Conflict can have good outcomes

Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center column
By: Angela Ponivas, M.S.W. Special to The News Messenger
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What do you think of when you hear the word “conflict?” Does it make you cringe? Perhaps you think of a dispute from the past that didn’t go well? Is it something you look forward to or hesitate to engage in? Does conflict generally have positive or negative connotations? Is there a constructive way to view and deal with conflict? Webster’s Dictionary defines conflict as “to strike together, to fight, battle or contend, to be antagonistic, incompatible or contradictory, to struggle, to have sharp disagreement or opposition.” Accord and harmony are listed as the opposite of conflict. Another way to think of conflict is as an opportunity for better understanding and productive change. This is a radically different view from Webster’s but think of what might happen if we changed our expectations of conflict. What if we held out the possibility that conflict itself isn’t so bad? It’s how we deal with conflict that determines whether we experience it as positive or negative. When we encounter conflict, there are five categories of conflict behavior we can adopt. The first category is avoidance. This response ignores or refuses to acknowledge the existence of the conflict. Accommodation means one party is always giving in to the other’s needs with no satisfaction for the accommodating party. Neither of these responses truly resolves the situation and can lead to significant costs such as emotional stress and turmoil, physical ailments, disruption that may affect other aspects of life, low morale and an undermining of relationships. Another category is competition where the parties struggle until one wins and the other(s) lose. This can be adversarial, destructive and ruin relationships when the conflict is between family members, co-workers or neighbors. Then there’s compromise, which is a form of sharing. For each party to get something, they must also give something. And finally, there is collaboration. That’s where the parties work together to determine if they can understand the problem and each other’s needs so they can both get what they need to be satisfied. A simplistic yet effective example of collaboration is two chefs fighting over an orange. After bickering, one chef eventually says to the other, “Why do you want the orange?” He replies, “I want the pulp to make orange juice”. The first says, “I want the rind to flavor frosting for a cake.” Problem solved; one gets the rind, the other the pulp and each are satisfied. Conflict arises when people perceive incompatible differences or threats to their resources, needs or values. Think about the chefs in the example above. If they hadn’t determined their true needs, they might still be fighting. Sometimes, it takes a neutral third party to assist in guiding individuals in conflict to a mutually agreeable resolution by keeping conversation on the subject, moving toward resolution, maintaining a respectful and positive environment, and focusing on how it can be better in the future. Facilitative mediators serve just that purpose. When Lighthouse identifies clients who may not need counseling but would benefit from a facilitative mediator, we refer them to Placer Dispute Resolution Service, a nonprofit resource for our community that provides mediation services for the following types of disputes: co-parenting, neighbors, elder care, life transition management, inter-personal, partnership or business, and more. If you could benefit from the resolution service, then consider visiting its website at or call staff at 645-9260. They are available to answer your questions, determine if your situation is appropriate for mediation and send you further information. Remember, conflict isn’t all bad – it can lead to productive change, depending on how we choose to react to the situation. Angela Ponivas, M.S.W., is the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center’s executive director. Her phone is 645-3300; address is 427 A St., Suite 400; and Web site is