Conflict Transformation: Getting to the Bottom of Issues on Your Team to Make Long-Lasting Changes

Conflict transformation is a relatively new way of looking at conflicts that seeks to create sustainable ways of mitigating the conflict, as well as new structures that deal with underlying causes.

When it comes to conflicts on teams, many turn to the most recognized frameworks for dealing with conflict: conflict resolution and conflict management. Indeed, there’s a wealth of information about both of these concepts. And as we explained in earlier posts, conflict resolution and conflict management are useful for coming up with solutions to acute conflicts and using those conflicts for productive purposes, respectively.

But what if these two frameworks leave out important underlying issues that may not be dealt with? And what if, long-term, these frameworks miss out on making significant structural changes that may prevent future conflicts from occurring?

That is the central argument of a third, and relatively newer framework for dealing with conflicts: conflict transformation. 

So in this blog post, we’ll explain what conflict transformation is. And because conflict transformation is still a relatively new concept that hasn’t been applied to teams quite as much, we’ll try to distill some concrete lessons for how teams can use this approach to conflict.

What is conflict transformation?

It’s important to note from the start that conflict transformation, much like conflict resolution emerged from the field of international relations and conflict studies. This means that it drew from real conflicts between ethnic groups, specifically in Somalia. While it is still mostly used in this context it has a lot of applications for teams that want to solve their underlying issues and formulate new structures for dealing with problems. 

Developed in large part by John Paul Lederach in the early 2000s, conflict transformation seeks to put conflict in context rather than dealing with the conflict in a void. In fact, conflict transformation was formulated to deal with many of the inadequacies of conflict resolution, which lacks the wider viewpoint of conflict resolution. 

While conflict resolution might be good at dealing with individual points or events of conflict, it wasn’t taking care of deeper issues that were leading to that conflict. Furthermore, focusing on trying to come up with agreements and resolutions to conflicts might mask those deeper issues and prevent a more holistic or truly change-inducing approach from taking shape.

The theory behind conflict transformation

Understanding how conflict transformation works requires understanding some of the central ideas that underpin it. How these ideas connect together, though, is really fascinating and has a lot of lessons for how teams can enact real change.

The viewpoint of conflict transformation

Conflict transformation is as much a way of thinking about conflict as it is an actual process for dealing with it. The main elements of the conflict resolution viewpoint are twofold:

1. A positive orientation towards conflict

This means viewing conflict as a natural part of the ebb and flow of human relationships. Similar to conflict management, it also means viewing conflicts as opportunities for learning and growth. In conflict transformation, conflict is not bad. It often points out symptoms of deeper issues that need to be worked out, which is one of the goals of this approach.

2. A willingness to engage in the conflict in order to effect productive change

In order for conflict transformation as an approach to work, all sides in the conflict need to be willing to acknowledge it, engage with it, and work to find lasting and transformational changes. In conflict transformation, there are no quick solutions, so on teams every member needs to be ready and willing to really work together on the issue(s) at hand.

Understanding what is affected by conflict and what you want to change

Another major aspect of conflict transformation is understanding what and who is affected by conflict. This is a way of understanding how deep the conflict is and what its surrounding context is like, as well as becoming more conscious of what you actually want to change when dealing with the conflict, and how. In other words, you want to know what you want to change in order to be able to change it.

Conflict transformation sees conflict as affecting four different (but interrelated) layers:

  • The personal–How each individual is affected by conflict. How they feel, think, and react to the conflict, and what their personal experiences are. For example, if two team members get into a fight, how they each feel about the conflict might be different and affect them in different ways. There might also be personal reasons for getting into the fight–a bad day, a lack of sleep, etc.
  • The relational–How relationships are affected by conflict. In the fight above, perhaps other team members begin to worry about the two members who are fighting, or treat them differently. Or maybe other team members start to take sides based on their relationships with the two individual team members. 
  • The structural–This has to do with institutions and social structures that are involved in and affected by conflict. Maybe there are structural reasons for the fight, such as a lack of good leadership or mental health outlets. The conflict could also lead to structural changes such as more oversight or more time off to relieve stress.
  • The cultural–This layer deals with group behavior and how the group as whole acts and reacts to conflict. Cultural causes of conflict including a team culture that incentivizes aggressive competition or bullying, or overwork. Ways to address cultural causes of conflict take more time, but include things like training, team building and creating stronger foundations of trust and empathy.   

The three components of conflict transformation

Knowing these layers of the conflict and how they interact, conflict transformation then seeks to map conflict based on three component parts:

1. The presenting situation

This is the event that either sets off the conflict, or allows other team members to become aware that a conflict is taking place. Continuing with our example from above, this is the fight itself. This fight could just be a one-off event, or it could be indicating more serious issues. But it serves as the warning sign, and an opportunity to look towards finding lasting changes on the team. When looking at the presenting situation, it is important to both find a short-term solution to the conflict episode itself, as well as try to think of longer-term changes as well.

