Reframing Conflict as Creativity
A little story…
We have a laptop that sits on our kitchen table for our children to use. When the unit first became available, the kids would take turns. Slowly, my youngest son began to use the computer more than the others, loading preferences and passwords and special applications. A subtle but steady shift occurred; his siblings began to feel that the computer was his, rather than communal property. One day my daughter sat down to do some homework on the laptop, prompting this exchange:
Son: “Why are you working on my laptop?”
Daughter: “I need to do some homework and this one has the Word program I need. It’s not yours, anyway.”
Son: “You don’t need to use my laptop, there’s a computer upstairs that has Word.”
Daughter: “I’m allowed to use this one. You can’t stop me!”
Parental intervention yielded a negotiated settlement. Yes, the children had to share the laptop and work together. Their respective needs could be easily accommodated through cooperation.
This small skirmish serves as an almost boundless metaphor for so many problems in the world today. On one hand, we have the possibility of cooperation, collaboration and coordinated activity. On the other, we have a quest for power, for dominion over resources so that we can proceed without regard to the interests of others.
I guess it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Would we still be in paradise today if only Adam and Eve could have had a patient conversation with God?
“Hey God, we were thinking about having a bite of that apple you said not to eat…. Maybe we could talk it over?”
The Dance of Human Conflict
Life always and necessarily entails conflict.
What do I mean when I use the word “conflict”? As simply and broadly as possible, to be directly engaged in conflict involves any situation in which we encounter resistance to our desires or viewpoints from people or forces beyond our control. You want to do something and behold: Something or someone is blocking your path. You believe something to be true, and look: Here is a person who thinks your belief is false. Yes, there is also the possibility for internal conflict, during which we resist our own desires and ideas through self-defeating or incoherent approaches, but I will save that discussion for another day.
Given this broad definition (and skipping the more difficult subject of internal conflict), we can see that the experience of encountering external resistance begins with our first moment of consciousness and continues until our last. As we mature and learn, we come to understand the ways in which fellow human beings (beginning, for example, with siblings and parents) can serve as allies or foes on the conflicts we experience. Our family members both aid and impede us. Our friends and acquaintances help us and sometimes become our opponents. Through education and life experience, we learn to appreciate the enormous complexity of the nested human communities we inhabit: family, organizational life, societal groupings and beyond.
Our particular relationship matrix shapes what we desire and how we see the world, helping us to achieve what we want and understand what is happening to us. At the same time, in stark contrast, that same human matrix often serves to frustrate, confuse and bewilder us. A compelling narrative drama describes our journey as we navigate the relationship matrix—friendly, opposing and, all too often, both.
The experience of conflict within human communities is like an elaborate social dance in which we either help or hinder, satisfy or stymie, assist or defeat one another. In this dance of conflict, success and failure depend on our social acumen, adeptness and adaptability. Terrific dancers are able gracefully to help others achieve their ends, build greater shared understanding and, along the way, accomplish their own desires, all while steadily increasing their field of creative engagement and competence. Less skillful dancers spend a lot of time picking themselves up from the dance floor or knocking others over, either intentionally or carelessly. When a dancer within this social assembly knocks over too many people, the crowd may eventually turn upon him or her, barring future contacts.
The origin narrative presented in Western culture’s Genesis story tells us something fascinating about conflict, describing humanity’s primordial failure to manage conflicting desires, resulting in a profound breakdown in our relationship with our Creator. In the dance of conflict, this remains the mother of all pratfalls.
In our fallen world, no one can evade the dance of conflict completely. To be alive is necessarily to be somewhere on the dance floor, even if only quietly on the periphery. There is no life without social life, and society always entails some level of conflict. For many, enlightenment comes in restricting and calibrating desires, and developing confidence in one’s understanding of the world and the people in it, hopefully perceiving and avoiding pointless and frustrating engagements. A wise person can predict how a particular dance will unfold and may choose to step off the dance floor early, before the chaos unfolds, thinking: I know how this one ends.
Two Kinds of Conflict: Creative vs. Territorial
The most exciting and meaningful conflicts in our lives are fundamentally creative, which occurs when we work with others to create something that we individually or collectively desire to bring into existence. We want to create because we believe our work will be beautiful, just, good or otherwise desirable in some way. Because each person has a different view of what should be created, conflict entails exploring with one another the true meaning of our shared values. (Imagine my children asking: “How can we share this computer, maybe even work together on it to learn and create?”) Truth in this context does not involve scientific investigations of existing realities, but rather, forward-looking explorations of evolving human destiny. Humans have God-given creative powers and freedom, and our shared creative work calls forth our collective opportunity to advance human potential. Our collaborations can thus become a shared spiritual quest giving our lives a profound sense of creative meaning and purpose. Working through creative conflicts can deepen relationships and create powerful opportunities for learning and innovation. When we are called into such conflicts, we have the opportunity to channel divinity into the world, giving life to something greater than our individual existence.
Unfortunately, conflict is often not creative in this way. Instead, it can be territorial, focused only on the acquisition or defense of power. Territorial conflict is not immediately about constructively shaping and bringing forth what is beautiful, good and just. Instead, it involves enhancing our power as individuals or in groups competing against one another for what we perceive to be scarce resources.
