Cognitive and Affective Conflict

‘Conflict is the stuff of life, it’s what we do with it that makes the difference’ (Crumm, 1997). These words are from a book entitled ‘The Magic of Conflict’ – for most people an oxymoron. Most of us experience conflict at work or in our home lives as anything but magical or positive. For the great majority of us, the thought of conflict and disagreements tend to be something we avoid rather than embrace.
Yet, handled properly, ‘conflict’ can frequently be a useful and positive occurence – for example, the creativeness that emerges from the synergy of differing views – which is the basic premise behind team versus individual approaches to solving problems.

If I was to ask any one of you ‘do you think that you can avoid conflicts in your workplace, family life, community etc.’ the answer would probably be a resounding ‘no’. So there is no point in thinking you can have a life free of disagreements or difficult conversations. A more useful framework is to see conflict as having the potential to go down one of two routes or avenues.

Task-focused or cognitive conflict – is where people focus on the tasks or issues and debate and thrash these out and come to a creative solution. The parties might argue and exchange views vigorously yet there is two-way communication and an openness to hearing each other. The goal is to find the best possible solution rather than to win the argument. Alternative perspectives are seen as valuable rather than threatening.

Relationship or affective conflict – is where the differences become ‘personal’, where people get into blaming modes and unhelpful behaviours. The mindset moves from ‘we have a problem’ to ‘you are the problem’. Opposition is seen as something to be thwarted rather than explored. Negative emotions prevail and the relationship suffers. The goal becomes winning for its own sake rather than the best possible solution.

Most situations involving ‘apparently incompatible differences’ – conflict in other words – has the potential to move in one of these two directions. The deciding factor as to which way they go lies mainly in the behaviours and approaches taken by the people involved.

The recent debacle that took place between the (former) junior and senior ministers in the Irish government for health is a perfect illustration of this. On the face of it, one would imagine that the different opinions around how the budget for primary care should be divided would fit into the realms of a task-focused conflict: lots of scope for robust debate and creative solution-building. Yet, instead of them working constructively to achieve the best possible solution in terms of patient services, it became personal, adversarial and a ‘win-lose’ paradigm. One view prevailed, the other seemed to be discarded and the working relationship destroyed. One might argue that somebody had to make the final call – absolutely – but a key contributer to good quality decision-making is the consideration of a wide variety of views.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. There is a wide body of knowledge on effective ways of behaving and responding to conflict to ensure it stays task- rather than relationship-focused. And, it’s not rocket science. Yet as the above example illustrates, even people who appear to have high levels of ability, knowledge and education still might not get it. As leaders, in my view, it is imperative that they should. So here goes: Conflict Coaching sessions for Ministers Reilly and Shortall on the house…