Principal #6- Consider Contribution

My mentor and hero, Dr. J. Robert Clinton notes that one of the five practices that distinguishes those who finish well is a commitment to life-long learning. If learning is central to life, it is critical in times of turbulence. Trouble is, the way most of us behave in conflict closes down the possibility of learning very much at all.

As humans, we want life to be tidy. Yet, life is seldom tidy—and conflict never is. To benefit from conflict—which I believe is always God’s intent – you need to take learning into hyper-mode. One almost-irresistible practice that undermines learning is to look to assign blame. Think about it: as soon as the culprit is identified, the energy is focused on building a case against the villain… proving just how wrong he or she is. Evidence is piled up. The case is closed. In this mode, learning shrivels.

The well-rehearsed cultural practice of racing to decide who’s at fault, who’s to blame, who is responsible for the breakdown ignores this startling reality: each person in the conflict has a contribution.

I challenge you to honestly review the details of any conflict you’ve been in to identify how you contributed – however small or great – to the breakdown. You may have contributed by not taking action that might have mitigated the hurt. You may have contributed by not being clear enough — however well-intentioned you may have been – such that the other party mistook your motives. You, like me, may not have cared enough to notice your impact on another, even when no malice was intended.

The opening provided by a conflict is to learn: to discover what you didn’t know beforehand. Get this, and you’ll never be in a conflict the same way again: there’s a gift in every breakdown; it’s the opportunity to learn what you don’t know you don’t know!
Failing to learn from your conflicts keeps you vulnerable to stumbling in the same ways again. Stumble into conflict often enough and you’ll see your impact diminished… greatly. Maybe worse, you’ll find people avoiding you, rendering you alone.  As a leader, you cannot afford to be alone. Leaders champion those who welcome their influence to agreed-upon greatness. So, ignoring the provision of God to discover the ways you invite conflict and misunderstanding is deadly.

When you are called upon to referee a conflict, employing the concept of contribution can have dramatic results. For one, when everyone has agreed to banish the idea that one person is to blame, both parties are freed to look—really look — to see how they played into what didn’t work. When it is agreed that each party to the breakdown has a contribution, the judgmentally arrogant posture so common the “innocent victim” is stymied. At the same time, the self-deprecatory, subservient attitude of the identified wrongdoer is also thwarted. What results can be an honest inquiry into the nuances that provoked, cultivated, and prolonged the standoff.

When the community views conflict as a problem, a failure, or a sin, there is scant willingness to dig into the details to optimize learning. No, the press is to quick-fix it, with a rush to judgment, the dispensation of consequences, and far too often, the distancing of the designated scoundrel from the community. So seldom have the specifics been sufficiently studied, that any distinctive discoveries are embraced.
Frame a conflict as an opportunity for each participant to learn, and you’ll set the stage for real repentance and change.

Note: For more on contribution, I recommend the fantastic book: Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton, & Heen.