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One thing about working with creative people is that conflict is often inevitable. Artists can have unreasonably high expectations of a gallery or curator, a collaborative partner may have an issue with an email that you sent to them which they feel was insensitive and judgmental, or a curator can become angry with the non-responsiveness of an artist. What ever the case, conflict can arise and leave everyone with hurt feelings.
In the 5 plus years of working as an creative entrepreneur, I have found more often than not that most of the conflict I have experienced has been based on unproven or in some cases ridiculous assumptions. Sometimes I may have unconsciously or consciously started the conflict based on my thinking or assumptions at the time. The result was often no communication from myself as well as others as to how someone’s action may have hurt or angered each other.
I have assumed that other people understood where I was coming from or that both me and other party understood expectations. In other cases, someone had conflicts with my working style (“go with the flow” vs. my no nonsense method of a structured, timeline approach) or reacted negatively to my high expectation of accountability to a project (I’m very much a “if you said you would do it, you should do it”). I have learned as a result that in some cases it appears that I needed to find another way to hold people accountable for what they said they would do.
What I have discovered that conflict erupts, especially when everyone becomes emotionally involved. The sad thing is, many of us creative folks for whatever reason avoid communication (the key to healing) thinking it will lead to an ugly conflict because of past experiences.
Then comes the drama (hey that’s what artistic people specialize in) and an exercise in passive-aggressive behavior (backhanded compliments), isolating the other party (aka “Mean Girls- she’s no longer welcomed at the cool kids table approach”) or other dysfunctional behavior (hating, hoping someone’s creative endeavor flops, etc). Yup, I have engaged in it too. It actually begins to look quite childish from an outside view to see grown people behave like middle schoolers whose precious egos got hurt.
And in the end, who loses in these situations? The key relationships that were built are destroyed unnecessarily, the art we created together ruined and the audience we served are like WTF?
Recently, rather than continue or contribute more to any unhealthy behavior on my end of any conflict or breakdown of a relationship (our most comfortable and learned behavior), I decided to look closely at the whole notion of conflict and communication to strengthen my knowledge and work not only with myself but with others I work with.
Below is some highlights of the online article Conflict Resolution Strategies – -Skills For Resolving Conflict by Blake Flannery that gets to some of the lessons I am learning about conflict and communication.
A few key points:
1. Conflict can be Good: “Life’s conflicts make life interesting and sometimes funny; if you need an example, just watch any evening sitcom. Learn to deal with conflict appropriately, so you don’t have that awful itch sensation without the tools to scratch it.”
2. Manage Conflict: Don’t Let Conflict Manage You: “Resolving conflict is an important skill to use when working with others, but it is necessary to understand the root of the conflict before using strategies to fix it. One misconception is that conflict is a negative thing; however, conflict is one of the best opportunities to strengthen relationships.”
3. Conflict Types: “Another misconception is that conflict only occurs between individuals. Internal conflict can cause strife that is sometimes more difficult to identify and resolve. Before attempting to resolve conflict with another person you should be sure you do not have internal conflict. Be sensitive to your own personal struggles to avoid projecting problems on others, and creating external conflict with others.”
4. External Conflict: Conflict with Others: “Strategies such as assertive communication can revolutionize relationships with others making conflict obsolete. This is due to assertiveness’s ability to communicate active, respectful, goal-oriented messages. The great thing about assertive people is they don’t easily lose their cool, respond appropriately, and stay to the point. It is most difficult to be assertive when things heat up, so practice in benign conversation. Stop blaming, be the bigger man (or woman) and be the leader in your relationships.”
5. Sources of Conflict: “Conflict with others comes from differences. Differences in beliefs, expectations, goals, values, and behaviors make us rub each other the wrong way easily. One person values gifts from the other; the other person expects kind words. Conflict will continue until the values and expectations are exposed in each person.”
Conflict Management Strategies
Two major tools exist to resolve conflict: Compromise and Collaboration.
“Compromise in simple terms means at least two parties giving up something in order to get something in return. It is a “meeting half way” strategy for settling mostly disputes. Compromise should be used for those without the connection of similar beliefs, values, and goals. In either case communication will need to occur to find out where the conflict is.
Collaboration utilizes differences in skills, and is powered by unity in beliefs, values, and goals by creating something larger than the sum.”
Collaboration assumes that the conflict is due to differences in people, but it takes a progressive approach to resolution. Collaboration views differences as strengths, includes all parties involved, values delaying quick decisions, demands all parties to be 100% satisfied.
“In either case communication will need to occur to find out where the conflict is.”
Conflict Management Steps
We need to stop viewing conflict as a road block and start viewing it as an opportunity, just as we might view suffering as an opportunity to help others. This change in goal from one of winning or giving up to one of learning and growing relationships gives new perspective allowing healthy conflict management.
Steps to effectively managing conflict in your life:
Check yourself. Make sure you are not the problem or that you are not taking your own issues out on another person.
Learn effective communication. learning to communicate effectively will help you prevent conflict with others. An example is the use of “I” focused statements instead of “YOU” statements that can be interpreted as blaming and offensive.
Ask Questions. Before talking, ask questions so that you understand the other person.
List possible solutions. This should be done with those involved in the conflict. Do not limit yourself to obvious answers. Try not to vote.
Collaborate. Allow all involved to give input and select the best solution that satisfies everyone. Try not to vote because voting can cause alienation.
Compromise if necessary, usually when goals and values differ too much.
A good source that I am reading and recommend to help with conflict, communication, etc. as a creative entrepreneur (and with personal relationships) is Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior.
For me, the bottom line is this–in the creative community, many of us are not taken seriously by the larger society. To create a community to allow ourselves to be who we are as artists and for audiences hungering for artistic entertainment from all that we do takes hard work and collaboration.
Focusing and lamenting on what you think somebody did or didn’t do (aka becoming the victim), alienating and dismissing someone for not reading your mind (“it’s not my problem, it’s theirs”), or becoming disappointed because he/she didn’t meet your expectations (instead of respecting them as a human being with faults and<for how they show up in the universe) won't get us as creatives very far. Looking within ourselves to help solve future conflicts is what we all need to do from time to time. Communicating how we feel is the key.
There may be a time when despite all that you do to communicate and eradicate a conflict between you and another person doesn’t work. That’s when you have to step away, ensure that you have done all you can to solve the conflict and move on. But the key is to do it with dignity, maturely, with respect for the other person, regardless of how mean or spiteful they appear, and move on. And moving on means not reliving it constantly (in the written word or gossip to others) but to Just. Let. It. GO.
Conflict has no part in the equation, especially since we still have a long way to go to create the kind of artistic and inclusive community that benefits everyone together.