The single largest source of waste in all of humanity is conflict. Yet conflict is essential for change. The grand challenge of humanity is having appropriate context for conflict and mechanisms for efficient resolution. So why is it that in all of engineering education we never provide formal training on conflict communication and resolution?

In 5th through 8th grades I was selected by my teachers to participate in an experimental peer-conflict mediation program that had just started in my school district. The premise was simple — teach students how to resolve conflicts among their peers and you’ll have less conflict and less need for administrative oversight. But the program went beyond that — trained student ‘mediators’ would facilitate conflict mediation sessions in a structured environment sometimes in the playground or in controlled rooms, even after fists led to blows. In short, this program may have had the biggest influence on me of any in my lifetime — formal education on listening, labeling emotions, and techniques for minimizing psychosocial behavior issues at a point in life where it could still be wired into my core values.

Conflict is a big and persistent challenge. Way more than one blog post. So we’ll work efficiently through: 1) why conflict happens, 2) how we wage conflict, 3) techniques for conflict resolution, and 4) approaches for avoiding conflict altogether.

Why conflict is inevitable

The universe is constantly changing. As soon as we develop a set of values for one milieu we must adapt for another. Statistics necessitate a full spectrum of values that can result in success, hence many are successful in different ways, which reinforces a person’s belief in the efficacy of their values. Eventually, two or more people are presented with a need for change where they are totally confident that their values will lead to success however those values are not necessarily compatible. Conflict ensues…. sigh…

How you wage conflict says a lot about you

Conflict occurs in potentially an infinite number of ways. I’m going to use a compression algorithm known as Spiral value-Memes to label a handful of key types of conflict you are likely to encounter:

  1. At the survival level conflicts often result in threats of violence on another’s life to try to drive change.
  2. At the tribal level conflict often occurs as harassment to drive change via cliques, gang violence, terrorism (mail bombers), physical abuse, etc. In engineering this type of conflict happens through social media where rational arguments are exceedingly challenging to work through.
  3. At the authoritarian level conflict starts to become classic mass warfare to drive change via extermination, this is what Oppenheimer hoped the bomb would end, and did for the most part. Or you just fire or cut someone loose. In engineering you have the boss make a unilateral decision to cut a program or division because a decision needs to be made and you don’t have the time to generate the data or evidence to inform the decision.
  4. At the legalistic level you see the formation of governing bodies to promote change that are supposed to manage conflict as peace keeping skirmishes, like the UN, but with rules everyone is supposed to follow. Don’t like someone? Create a new rule and/or vote them out. In engineering we apply the Engineers Code of Conduct and can have engineers officially sanctioned for actions that violate the code.
  5. At the performance level you see how expensive and inefficient real conflict is and start to drive change via trade and economic warfare instead. Don’t like someone? Create a competitor and an uneven playing field. In engineering we hold key information and networks confidential to promote our own personal gain, even though it would be better for humanity if everyone knew. Rational arguments based on data and evidence will abound with the goal to establish the most logical and efficient point for moving forward.
  6. At the communitarian level you start to see how really crazily unnecessary and harmful to the planet all of this conflict really is. You seek grass roots change efforts via rational information exchange, you work slowly, and you just pass by and exclude those who can’t understand this and are conflict prone. In engineering we form communities of practice that develop standards and guiding principles that sustain technological progress.
  7. At the systemic level you realize the complexity of the system and how many levels must change at once. You drive change via all of the above, timing the conflicts and pressures in such subtle ways that those you are in conflict with are not even aware. Engineering mostly functions on levels 4, 5, and 6, but we typically have to work with professionals from other disciplines that complete the system.

Change and conflict are rules of the universe. Thankfully in engineering we’re often busy enough doing real work for real people, with enough of the above levels engaged, that we tend not to see the incredibly dramatic and tribal arguments of some disciplines — we just need to get stuff done. But just so everyone is aware — somewhere someone is manipulating you to change. How they’re doing it says a lot about them, and how you should respond says a lot about you.

How to manage conflict

Looking back on the conflict mediation program from my middle school I only remember fragments of the process, but those I remember are all about empathy:

  1. Start by agreeing to come to a solution and respecting the confidentiality of the discussion.
  2. Have each party tell their view of the story. Stick to the evidence of the situation and how it made them feel. Help them label the emotions. Don’t allow projection — saying someone else did something, or the words “you did”. All you can know is what your senses observed and not someone’s intent.
  3. Paraphrase the story you heard, labeling emotions, and working to find commonalities between the stories and parties. (Party 1) it seems like you are (insert emotion), (Party 2) are you also (insert emotion). Also try to identify miss-communications, un-known information, and opportunities.
  4. Empower the parties to develop a set of action items, plan, and solution to the conflict.
  5. Record and repeat to ensure understanding. Have the parties shake or hug to close.

Many of these same techniques are applied by former FBI International Crises Negotiator Chris Voss in his recent book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating like your Life Depends on it”. You can see the empathy scaffolding layers of 1. mirroring, 2. emotional, 3. rational, 4. cognitive. The conclusion: we’re less likely to conflict when we’re empathic to each other’s values and needs.

Over the years I saw a number of interesting behaviors in these meetings related directly to empathy disorders. Stonewalling — refusing to make eye contact or converse with another to shut down mirroring empathy. Emotional harassment — name calling and verbal abuse to disrupt emotions. Sociopathy — trying to rationally disrupt the relationships of others. Gaslighting — intentional manipulation of someone else’s recounting of events to deceive or get them to question their cognitive sanity. Here’s an article reviewing 7 stages of gaslighting. On rare occasion I had to bring in one of the professional advisers in to help. Sometimes you draw a high conflict, or conflict prone person with lots of experience ‘in the ring’. Best to be Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm (BIFF) in those situations.

How to avoid conflict

Due diligence and communication. Plan ahead and research, just like preparing for a meeting, presentation, or any other communication exchange. What are the values of the opposition — i.e. what is relevant? What does the other side see as credible collateral or capital? How can you most efficiently establish a mutual understanding and resolution?

It really is amazing how often the conflicts from my youth came down to simple miss-communications.

Me: “Why are you both here?”

Con1: “I needed X but (Con2) wouldn’t let me. So I _____.”

Con2: “I didn’t know you needed X. I thought you were trying to ____. You should’ve said something!”

You’d think we’d have this conflict thing figured out by now.