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  • Tyler Olson

Understanding Why: Interests, Needs, Values, and Identity in Conflict

“A conflict begins and ends in the hearts and minds of people, not the hilltops.” - Amos Oz

Conflict in our lives is inevitable and pervasive. And it begins within each of us, as individuals. Yet, most of tend to live in a state of denial about how much conflict permeates and influences our lives.
I am a firm believer that conflict can be a catalyst for positive change in our world, and more importantly, our individual and community lives. I have seen how people with vastly different, conflicting perspectives, can come together, listen to and learn from one another, and grow in their ability to collaborate, work together, and see and understand each other’s perspectives. Even when—especially when—they have different interests, identities, and world views.

Most of us, especially in the “Western” world, tend almost exclusively view conflict through a lens of negativity. My goal, and RFC’s goal, is to empower folks to perceive and engage conflict in a nuanced way. To no longer fear and avoid conflict, but rather learn how to embrace it and deal with it in a productive, positive, and perhaps even a transformational manner.

Last week, in the twilight of 2018, as many of us were pondering resolutions for the new year, I encourage readers to take some time in the nascent hours of 2019 to “take stalk” on how you typically engage conflict in your personal and professional lives. I did the same.
Here’s a quick summary of what I encouraged readers to do:
  • Make a list of the conflicts you’ve found yourself a part to in the last few weeks, identifying what the conflicts we about (the “why?”), who they were with, and how you reacted or responded to the conflict(s).

  • Daily, take some time to reflect on this initial prompt throughout the first week of the new year, as conflicts inevitably emerges.

  • Finally, at the end of the week, intentionally reflect on a couple of these conflicts (preferably one with a negative outcome and one with a positive), and ask yourself what do these conflict experiences tell you about yourself.

If you didn’t have a chance to do this, no worries! You still can. Now, or in the future (this blog, as resource isn’t going anywhere!).

In the previous post, we also explored the notion that in order to shift our responses and habitual behaviors with regard to interpersonal conflict, it takes intentional practice, over time. I shared the mantra, practice makes perfect, so be careful what you practice.

This week we’re going to build, just a little, off this, exploring what is actually happening when we experience conflict. (In the forthcoming blog post we’ll take a look at our reactions and responses to conflict, and begin looking at what changes, or “shifts,” we can consciously work on to address conflict in a more constructive and positive way.)
So, let’s dig into the notion of conflict a little more!
The simplest definition for interpersonal conflict that I’d like to offer is: conflict occurs when our interests are threatened, or are perceived to be threatened.
Think about the last disagreement you had. You wanted something (your interest), and the other party in the conflict wanted something else (their interest). It is highly likely that you both perceived that the person who didn’t get their way also did not get their interest met. Am I resonating yet?…
Interests can be as simple as, “I’m interested in taking a shower first.” Or, “I want to watch this movie, over the movie you want.” These straightforward examples are bona fide conflicts in and of themselves, but I like to refer to these as lesser interests-based conflicts. For our purposes, interests can have many other, often times deeper layers. This is where the conflict gets more complex. Below are the three interest-based conflicts that we all experience to varying degrees, on a regular basis.

One: Needs-based Conflict

Do you recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from Psychology 101? The basic psychological needs include safety, love and connection with others (friendship, family, and community), self-esteem (ego), self-actualization (striving to become better as an individual, partner, parent, etc.). There are also physiological needs, which include sustenance (food and water), sleep, shelter, homeostasis, and sex and reproduction.

If any of these areas are threatened, or are perceived to be threatened, then conflict occurs.

Think for a minute, if someone takes a jab at us, even in jest, saying, “That was a dumb idea,” our self-esteem is being threatened. If a coworker says something that we perceive to undermine our intelligence or authority in a situation, or make a comment that is dismissive of our suggestion, the result is the same. We feel threatened, even if only slightly. Even if they didn’t mean it for harm! If our boss denies us a day off, this could be perceived as a threat to the quality time we planned with a friend or family member. If someone suddenly cuts us off on our way home from work, we might experience the sensation of our safety being in jeopardy. And if we perceive that someone is flirting with our partner, or even just a romantic interest of ours, this too—if only on a subconscious level—is a perceived threat to our sex interest (though we might not admit it!).

Pause for a moment, and ask yourself: which of these scenarios resonates with me?

Two: Values-based

Values often are directly connected to certain aspects of our needs, but it can be helpful to understand them as a separate entity. Values in this context are our beliefs and our idealized character qualities, which are often rooted in personal beliefs.

