When I train on conflict resolution I ask people at the start to write down the first five words that come to mind when I say conflict. Invariably the following words come out: stress, difficulty, tension, pain, loss, anger, frustration, and impasse. Only one or two will comment that conflict represents an opportunity or a positive challenge.
We have become conflict adverse, uncomfortable at trying to resolve differences because of the risk involved. Every time there is a news story on TV describing how someone took revenge in a violent way, we retrench further and further back in our willingness to share our concerns openly.
As a consequence, conflict festers beneath the surface. We pretend to get along — smiling and engaging — while underneath a huge well of distrust is forming. For many people, when they experience a conflict, their preferred option is to do what I call stamp collecting. Years ago when I was growing up, my mom collected S & H green stamps from the grocery store. She’d store them in tiny booklets that would get very fat when filled with the stamps from the store. After she had collected a number of booklets, she’d redeem them for merchandise like a lamp or a can opener.
If stamp collecting is our best alternative to conflict
resolution, we’re in trouble.
I think people do the same thing with their conflicts. When a conflict occurs, they take a stamp and stick it in their book, storing all the details of the conflict: who said what, when it occurred, who was there, what happened next, etc. As they hold on to the resentment — the grudge — they look for other occurrences that back up the original situation. “Ah-ha, there! It’s happening again.” The longer the stamp (and the subsequent ones piled on) stays there, the less likely that it will be redeemed.
Somehow in our twisted thinking during conflicts, we end up believing that collecting a stamp is a good thing. Yet, when I ask people if they would like stamps collected against them, the answer is always no. We don’t want to think that people are harboring all kinds of negative, secret thoughts about us. Yet, to get out of the trap, we have to be willing to surface our conflict and overcome the fear of taking a risk.
How do we know when a stamp is there? I have a few theories. When I see a group that communicates using sarcasm, I often think the zingers are covering up stamps. Sometimes I also see people adamantly refuse to do things that are truly no big deal. When we see an over-reaction to a benign request or event, it’s often an indication of a stamp.
If stamp collecting is our best alternative to conflict resolution, we’re in trouble. Most of the news stories we see are actually the result of stamp collecting. So how do we get people to be more willing to openly discuss their differences?