The #1 Cause of Conflict

 In Blog, Effective Dialogue, Living Organizations, Satisfying Relationships

(Time to read: 4 minutes)

It surprised me when I discovered it.

I thought it would be that someone had been mean or inconsiderate to someone else (or at least had been seen that way).

I thought it would be fairness – or rather the lack of it.

But I have seen people be very understanding of “mean” or “inconsiderate” behaviour. I have seen them agree to an arrangement that is not “fair” on the face of it – and actually be happy to do that.

So what makes the difference? And what can we do about it?

The #1 Cause of Conflict

… is someone not feeling included in decisions that affect them.

A parent not feeling included in their partner’s decision to work late and so not provide the child care they had agreed to provide.

An employee not feeling included in the decision to transfer work to them when a colleague isn’t keeping up.

Why Don’t We Include Others in Decision-Making?

It seems pretty obvious how to avoid this problem – include other people in decisions that affect them.

Now, I’m guessing this isn’t a new idea to you – that you actually do include other people in many of the decisions that affect them.

So why don’t we do this all the time?

In my work, I see four main factors:

  1. It seems like just a little thing.
  2. It will take too long.
  3. It doesn’t seem like a “decision” – it’s just something you have to do.
  4. It might not work, and it might make things worse.

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

1) “It’s Just a Little Thing”

I have learned that there can be a big difference between the significance of

  1. The content of the decision (e.g., whether the orange juice gets put on the left-hand side or right-hand side of the fridge)
  2. The meaning of the decision to the people involved (e.g., integrity – whether you honour your agreements to me or not).

Any decision, no matter how small the content / topic seems to me, can have enormous meaning to the other person.

And it is the meaning of the decision, not its content, that determines how “big” it is.

2) “It Will Take Too Long”

Oh, if only I had a dollar for every time I thought this and then later kicked myself when the ten minutes I saved resulted in days, weeks, or months of unpleasant consequences!

In my experience, inclusive decisions only take too long if:

  • We don’t know how to make them smoothly and easily, and/or
  • We are in “recovery mode”. We’ve made a bunch of decisions affecting other people in which they weren’t included – and when we now start to include them, we may have to pay the overdue price of hearing what they didn’t enjoy about the past.

The good news is that we don’t stay in recovery mode forever, and, using the steps I teach, the process can immediately be much smoother and easier (even during “recovery”) and it continues to get smoother and easier over time.

3) “It’s Not a Decision – I Have To Do It!”

This thinking and feeling may apply to working late, spending time supporting family or friends, or getting up early on Saturday morning to volunteer.

When I investigate further, I’ve discovered that there is a fundamental fallacy here – that I only have two choices:

  • To do “it” (e.g., work late, support a friend, …)
  • Or not to do “it”.

I’m so happy to have learned that there are always more than two options.

I also love that I get to teach a simple, step-by-step process to uncover a rainbow of options in any situation – and watch people’s faces light up with amazement and delight when they see a way to meet all their needs in a situation in which it initially seemed impossible.

4) “It Might Make Things Worse”

We worry that we might not be able to find a solution that works for everyone, and it might even make things worse – for example, if we say that we want to come up with a mutually satisfying solution but then we can’t find one in an acceptable time frame, so we make a unilateral decision anyway.

There are 3 things I’ve learned that make me less worried about this than I used to be.

  1. In my experience, just expressing a genuine desire to search for a strategy that works for others generally makes things better – in the sense of creating a sense of greater connection and care in the situation. And this in turn can release everyone’s creativity, increasing the changes of finding a solution that works for us all.
    (I teach a process I call “targeted brainstorming” or “Waterfall Decision-Making” that provides a systematic, step-by-step approach to the search for such solutions.)
  2. It’s never done until I decide it’s done.
    A conversation or search for fully satisfying strategies is never over until I choose not to continue it.
    We may pause for now. We may even run out of time and have to go ahead with a less-than-ideal solution. But we can keep talking after the fact, to figure out what we could have done and could do in similar situations in future.
    In my experience, just having figured this out brings a sense of peace and healing that allows us to go forward without any leftover “baggage” from the situation, and more powerfully connected and prepared for the future.
  3. I can express informed regret if I choose to go ahead anyway
    If we’ve talked about what is important to both/all of us in the situation, and I choose to go ahead with a strategy that is not fully satisfying for the other person, I can express genuine regret and care for the person and what is important to them, mourning my own limitations.
    I have been amazed and moved by how compassionate and understanding other people have been when I demonstrate that I care about what’s important to them in this way.

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