For years, Cheri and I have struggled when she seeks clarity in our conversations. In my mind, I’m verbally cruising along with insightful thoughts or entertaining stories and somewhere along the line, it seems like she checks out and then asks me clarifying questions on something that I clearly explained sufficiently that anyone with half a brain would understand. Over time it’s come to my attention that my eldest son, Charles, does this as well.

Many of you will recognize this as my immaculate perception [1]. I now understand that her questions were and are designed to seek clarity and not to argue (contention) with me. My lack of understanding has pushed me past triggered and into flooded an embarrassingly high number of times. To compound this, I regularly fail to recognize that my brilliant bride’s questions are designed to challenge my ambiguity or point of view with the tempering heat of conflict.

Difference Between Conflict And Contention

When questioned, most folks use conflict and contention synonymously. I suggest that there is a significant different between the two.

Conflict is sharing the same goal or vision but seeing a different path to accomplish it. Conflict is about “WHAT” is right. Personal opinions and emotional reasoning are absent. Conflict tempers relationships, perceptions, positions, and perceptions.

Contention is about “WHO” is right. Personal opinions, emotional reasoning, cognitive distortions, false narratives, and contempt are part of the process and lead to contempt, anger, rage, and a breakdown of mutual trust & respect.

Kicking Your Greatest Asset Off Of The Island

In 1964, Kenneth Boulding conducted a study on conflict, bringing together managers from across multiple industries. He formed them into teams and told them that their problem-solving techniques would be analyzed.

What Boulding did not tell these managers, however, was that a “confederate” or critic was planted in half of the teams. The critic’s role was to challenge the team’s solutions, and push them to consider additional ideas throughout their problem-solving process, but not offer any solutions of his own.

Have you ever encountered a devil’s advocate? How did you handle the situation? Cruising life on the path of least resistance is setting yourself up for contention, anger, frustration, and eventually failure. Remember the Minute Lube commercials encouraging us to change our oil every 3,000 miles? You can pay me now or pay me later.

When we avoid conflict, we minimize our potential and take the path of least resistance. Assuming wealth and happiness are your goals, ask yourself how avoiding the very thing that will provide the necessary growth going to help accomplish what you want?

What Boulding discovered, was that the teams having a specialist in conflict creation (devil’s advocate) all performed significantly better in their tasks, and produced multiple options for successfully solving a problem.

When we take the path least travelled, we benefit in ways we could never have foreseen because our energy and focus is on the conflict and all we can see is potential pain and a lot of effort.

Halfway through the experiment, Boulding allowed each team to expel one member. Every team having a devil’s advocate chose to kick that critic (conflict creator) off the island. He then observed that the quality of those teams’ analysis and problem-solving abilities rapidly declined.

Boulding concluded that the highest-performing teams ended up eliminating their competitive advantage. Why would they or we discard the very tool, task, or person that provides us exactly what we want?

Because they didn’t like how the critic’s comments made them feel and they lacked the emotional intelligence to understand the confederate didn’t make anything personal, they perceived conflict as contention.

What Is The Solution?

When a person (conflict creator [2]) provides friction, ask what he or she really wants. When you discover that they share the same vision, it’s easier to accept their questions, thoughts, opinions, and opposing views.

As long as you are able to separate your views from your ego or pride, you can address each suggestion independent of personal feelings. In other words, WHO is right is no longer important and WHAT is right becomes the focus. Taking or giving offense rarely occurs.

The next time you are confronted with conflict try this process: 1) Stop, 2) Ask what the person wants (goal), 3) Assess the similarities, 4) Separate yourself from any suggestions, and 5) Focus on WHAT is right. No ego, no pride, no uneasy feelings, stress, or taking offense.

Fast from criticism and judging long enough to assess what’s really going on.

This works with your spouse, children, and friends as effectively as it does at work.

Final Note

A friend of mine recently sent me an email regarding her experience of getting kicked off of the island. She was in a Facebook community and raised some questions regarding comments made. The organizer accused her of name calling.

Catching her off guard with the accusation, she double checked her comments to verify if there were truth to his statement. After verifying that she addressed the topics through questions that were neutral to the best of her ability, she was frustrated when she was dismissed from the community for not going along with their line of thinking. Name calling, according to the organizer, in reality seemed to be conflict and clarity seeking.

Contempt is manifested through contention when we become centered or stuck on our narrative and anyone not in harmony with our narrative is wrong, stupid, less than, or some other label that temporarily medicates the pain of being fragmented. Contempt and contention are both behavior addictions based on false narratives.

[1] Immaculate perception is one’s belief bias based on experiential blindness. One’s immaculate perception is fueled and deepened by confirmation bias. It is marked by prediction error and illusionary beliefs. It is a space where assumptions are not questioned and low self-awareness. It is about WHO is right with no awareness or attempt to discover WHAT is right. It is without empathy or compassion.

[2] Conflict creator = devil’s advocate