Fostering a collaborative culture within your company is incredibly important, but it can be a challenge to execute. With collaboration comes relationships, communication, and – inevitably – conflict. A simple yet profound tool that has shifted the way I manage relationships and conflict is the “4 Levels of Conflict” framework. I was introduced to this framework 10 years ago by Douglas Hart, a curriculum design manager at Durham College. He has taught this concept since the late ‘90s.
There are many frameworks out there on the subject of conflict, but this is one way to approach a lack of consensus or cohesion in the workplace. Simply distilled, there are four levels of conflict: (1) conflict of information, (2) conflict of method, (3) conflict of goals, and (4) conflict of values. The ability to resolve a conflict becomes more challenging as you move up the hierarchy from facts or information to beliefs or values.
Level 1: Conflict of Information
This level is straightforward and fairly easy to resolve. It is based on readily available information where a simple Google search might solve the dispute. Hart uses the example of a couple going on a trip. One says their upcoming journey is 500km the other insists it’s only 275km. Either one of them is right or both are wrong; it’s not possible that both are correct. And this conflict is resolved by simply looking up the information.
Level 2: Conflict of Methods
This is the next level of conflict and is based on process or method. In essence, it’s about how an action or task will be accomplished. The reality of this type of conflict is that someone (potentially more than one person) will need to compromise. For example, in the case of the couple going on a trip, one of them wants to take an early morning flight and be on the beach by 1 PM. The other wants to drive and take the scenic route, staying at bed and breakfasts on the way and turning it into a road trip. The only way to resolve this conflict is for one or both to give up at least part of what they want. Maybe they decide to go with one person’s preference or the other. Or maybe they decide to fly down and drive back.
Level 3: Conflict of Goals
When it comes to the conflict of goals, there is a deeper level of disagreement. It’s not about facts or methods, but about the destination. One person wants to go to Florida and relax on the beach, but the other wants to enjoy the activities and nightlife of New York City. Resolving this type of conflict is more challenging than the previous two because the resolution requires a high level of trust and/or compromise. Conflicts on this level can be enough to end a relationship.
Level 4: Conflict of Values
This is the hardest level of conflict to resolve because it’s based on the beliefs each of us has developed since adolescence. It touches on things that are part of who we are; ideas or internal agreements that have evolved over the course of our entire life. They are not let go of lightly. Returning to our example, it’s as if one member of the couple believes that everyone should take a vacation each year because it helps the body reset and drives creativity, while the other believes that vacations are a waste of money and should be saved for a rainy day.
A conflict of values is, therefore, the hardest to resolve and should be treated with gentleness and humility. When a disagreement of this type happens, there are only two possible results: people agree to disagree or one person convinces the other to reassess/ change their opinion. Level 4 conflict can provide an individual with the opportunity to examine the agreements they have made with themselves and the past experiences that have contributed to their beliefs. This reflection can enable them to accurately evaluate their values and either start to let go and create new ones or understand why they want to hold onto them. This type of conflict, therefore, while challenging, can be an opportunity for growth, both as an individual and in relationships with others.
Understanding this framework allows us to drive to the heart of a conflict when we are working with a team member or client. By asking which level of conflict we’re dealing with, we can determine how to approach the solution. For example, let’s say a client hates the concept for the home page of their website revamp. Do they hate the home page or do they believe that CEOs should never be on welcome videos and that it could tarnish their brand? Or the sales lead doesn’t want to follow a script when it comes to reaching out to prospects. Is it because the idea is bad or is it because we are operating with a different set of facts or beliefs?
This framework can help us determine how to approach conflicts that arise, which conflicts to probe versus which ones to let go of. It helps us view conflict in a way that can inspire innovation in order to compromise and find solutions. And finally, it reminds us to seek to understand the other person rather than make assumptions – which, in essence, is at the core of successful collaboration.