Conflict is a fact of life and occurs for a variety of reasons, such as differing perspectives, priorities or solutions to a problem. Many believe that "misunderstanding is the cause of 90% of all conflict(link is external)." Irrespective of the actual percentage, a great deal of conflict does stem from misunderstandings.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “Misunderstanding is a failure to understand(link is external), or an argument resulting from the failure of two people or two sides to understand each other.”
Meanwhile, unless the level of conflict (hurt feelings) from a misunderstanding is such that it can be swept under the proverbial rug, it tends to fester if left unaddressed. Tragically, the discomfort associated with conflict is such that it is often left to fester.
Interestingly enough, many people love to quote, reference or base their arguments on scripture, but how often do people consider the following Biblical proverb?: “The beginning of wisdom is this(link is external): Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding."
To the extent that a conflict stems from a misunderstanding, as many do, it should be rectifiable through gleaning understanding. When people don’t make such an effort, is it because the discomfort involved makes doing so unaffordable?
Regardless, let’s assume that a misunderstanding didn’t lead to the conflict, or that the conflict is somehow unresolvable. Does that mean that a relationship of any type is somehow doomed?
According to John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship expert, not all conflicts can be resolved. “Unresolvable ‘perpetual’ problems exist even in the healthiest of relationships due to ‘lasting personality differences between partners.” Gottman has found that “only 31% of couples’ major areas of continuing disagreement(link is external) were about resolvable issues…. Sixty-nine percent of the time, couples conflicted about perpetual issues in the relationship that never get resolved. What mattered was not solving these problems but the affect around which they were discussed. The goal seemed to be to establish a dialogue with the perpetual problem [even differences in deeply held values] that communicated acceptance of the partner, humor, affection, even amusement, and active coping with the unresolvable problem rather than the condition of ‘gridlock.’”
It would be a mistake to believe that this reality is somehow limited to marriages and relationships of a romantic nature, especially considering that Gottman’s research on couples relationships has been successfully applied to “relationships in the world of work(link is external).”
Returning to Gottman’s findings, it bears mentioning that words have meaning and it has long been recognized that the meaning of words influences human behavior(link is external). Notice the importance of dialogue in Gottman’s findings and the fact that he did not use the term “discussion” or “debate.”
“In his groundbreaking book(link is external), The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge makes a powerful distinction between dialogue and discussion: In a discussion, opposing views are presented and defended and the team searches for the best view to help make a team decision. In a discussion, people want their own views to be accepted by the group. The emphasis is on winning rather than on learning.
In dialogue, people freely and creatively explore issues, listen deeply to each other and suspend their own views in search of the truth. People in dialogue have access to a larger pool of knowledge than any one person enjoys. The primary purpose is to enlarge ideas, not to diminish them. It’s not about winning acceptance of a viewpoint, but exploring every option and agreeing to do what is right.
Dialogue helps teams to open closed subjects, remove blocks to communication and heal rifts.”
Kenneth Cloke makes a distinction between dialogues and debates as follows:
“We can also distinguish dialogues from debates(link is external), which are simply two successive monologues pretending to be a dialogue. Debate defines issues and solutions adversarially, in ways that make them automatically unacceptable to the other side. Dialogue, on the other hand, as defined by Physicist David Bohm, is ‘a stream of meaning flowing among, through and between us.’
Dialogue defines issues and solutions collaboratively and searches for ways of making them acceptable to all parties. Debate is a circular process, in which opponents argue and disagree with each other and are more interested in demonstrating that they are right than they are in discovering the truth. In dialogue, truths emerge not from one side winning and the other losing, but from both sides explaining their different perspectives, identifying the meaning of their disagreements and searching for solutions that satisfy their underlying interests….
Another way of thinking of dialogue is to regard it as a learning process in which participants with diverse ideas, backgrounds and experiences try to understand not only what the other thinks that is different, but more importantly why they think that way, and what events and experiences led them to do so. Part of the power of dialogue is its encouragement of personal stories, life experiences, and the lessons people draw from them. These induce empathy in the listener and invite deeper levels of listening.”