Managing Conflict in a Negotiated World: A Narrative Approach to Achieving Dialogue and Change

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Peter M. Kellett & Diana G. Dalton

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    Acknowledgments

    My special thanks go to the late Professor Donald MacDonald for teaching me the importance of understanding conflict, and to Professor H. L. “Bud” Goodall Jr. for teaching me to understand the importance of a good story. I am also indebted to the students of CST 344: Negotiation and Conflict Management at UNCG whose stories and dialogues made this book possible. In particular, I would like to thank those students who allowed us to use their personal narratives to help us better understand conflict.

    PeterKellett

    I would like to thank Ina Ames, whose interpersonal communication class changed the way I thought about communication forever; Dr. Bud Goodall, my professor and advisor, who always encouraged and challenged me; my loving family, Howard and Diana Dalton, Liz Sullivan, Matt Dalton, and Lesli Lindgren, whose love and support have always helped me achieve my goals. But most of all, I would like to thank Dr. Peter Kellett, a friend I greatly admire, for giving me this opportunity to work with him.

    DianaDalton

    Introduction

    Conflict is part of our everyday lives in relationships, families, and workplaces. It is also an enduring presence in the neighborhoods and the various communities we inhabit. Conflict is also an important communicative expression of the extraordinary and often explosive divisions, oppositions, and tensions in and around situations or relationships. Simply, it can be a useful clue that something deeper needs to be addressed. Similarly, conflict is a process by which divisions, opposition, and tensions are created and potentially resolved. That is, conflict can be useful in stimulating productive dialogue and necessary change in our everyday lives. How people manage the conflict process in the various contexts of their lives is the main question we address in this book.

    How to manage conflict effectively is a simple question with an often highly complex and elusive answer. Some phrase this as a behavioral question, “How should I act when such and such situation occurs?” Sometimes, a bulleted list or steps in a formula can work. Managing conflict is, however, only partly a behavioral question, and therefore behavioral change is only part of the answer. Conflict and how it should be managed are also learned and have a cultural meaning and context, a historical significance and a rhetorical purpose, and a complexity and multiplicity of function that eludes simple behavioral or communication formulas. Managing conflict is, therefore, more about developing a deeper understanding than simply doing something differently.

    To determine how conflict should be managed ideally requires an understanding of the meaning of conflict for those engaged in it. It requires an understanding of the underlying cultural and systemic tensions expressed by the conflict. It requires an understanding of how and why it occurs in and through communication. It requires an understanding of how conflict can indicate opportunities to improve dialogue in relationships.

    The interpretive approach of this book makes asking these questions a central part of developing conflict communication skills. An interpretive approach is based partly on the idea that asking “why” is often far more revealing and productive in understanding conflict than just asking how to manage it. In short, interpreting the lived meaning of conflict—asking deeper questions about why it happens as it does—is a necessary precursor to determining how to act when you find yourself in a conflict situation. Simply, an interpretive approach to conflict management is timely and necessary. It is also based on a far more realistic appreciation of the often multiple meanings and complex dynamics of conflict than approaches based on simple behavioral formulas and abstract communication models.

    Our main goal in writing this book is to help readers, as narrators (storytellers) and interpreters (audiences), become more aware of their own conflict experiences and the conflict processes in their communities, workplaces, families, relationships, and so on. Note that we focus on these contexts as exemplars of the conflict processes that affect people most often. Note also that we begin with the broadest context and continue to the most intimate and personal context. This organization is used so readers develop an understanding of the broadest context that structures most personal experiences of conflict to some degree. But we hope to do more than just develop awareness. We also invite readers of the personal conflict narratives on which we base this book to engage in an ongoing dialogue about real conflict experiences. If you follow the lead of these narratives, this ongoing dialogue will result in a deeper understanding of your own conflicts by learning to interpret the your experiences and those of others.

    Dialogue always begins with an existential risk—a moment of transparency in which a seam in our everyday performance of being ourselves appears. This transparency, whether viewed as a moment in a clearing in the woods or a place where a narrow connecting ridge between differences becomes visible, drives our search for more clarity. The narrators whose stories are included in this book have risked the questions that such transparency invites. The reader is asked to do the same. Given this perspective, understanding how to act becomes grounded in understanding what the conflict means, what can realistically change given the context, and what the participants want to achieve psychologically, relationally, and rhetorically. This approach to understanding conflict is connected at each turn in the discussion to a dialogue model of communication through which the reader learns to appreciate the opportunities and realistic limits of improving communication as a way to manage conflicts.

    In subsequent chapters we more fully define and apply these key concepts of interpretive theory and methodology, the dialogue approach to communication, and principles of negotiation. At this point, you learn to develop the ability to reflectively narrate conflict experiences and ask theoretically informed questions about the communication practices those narratives represent. You also learn to explore the choices made in a conflict. These communication skills are the very essence of our interpretive approach to managing conflict.

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    About the Authors

    Peter M. Kellett is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Communication at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He received his PhD in 1990 from Southern Illinois University. His research, teaching, and consulting interests concern the development of dialogue, particularly in organizations. He has written numerous book chapters and articles exploring strategies for developing dialogic communication. His most recent publication is “Dialogue and Dialectics in Managing Organizational Change: The Case of a Mission-Based Transformation,” Southern Communication Journal (1999).

    Diana G. Dalton is a member of the Change Leadership Team at VF Corporation in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her professional duties include assessing the impacts of potential changes on the organization, developing strategies to manage the change process, and creating strategic interactions to support change initiatives within the corporation. She also works in leadership alignment and organizational development, and provides the organization with education and information on communication, team building, and conflict management. She received her MA in 1998 from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


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