Conflict & The Movement of Thought: from Stuck to Unstuck

My focus of late has been on conflict, and what happens as differences emerge in our relating. Conflict is a very natural way of relating that is best described here as ‘hostile’, and sometimes our way of relating with each other about difference becomes just that i.e. hostile.  Robbins (1978) describes a ‘conflict continuum’ with ‘no conflict’ at one end, and ‘behavioural opponent destruction’ at the other, with “the intensity of most conflicts existing somewhere in the middle”. It is this middle group, that I am referring to.

Quite often we can resolve these issues by compromise, if that is mutually agreeable. But sometime the difference matters to us and compromise isn’t an option, nor is simply accepting another’s view. What often then happens, and I base this on my own experience and workplace observations, is there is a tendency to entrench and insist on one’s own views, until convinced otherwise. The conflict might also shape our behaviour – we start to avoid one another or we garner support from colleagues – and the relating can become quite stuck as we try to prove or disprove one or other perspective right or wrong, better or worse.  It can all become extremely unpleasant and anxiety provoking as we get caught up in these unsolvable dilemma’s to which there is rarely a simple, absolute answer. These problems are often complex. The Greek scholars circa 500-400BC (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) referred to a ‘reasoned’ form of this sort of back and forth relating as dialectic.  But it was not until German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770 to 1831) embraced this concept of ‘dialectic’ and developed his own view of this as the incremental open-ended movement of thought that happens between two or more people, that the idea of dialectic as something emergent and evolving was embraced. For every statement or thought presented into the process of relating, a counter view is offered, which leads to another view being offered and so on.  Hegel referred to this back and forth contradiction as ‘negating’ and the way thoughts and ideas emerge and take shape from this dialectical relating – as ’aufhebung’ .

The concept of two people having a wonderfully reasoned argument however, is often not how conflict plays out (as many of us know) – and the back and forth movement of thought can get stuck. Also the conflict can become adulterated with other views and perspectives – which makes it difficult at times to remember what the conflict was about (judicial conflict which tries to remain objective – might be seen as an exception – Simmel 1904). Our workplace ‘subjective’ conflict might then require a third party acting as a broker to try to shift the thinking – a judge or a facilitator for example. However, that might neither be an option nor acceptable in the context. What I find helpful these days when I find myself in these situations, based on the work of a number of scholars (Dennis Mumby 2005, David Bohm 1996/2004, Mowles 2015), is to think about the perspectives (the dualisms – if there are two) and to use the dialectic (the back and forth gesturing) to explore the assumptions and natural prejudices inherent in them – i.e. keep the thought moving and shift the focus from the perspectives themselves, to try to understand what might be shaping the way of thinking that has led to the conflict. Sometimes in my experience, this is the only way to start to try to shift i.e. unstick the thinking – to re-engage incrementally in the dialectic – in a manner that is curious and open-ended, without thinking of resolution/closure.  There are no guarentee’s – there rarely are when it comes to human relating – but I find it helpful to think in this way in my own practice.

Alexandra Gillies for CAM&S.


  • Bohm, D. (1996/2004) On Dialogue, Abingdon: Routledge Classics.
  • Mowles, C. (2015) Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the Paradoxes of Everyday Organisational Life, London: Routledge
  • Mumby, D. (2005) ‘Theorising resistance in organisation studies: A dialectic approach’,Management Communication Quarterly, 19, 18-44.
  • Robbins, S.P. (1978) “ Conflict management and conflict resolution are not synonymous terms”, Californian Management Review, 21(2): 67-75.
  • Simmel, G. (1904) ‘The sociology of conflict I’, American Journal of Sociology, Jan, 490-525.