Territorial conflicts are about dominion and control: offensive or defensive. Offensive conflicts occur when we seek to seize control by force where someone else currently has or shares control. (Think of my son: “That’s my computer.”) Defensive conflicts occur when we seek to preserve our own control against someone else’s efforts to dominate us. (Think of my daughter: “Hey, that’s not your computer.”) When we are weak or lack resources, territorial conflicts may seem unavoidable or somehow necessary to the preservation or enhancement of our power. When we fear losing our power, we may engage in territorial conflicts as a strategy to preserve our autonomy. People who engage in territorial conflicts often seek power for its own sake, rather than for what they can create with it.
The experience of territorial conflict may cause us to think about other human beings not as collaborative creators, but rather as obstacles, property or instruments to gain power or preserve it. In this sense, territorial conflicts can cause us to dehumanize and objectify others. No one is entirely immune from engagement in some level of territorial conflict because all creators require some territory, some power, in order to create and to be able to engage in creative processes and conflicts. Every creature with dignity requires some province of freedom from others. But sometimes territorial conflicts become an overriding obsession within human communities. Power becomes its own end, with greed and paranoia attendant. For an example of this process in action, observe any U.S. presidential election cycle.
Also, territorial conflict often entails the assumption that there is one special, all powerful, preordained person who should make all the decisions for a group because he or she is better, stronger, smarter and wiser than everyone else. In this way, the territorial conflict itself may be thought to ratify the hegemony of the leader, specifying the one who deserves to be crowned as “the decider.” A few moments of patient reflection usually reveals the silliness of this idea, which drives much organizational life despite its obvious shortcomings. I explore the general problem in my book, Genership, referenced at the end of this essay, calling this dysfunctional notion “The Messiah Fallacy,” the idea that there is one God-like person who should control everything. When territorial conflict obsesses about who should have the power to decide, as opposed to what the decision should be, it may become what we call “fallacy-driven conflict”: a fight over who is the messiah rather than a productive conflict about what we choose to create together.
The pursuit of power as an end in itself diminishes those engaged in the pursuit. The loving relationships that we create with others give our lives the greatest meaning and pleasure. The pursuit of power through territorial conflicts reduces the number and quality of the loving relationships that surround us. We risk gaining capacity and strength without meaning or purpose, the proverbial process of acquiring the world at the expense of our souls.
As we think about conflict, we should welcome and not fear creative conflicts. While we need not seek creative conflict for its own sake, we nevertheless should embrace the inquiry, learning and deepening of relationships that we discover through exploring and working through creative conflicts as they occur naturally within our collaborations.
When we experience territorial conflicts, however, we should stop and ask ourselves: Am I truly threatened in this conflict as a creator? Do I need the power that I am seeking to take or defend, or is there another way? Can I transform this territorial conflict into a creative conflict by collaborating with those seeking or defending their power at this moment? Can I invite my opponent to join with me in a creative relationship and process?
Becoming Better at Conflict
Creative conflict feels different than territorial conflict. It is satisfying, productive and positive. It allows for new learning. It strengthens our relationships. In contrast, territorial conflict is not pleasant. It exposes us to risk and danger; it causes us to become either the oppressor or the oppressed. It makes us mean and selfish rather than loving and generous. What are some simple strategies to reframe territorial conflicts as creative?
First, ask yourself: What are you trying to create? If the answer is power, influence, recognition, control or values similar to these, it is time to go deeper. Power for what? Influence for what? What do you want to be recognized for? If you want control, how do you want to use that control? To what end? Serving what purpose?
As you think about these questions, also ask yourself this: Whom do you value in terms of what you want to create? Are you creating only for yourself or are you trying to create beauty, justice and goodness that others will enjoy, too? If you are only trying to please yourself, then you are going to end up failing, because true joy is found within the loving relationships that we create with others.
Answering these questions will re-establish creativity directed outward towards others as a dominant value within your consciousness.
When you know what you want to create and why you want to create it, then you are in a strong position to engage in creative conflict. Invite interactions with others that shape, develop and test your creative desires. How can others help you refine and achieve your creative dreams? How can you help others do this? Undoubtedly, this process of collaboration will reveal many points of tension and difference. These conflicts will be exciting, stimulating and meaningful.
When a bad driver cuts you off in traffic, ask yourself: “What kind of a culture of drivers am I trying to create?”
When a coworker makes a decision that you believe is within your authority or discretion, ask yourself: “What kind of relationship am I trying to create with my coworkers? How would I like to collaborate with them and what are we trying to create together in our organization?”
When you learn that your budget is being cut back, ask yourself: “What am I trying to accomplish with the resources I have, and how can I use and develop the resources necessary to make it happen?”
When your team member has an idea that seems to contradict your basic assumptions and gaols, ask yourself: “Is there anything to learn from this difference? Does it open up any new possibilities?”
It will not always be possible to reframe territorial conflict as creative conflict, but we can try. And every time we succeed, we have the chance to begin again, to take one step toward that paradise we lost long ago. Just imagine my children sharing one laptop computer: smiling, laughing, creating a story together.
My book on changemaking, leadership and creativity further explores these topics: Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul.