I have recently started a new role as an Editor of the Living with Conflict website, livingwithconflict.net. It prompted me to reflect on how I handle conflicts in various situations – needless to say, not always very well.
Sometimes I handle conflict, especially if it just consists of me disagreeing with someone else or not liking their approach to life, by pretending it doesn’t exist. I’ve found I can actually get a long way by simply avoiding some people, and by keeping quiet about opinions which don’t seem likely to get a warm reception. Although I have been heard sometimes to assure people that “you’ll know if I’m cross with you”, this isn’t strictly speaking true. You will know if I’m really very angry with you and value our relationship enough to do something about it. If I’m a bit cross with you but suspect you consider the matter unimportant, or if we aren’t that close to start with, I’m quite likely to simply moan to some other people or stew over the problem for a while (sometimes for years) and never say anything.
Sometimes I respond to potential conflict by being over-relaxed. A team I worked on a while ago had this property: one member was always so anxious about everything that I, put in the role of ‘capable relaxed person’, found myself always of the opinion that it couldn’t be that bad, that there wasn’t really anything to worry about, that everything would turn out find if we were all just calm. This gave an air of calm to the team, which probably did help a bit, but sometimes meant that my ‘hmm, could be a problem’ intuitions got suppressed, and in trying to keep the anxiety levels of the whole team down, I didn’t always ask enough questions or anticipate real issues which could have been dealt with in advance.
Sometimes I respond by declaring that conflict isn’t a problem. In an undergraduate seminar, for example, it doesn’t actually matter if we disagree about… well, anything, really. Some examples (is Wittgenstein’s view of language helpful in discussing religion?) are more obviously irrelevant than others (is same-sex marriage moral?) but in a setting where the central aim is to learn how to think and how to debate, and what the possible positions are, rather than actually to settle any of those debates, it doesn’t really matter. Of course, the real conflict in such a classroom is usually more about questions like “when is the essay due in?” and generally speaking I am in the fortunate position at present that I can put those things down to “decided by the hierarchy” rather than discussing them on a case-by-case basis!
It should also be said that there are kinds of conflict which I enjoy or at least find useful. It is possible to debate an issue in full and get somewhere with it – especially, perhaps, some kinds of practical problem. There can be a certain satisfaction in discussing something in detail and coming up with an answer which all parties agree – even if it isn’t the answer I favoured to start with, or even perhaps something any of us had originally considered.
There’s also kind of debating which is the philosophical equivalent of puppies play-fighting, in which there’s no expectation of damage on either side but a lot of growling and teeth are involved. To play like that can be a lot of fun but requires a level of trust in your play-partner and a reasonable amount of confidence, and context is important – I’ll say things with friends I’d never say out loud in a seminar room, even if they would be reasonable moves within the philosophical game – but in the right setting, I’ll start that kind of argument. Sometimes I do it just for fun, and sometimes I’ll be purposely provoking, and I know sometimes it upsets people who don’t understand what I’m trying to do. It then can get tangled up with the first response, though: with me not saying what I’m thinking, and going home to repeat what I would have said to the washing up.