Beliefs can be religious, spiritual, social, political, etc. If someone makes a comment that goes against your political beliefs, is there conflict? Hell yeah there is! Some of us won’t let an ill-leaning comment slide! We lash out in defense. Whereas some of us avoid or accommodate the person and their insinuating remark, to “keep the peace.” For those of you who are religious, what if someone says or implies that “your God is not real,” how does this make you feel? Do you get defensive? Defensiveness is an accurate indicator that, at the very least you are feeling mildly threatened (again, even if only on a subconscious level). Or what if you’re not religious at all, but someone says something that is seen as a direct jab at your humanistic values, stating that you’re “naive” or “weak” or “too idealistic?” What’s your reaction?...
Along these lines, values can also deal with character qualities or “personal values,” such as honesty, work ethic, integrity, wisdom, intelligence, equity-mindedness, etc. If someone calls you out, insinuating that you just made a statement that was discriminatory—sexist, racist, classist, etc.—and this goes against your personal value of being a fair-minded and equality promoting person, darn right, there’s some conflict occurring!

Three: Identity-based

I’ll keep this one short for now, because we’ll dive into it more in the coming weeks, but identity-based conflict occurs when you are threatened in a way that is directly connected to your social identity (color of your skin, who you date or are married to, how much money you have, what continent you or your ancestors are from, how you talk, your age or perceived age, the neighborhood you live in, what you do for work, etc.). If you have experienced discrimination in this manner, you have actively experience identity-based conflict.

Okay. So what?

Most of the conflict we experience occurs on the subconscious level, that is until we name it. I’d be willing to wager that nearly 90% of the conflict most people experience in life they never identify as “conflict,” because they don’t have this framework to aid them in understanding it and naming it. Once we identify and name it, we often realize that our perceptions off, and that these lesser threats are not genuine threats to our wellbeing, and are rather just tensions grounded in our different perspectives. When we consciously acknowledge this, we then have a greater ability to tap into our rational brain to address these tensions in a constructive manner. Sometimes this means acknowledging that the threat we feel was not real, but rather just an instinctual perception. And sometimes we realize that the threat is real, and that what our coworker just said, does really undermine our authority. Or what your brother in-law said was racist. That’s when it is probably in your best interest to say something, and engage the conflict directly (depending on the context and power dynamics involved, which we’ll get into in a later blog).

When we begin to understand why conflict is occurring, and can separate genuine threats from lesser threats (ones that don’t endanger us physically or psychologically), this is where the magic begins to occur. Because we then have the capacity to move from reacting, to listening, to empathizing, and potentially to collaborating. This is the upside of conflict, where positive change happens!

What you can do NOW.
This week, every time you find yourself in a disagreement/argument, tension-filled situation, or in an uncomfortable situation, continue what your practice of capturing your conflicts (What happened? Who with? And, why?). Additionally, ask yourself: What interest of mine is possibly being threatened? Is it a momentary lesser interest, or is it need, value, or identity of mine?

Make a mental note when it is occurring, and then jot it down in a journal or in a word doc on your computer when you have a chance. I recommend doing this at the end of the workday or in the evening.

This is the why of conflict, that we just touched the surface of last week. Now, you have a new framework and some language for understanding the deeper why pertaining to conflict in your personal and professional life.

On a final note, I quoted Amos Oz to start this post, “A conflict begins and ends in the hearts and minds of people, not the hilltops.” I think this simple statement affirms the notion that conflict begins in our subconscious, when we feel threatened. I also like to think that he smartly was suggesting that if we're always pointing somewhere else, to the hilltops, when there is conflict, we're not looking in the right place.
Amos passed away last weekend, at 79 years of age. He was a prolific Israeli writer, and an outspoken promoter of nonviolent peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He wasn't perfect, none of are, but our world is a better place because of him. Here's a little piece on him from the New York Times, Amos Oz, Israeli Author and Peace Advocate, Dies at 79.

Good luck with your practice, and be well.

Ty (and the RFC Team)

By Tyler Olson

Partner at (re)Frame Conflict

Manager of Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies Program at Cuyahoga Community College

PS - The next blog post we’ll start looking at how we individually tend to engage conflict. Each of us will be different in our approach(es). This is where we can begin to understand our behaviors in conflict, and we will intentionally begin working on shifting some of our habits so that we can engage conflicts in our lives more constructively.
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