2. The vision of the future

This is where the team hopes to get to, and what they hope to become. It is how the team envisions themselves in the future, including their goals and aspirations. Having this vision in mind allows teams to be more forward-thinking when approaching conflict. Instead of just trying to quickly resolve the issue, maintaining a vision of the future gets teams to propose more sustainable solutions that are in keeping with this vision and its values. 

3. The change process

This is how the team wants to bridge the presenting solution and its vision of the future. In other words, how will it get from point A, which is a team in conflict to point B, where that conflict is dealt with and lasting changes are made. Focusing on the actual processes of change will keep teams grounded in real solutions that are workable, and keep the team moving forward.  

A key to understanding this configuration is knowing that the process is never completely “over”. As teams continue to grow and push towards their visions, different conflicts may emerge. This might even require teams to review their visions or their change processes. In this way, the process is both cyclical and linear. As teams continually deal with conflicts, they can also push themselves forward and expand their visions for their futures to encompass these new conflicts. As a result, they will continually transform and grow.

Conflict transformation practices for teams

All this might sound a bit abstract and theoretical, so now let’s try to distill some practical lessons that teams can take away from this approach, and use to make longer-lasting changes in response to conflicts that will keep them from repeating themselves over and over again.

1. Take responsibility for your team

Responsibility is the key to all of the ways of dealing with conflicts that we have talked about, and conflict transformation is no exception. But here it’s not just taking responsibility for our individual actions, but also taking responsibility for the wider team. Doing this allows for an environment where all team members are active in shaping the future of the team, and in dealing with any conflicts and issues that take place. It also solidifies a team-wide perspective when effecting change.

2. Center your team around relationships

Relationships are at the center of conflict transformation, which is all about building better relationships between people as a means of creating sustainable change and preventing conflicts. The same is equally true for teams. Relationships are what matters most on teams, and acknowledging and honoring that will allow your team to deal with conflicts effectively and build a strong vision for the future together.

3. Create safe environments

In order for relationships to flourish and to be able to deal with conflicts in a lasting way, there needs to be a safe environment on the team. This means creating an environment that is founded on trust, and in which team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings and opinions. This isn’t only beneficial for team productivity. It’s also essential for when conflicts arise, so that teams can get to the bottom of the conflict and address the underlying issues without creating more problems.

4. Communicate openly and honestly

Building off of this, a specific component of safe team environments that is essential is open and honest communication. This means being vulnerable with each other, and also being open to criticism. You might think that this will just create more conflicts, but the opposite is actually true. Teams that hold back or are afraid to say the wrong thing are more likely to take this pent up frustration out in other ways. Sustainable changes that deal with conflict are always based around 100% open communication.

5. Be comfortable with nuance and ambiguity

One important aspect of conflict transformation that we didn’t get to earlier is its openness to ambiguity and “gray zones”. In conflicts especially, sometimes there is no right side or right answer. Conflicts are often complicated and messy. Understanding and accepting this is part of the process of achieving long-term changes rather than quick and easy solutions that paper over problems. 

Nuance and ambiguity can be a little scary though. One lesson that might be useful in changing this is to think of solutions to conflicts not as “either/or” but rather as “both/and”. This means not thinking of conflicts as  having winners and losers. Instead, think of how to make everyone a winner at the end. This approach thus requires addressing nuances, but it does so in a positive way.    

6. Envision your future together

A major step of the conflict transformation framework is having a vision of the future in mind when solving conflicts on your team. But in order to do this, you first need to have a vision of your team. Preferably, it should be a vision that your entire team works together to create. Doing this will make your relationship bonds stronger, and also create more buy-in for team members. It will also create a shared vision that will be easier to draw on and communicate about when dealing with conflicts.  

7. Get everyone involved

As we mentioned, conflict transformation was developed by studying ehtnic and internal conflicts in countries. Part of the focus there was on creating lasting changes on the grassroots level. Instead of resolutions passed down from the top, the theorists behind conflict transformation realized that real lasting changes could occur only when everyone was involved in the process.

The same is true for teams, too. Oftentimes conflicts are dealt with by management, or with memos from superiors. But lasting changes really only happen when the whole team is involved together. Getting everyone involved will make team members feel more trusted and part of the process of designing the team’s future.

8. Hold short-term long-term changes in mind 

Finally, it’s important that teams be aware of both the short-term and long-term goals of the team. As conflict transformation points out, conflicts have short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is to end the conflict episode, especially if it’s disruptive or violent. But the long-term goal is to address the underlying issues. Again, there is no quick fix for conflicts, and holding both of these time frames in mind is crucial.

But this also applies to other aspects of the team as well. Teams should always be looking to the future and not just keep themselves buried in short-term work. On the other hand, teams also need to be present and aware of what’s going on around them. There’s always a push-and-pull between the present and the future, and teams that can balance them well will be able to continually grow and improve while retaining their effectiveness.

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