Can conflict be constructive?

When I was a child, I remember my grandmother telling me that if a married couple did not disagree on occasion, it probably meant that one of the two was regularly acquiescing to the other, to the long-term detriment of the relationship.  While I understood the gist of what she was saying, it wasn’t until learning about conflict as a community development professional that I appreciated the full import of the point my grandmother was making:  some disagreement is not only normal, but healthy, in a marriage.   

Marriage is only one of the many types of relationships we, as social beings, may be a part of throughout our lives and, in any relationship, some disagreement or conflict is normal and even healthy.   Each of us has our own ways of seeing the world and we bring our perspectives to our relationships.  Whether a relationship is with one person or a group of people, the perspectives brought to it are bound to differ at one point or another (thus, conflict as a norm); the greater the number of people, the greater the potential for differences to occur.  Imagine, then, the potential for differences in a community setting.

Thanks to personal experience and the media, seeing conflict as a “norm” may not be much of a stretch for most of us; seeing it as healthy, however, may be.  One need only attend a school or town board meeting when a budget proposal is on the agenda to see conflict in action, and the news is daily (if not hourly) filled with stories about conflict.  However, from a community development perspective, differing and conflicting opinions, though sometimes challenging, can enhance community well-being, for some of the same reasons disagreement can strengthen or be constructive for a marriage:

  1. When conflicting perspectives are shared, it is a sign that community members feel they have a voice and their opinions matter, as opposed to a situation where community members keep from sharing their perspectives when they differ with others because they feel doing so won’t matter or will cause problems.
  2. There is often more than one way to solve a problem or approach an opportunity.  Consideration of conflicting perspectives can provide the context for exploring a range of possibilities, some often more innovative than those apparent when stakeholders are in agreement, including those that are combinations of conflicting responses.
  3. By virtue of the process of working through conflicting view points, community members can come to shared understanding and, at the very least, share appreciation for one another’s contributions to the process, ultimately strengthening their relationship.

Of course, whether or not conflict strengthens a marriage or a community depends upon how it is managed; it if is not managed or managed poorly, conflict can destroy a relationship.  Constructive management of conflict takes time and patience but has the potential for a huge return on that investment. 

For more on conflict management, see:  Conflict Management in Community Organizations (Ohio State University Community Development Fact Sheet L-701) or Dealing with Difficult People and Challenging Situations, an archived webinar in the University of Vermont’s Building Capacity Webinar Series.