Christ admonished us to "speak the truth in love." We can err on either side. We can beat someone to death with the truth. Or we can fail to communicate what needs to be said in the name of ?love? or to spare hurt feelings.

The purpose of this article is two fold. First, to give some communication principles that will help resolve genuine conflict. Secondly, to help you identify and avoid ?pseudo? conflict or people who are verbally abusive.

Genuine Conflict

With genuine conflict the goal is to resolve the issue. Too often people lose sight of this goal and fall into one of two "ditches." One ditch is when a person becomes aggressive and moves into power. Blaming, shaming, name calling, increased volume are behaviors used. The conflict becomes an ego conflict with one person ?winning? and the other "losing." The issue is not identified or resolved. In reality, both people lose because the relationship is damaged. The person who moves into aggressive behavior is often referred to as an "ulcer giver." The other side of the ditch is passivity. A person will just agree and go on. The downside to passivity is the issue is still not addressed. This can cost the company financially and it will sure cost the person emotionally unless the issue is really insignificant. Passivity may result in a person becoming bitter, distrustful and withdrawn. The person who moves into passivity may be referred to as an ?ulcer getter.?

Rather than moving in to aggression or passivity, one may use descriptive behavior in dealing with genuine conflict. Descriptive behavior focuses on just that - behavior. The issue is addressed, rather than attacking the personhood by blaming, shaming, labeling or just raising the volume. This saves much time and energy. This involves using several principles. First, when your emotions react, treat this as a neon sign that flashes "Move with Caution." Do not "knee jerk" into aggression or withdraw in to passivity.

Second, choose to assume the best of the other person. They may not be speaking in the most effective or truthful way, but assume that they are not being intentionally malicious.

Third, practice active listening. That is, assume that there is something you don't understand or that you need more information. Get more information by paraphrasing what you understand the other person to be saying and asking them to correct any misunderstanding. You might say, "Let me be sure I understand you, you're saying ..."

Pseudo conflict

Some people seem to thrive on conflict. If peace broke out they wouldn't know what to do. The difficulty is they "hook" others in to conflict and both time and energy are wasted. There are several communication patterns that are typical of this type of conflict. Suzette Elgin identifies these patterns in her book, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, as Verbal Attack Patterns (VAPs). VAPs do not address issues or describe behavior. They are designed intentionally or unintentionally to pull you into a conflict. There is no way for you to "win," because you have lost by the mere fact that you are pulled into the conflict.

VAPs can be recognized and should be avoided. They are recognized more by the tone of voice or the "tune" of the statement. This tune is easy to recognize if you hear it. I will use capital letters in the following statements to emphasize the words that would carry nonverbal or implied meaning if the statement were being made by someone trying to pull you into "pseudo" conflict. For example, "Even a WOMAN could do THAT job," or "If you REALLY cared about the project, YOU'D quit coming in LATE everyday."

The reason VAPs work is that they offer a "bait" that causes you to react emotionally and try to defend yourself. Notice the following nonproductive exchange:
Joe:"YOU?RE not the ONLY accountant in TOWN."
Sam:"Just WHAT do you mean by THAT."
This response opens the door for Joe to attack. The conflict goes nowhere.

When these situations arise there are two main rules to follow. First do not take the bait. Second, respond to the presupposition. The presupposition is anything the speaker knows is part of the meaning of the statement even though it doesn't appear on the surface. The presuppositions in the statement, "Even a WOMAN could do THAT job" are that the job being talked about does not amount to much and that women aren't capable.

In the VAP, "If you REALLY cared about this project, YOU'D quit coming in LATE everyday," the presupposition is that you don't really care. The presupposition of the VAP, "YOU'RE not the ONLY accountant in TOWN," is that the person is an inferior accountant.

Lets look at responses to these presuppositions that will keep you out of unprofitable verbal exchanges. A reply to "Even a WOMAN could do THAT job," needs to be in a level tone of voice, "The idea that women are somehow inferior seems to be common, but I'm sure that is not your belief."

The response for the next VAP might be:
John:"If you REALLY cared about the project, YOU'D quit coming in LATE everyday."
Pete:"When did you begin to think that I didn't care?"
In the third VAP, the bait is to hook me into defending myself. Avoid the bait and just agree with the statement:
Joe:"YOU'RE not the ONLY accountant in TOWN.?
Sam:"Absolutely not, there are many good accountants in Oklahoma City."
In this VAP, again a good response is to agree.
Tom:"SOME managers would FIRE an employee who couldn't meet his SALES quota."
Fred: "I'm sure that is true."

Notice in the above responses, the bait is ignored, no matter how outrageous and the response is directed to the presupposition. This will help communicate that I will not get hooked in to the pseudo conflict game and it tends to end there. If you enjoy the conflict, respond to the bait. This may give you an adrenaline rush, but it is not very healthy.

In summary, for addressing genuine conflict, assume the best, use active listening technique and focus on describing behavior rather than attacking the person. This gives the best possibility for conflict resolution. For pseudo conflict, stay out of the hostility loop by identifying the "tune" of the VAP, avoid the bait and address the presupposition. This will save time