This week I received from a friend a blog post by Tom Erich, a writer, consultant and Episcopal priest (see www.morningwalkmedia.com). His specific topic is conflict within church communities, but it seems to me that his insights are applicable to conflicts of all types. Of course, I thought of my divorce clients, all of whom are working their way through marital conflict. My clients have chosen mediation or Collaborative Law as means of negotiating their divorce agreements, and so they have rejected adversarial approaches to divorce in favor of working together as much as possible to reach mutually satisfactory solutions. But still, there are conflicts that need addressing — the shadows of those that doomed their marriages, and those that arise in the process of divorce negotiations. Those conflicts can be discouraging, and often my clients express the desire to forget or avoid them if possible. Sometimes, conversely, those conflicts ignite passion or self-protectiveness, and clients may form rigid adversarial positions. But as Erich suggests, conflict may also inspire creativity, and may offer an opportunity for achievement. His perspective might help us all develop a more honest and productive relationship to conflict:
There is nothing inherently unhealthy in conflict. Like failure, conflict is a sign of life and can lead to further vitality and accomplishment. . . . In a healthy system, conflict provides a lively place to deal with change, failures, errors, and personal shortcomings. An unhealthy system, by contrast, stores up negatives and weapons. In an unhealthy system, there is no search for perspective, no deep thinking, no forgiveness. Just scorecards: Did I get my needs met? Did I make you pay for wounding me? Did I win or lose?
As I work with clients, I will keep in mind Erich’s distinction between healthy and unhealthy systems, and will try to create an environment for our collaborative team meetings or mediation sessions in which all feel safe enough to experience conflict honestly, openly, and productively; without either avoidance or scorecards; and with respect, caring, and forgiveness.