Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Conflict Management The Prophetic Way Part 2

In part one of the conflict management post series, I discussed the different modes of managing conflict. In this post (part 2 of the series), I’ll be discussing the sources of conflict, and how to shift the source of conflict from one that is futile to meddle in, to one that can be influenced.

According to Christopher Moore, author of The Mediation Process, there are six sources of conflict. Three of them are difficult to influence, and pursuing them will only exacerbate the conflict. In the other three sources of conflict, influence and resolution are more likely.

The three sources of conflict that are difficult to influence are:

  • History (blaming) - to point out a mistake that happened in the past and cannot be undone. Not only can the past not be changed, the person being blamed feels attacked and embarrassed. Blaming includes statements such as, “I told you so”, “Now look at what you’ve done”, “You’re so incompetent.”
  • Personality - to attack a person’s conduct, behaviour, or way of doing things. People usually cannot undergo a ‘personality transplant’ or change who they are, especially through people who have no power/authority to enforce anything, or through people who they do not respect. Personality conflicts include statements or thoughts such as “You drive me crazy”, “Why can’t you just be like x”. Personality conflicts may also involve fault-finding.
  • Values - to attack a person’s beliefs, or principles he/she follows. A direct attack on values is equivalent to claiming a morally superior viewpoint, which is rarely ever tolerated. Value-based conflicts can lead to statements such as, “Why can’t you just get it?”, “That doesn’t make any sense”, “What I want is more important than than what you want.”
These three sources - history, personality, and values - are attributes that define a person.  Therefore, conflict rooted on these sources amounts to an attack on the individual rather than the issue. An attack on an individual, as one can plainly recognize, usually creates more harm than good - it can lead to relationships filled with hatred, fear, and rebellion, and can cause emotional damage and even violent behaviour.

Many people belittle the hazards of conflicting over history, personality, and values, and therefore focus their time and energy on these sources. Such people may feel that focussing on these sources of conflict is the normal way of coming out ‘victorious’ or teaching a lesson, not recognizing the long term implications of their approach on the relationship. If the relationship between parties is strong, and cemented with trust, focussing on these sources might have some value. But if the relationship is fragile, and filled with uncertainty, focussing on these sources can be inflammatory rather than constructive.

The good news is that there are three sources of conflict that can be influenced. These sources are:

  • Interests - to have a desire or preference that is in conflict with someone else’s desire or preference. When interests are shared and discussed, it opens the possibility of achieving a creative solution that reconciles and satisfies both parties, or it allows one party to adopt the other party’s interests through recognizing a greater value in it. InshaAllah, I will elaborate on this source further in a later post.
Shura, or mutual consultation, was a common practice of the Prophet during interest-based conflicts. For example, during preparations for the battle of Uhud, there was a debate over whether the Muslims should fight within the walls of Madinah, or fight in the battlefield. Some of the elders amongst the Muslims were inclined towards fighting from within the city walls, as was the Prophet , recognizing that this was the more cautious (safe) and logistically superior approach. But many youth and some leaders amongst the Ansar argued for fighting in the battlefield, confident in Allah’s aid and the promise of martyrdom. The two interests in conflict were effectiveness and reward. In the end, the interest of the majority of people, including the Prophet was swayed to the opinion that the battle should be fought in the battlefield.

  • Information - a conflict that is caused by inaccurate, or incomplete information. People draw conclusions from the information they have, and if they are given complete information, that may change their conclusion and resolve the conflict. Consider the following incident narrated by Umar ibn al Khattab, and how Umar, despite his strong behaviour, resolved the conflict through obtaining complete information on the matter: 
I heard Hisham bin Hakim reciting Surat-al-Furqan during the lifetime of Allah's Apostle, and noticed that he was reciting in a way that Allah's Apostle had not taught me. I was about to jump over him while He was still in prayer, but I waited patiently and when he finished his prayer, I put my sheet round his neck (and pulled him) and said, "Who has taught you this Sura which I have heard you reciting?" Hisham said, "Allah's Apostle taught it to me." I said, "You are telling a lie, for he taught it to me in a way different from the way you have recited it!" Then I started leading (dragged) him to Allah's Apostle and said (to the Prophet ), "I have heard this man reciting Surat-al-Furqan in a way that you have not taught me." The Prophet said: "(O 'Umar) release him! Recite, O Hisham." Hisham recited in the way I heard him reciting. Allah's Apostle said, "It was revealed like this." Then Allah's Apostle said, "Recite, O 'Umar!" I recited in the way he had taught me, whereupon he said, "It was revealed like this," and added, "The Qur'an has been revealed to be recited in seven different ways, so recite of it whichever is easy for you ." (Bukhari)

  • Circumstances - a conflict facilitated by factors external to the parties. For example, three kids sitting in the back of a compact car may always be fighting. The solution to such fighting may simply be to change the circumstance - get a van, so that they are not immediately next to each other. Or, for example, during the Makkan period, the Muslims and non-Muslims were in conflict over values - idolatory and oneness of God - leading to torture, persecution, and humiliation of Muslims. To manage this conflict, and it’s impact, the Prophet simply changed the circumstance by having Muslims emigrate to Abyssinia, a land where its King was accommodative of Islam and Muslims (and became Muslim himself).


The skill of conflict management is to shift the source of the conflict from blame, personality, and values, to interests, information, and circumstances.

For example, instead of blaming the child for spilling his/her milk, the parent can focus on the circumstances by teaching the child how to hold the glass properly, or by getting a spill-proof cup. Instead of accusing a work colleague of being slow in getting work done (personality conflict), the individual can emphasize his/her interest to have the work completed by the fiscal year end.  Instead of arguing over a fiqh ruling with someone (value conflict), the two parties can ask a mutually agreed-upon scholar to get the correct ruling (information).

Shifting the source of conflict is difficult, because our emotions, which often dictate our actions during conflict, find it easy to attack history, personality, and values. InshaAllah, I will talk about this issue in a later post. One exercise we can all do - and I continue to do - is to identify the source of conflict the next time we get into one.

Stay tuned for my next post, which continues on the subject of conflict management.

P.S. If you found value in this post or any of my other posts, please share it with others, submit comments, and subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed. My goal is to empower Muslims in the field of personal development, and you can help me make this goal a reality.