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Goals in Conflict
by Fred Devett
Jan. 7, 2002

When the staff, Council, committee or other work group seems to be getting bogged down with conflict either overt or just under the surface, it might be time to examine what goals may be in conflict and to agree on what order they may be resolved. People in conflict pursue four general types of goals: content, relational, identity, process. These goal types, moreover, may shift during disputes. Keeping track of them ensures a greater opportunity to resolve conflict.
 
Content goals are easily recognizable, debatable, concrete. They can be listed, evaluated, argued and supported. There are two types of content goals: a) people want different things (one group wants to build the addition now, the other in two years), b) people want the same thing (some say the extra $5,000 should go to the choir, others to building repair). Key question: “What does each person want?”
 
Relational goals are usually more elusive. Who talks first, who talks the most, who talks after whom, nonverbal cues, eye contact, body language: all can express conflict arising from relational goals. Conflicts around roles, closeness, distance, (perceived) availability, collegiality, or power are not easily identified or discussed. Sometimes a third person can play an important role in identifying and resolving this conflict. Seeing - and adequately addressing - how a decision at hand will affect one person’s relationship with another allows this conflict to resolve, and usually opens the way to achieving the overt goal at hand. Key question: “Who are we in relationship to each other during our interaction?”
 
Perhaps the most difficult to resolve are face-saving goals. Someone’s sense of integrity, good reputation or self-esteem is involved at this level. Outcomes, such as a balanced budget, saving the children’s program, new choir robes or the like "fall by the wayside" in such interactions, a particularly difficult situation for the more "rational" parties (who also may not like conflict). "We didn’t do it and we paid the plaintiff a kazillion dollars" is the famous "Alford Plea." "Saving face" can be an expensive proposition and underlies the importance of one’s self-esteem; "losing face," as anyone who has can describe, is also expensive. As conflicts increase in intensity, face-saving issues usually intensify. Key question: "Who am I in this particular interaction?" or "How may my identity be protected or repaired in this conflict?"
 
Process goals, as the name implies, has more to do with the journey than the arrival. Consensus? Majority? Who votes? Express feelings? "Stay here until it’s resolved"? Table to committee? For some, it is the means that justifies the end. Others often state (or mutter under their breath) that talking about talking is a waste of time. Process, however, does affect outcome, as well as levels of influence, creative options and "ownership" of the final decision, among other important aspects. Key question: "What communication process would work best for this conflict?"
 
When conflicts get bogged down, it may be time to check the relational and identity issues first; if these are not resolved, it is unlikely either the process or the content goals will be settled.
 
Conflict. Every group has it (or should, if the group is healthy and viable, in which individuals feel safe to express opinions and values). How to live with it and use it to the best advantage of the group and its mission is the key.
 
The above material is drawn, in part, from
Interpersonal Conflict, W. Wilmot & J. Hocker, 2001. Let us know what kinds of additional information you are interested in about conflict and these different types of goals, or related material!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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