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What Is 'Conflict'?

Conflict occurs when two control systems try to change the same perception. This is what happens in the typical case of procrastination: one system wants to rest, and one wants to work.

Conflict also occurs when people are controlling for different outputs that require the same input.

Conflicts can only be solved by changing Reference Levels: how success is defined by the parties involved.

Change the structure of the situation that creates the reference levels each party is using to define success, and you'll eliminate the conflict.

Josh Kaufman Explains 'Conflict'

Let's take a moment to examine everyone's favorite character flaw: procrastination.

Everyone procrastinates to a certain extent: with too many things to do, "putting off" tasks until they feel urgent is a natural response. How can you focus on something due in the future when there's something that needs to be done now? What's particularly frustrating are the times we know we have time to get something done in advance, but we just don't feel like doing it right now.

Part of us wants to work, and part of us wants to not work.

If you try to force yourself to work, you find that you're so easily distracted that not much gets done. If you try to rest, part of you feels bad that you're not working, which means you're not really resting.

Entire days can pass where you neither really work nor really rest, but you feel exhausted from the effort of getting nothing done.

What gives? Conflicts occur when two control systems try to change the same perception.

When you're procrastinating, one of your brain's subsystems is trying to control "getting things done," while another is trying to control "getting enough rest". Since both systems are trying to control the same perception-physical action-the systems fight to move the perception in the way they want it to go.

The situation is akin to a heater and an air conditioner fighting to control the temperature in a single room.

As long as their respective reference levels are mutually exclusive, neither system will ever be under control-they'll continue to expend effort to move the system in the direction they're controlling for. Even if one system brings their perception back under control temporarily, it won't be long before the other system ensures it's out of control once more.

Procrastination is an example of an inner conflict, but conflicts happen between people as well. Conflicts occur when people are controlling for different outputs that require the same input.

Think of two children fighting over the same toy. It's the procrastination / temperature battle all over again, only the control systems are people this time. As long as one child has the toy, the other will be upset. As a result, the toy moves back and forth constantly, and both children are upset most of the time.

Another common example is senior leaders in a large company squabbling over how a limited budget will be allocated, and you'll have a good idea of where conflicts come from. If $1 million dollars is allocated to one VP, that means all of the other VPs can't use it, so they protest- corporate politics at its best.

One of the things that make interpersonal conflict challenging is that we can never truly control the actions of another human being. We can influence, persuade, inspire, or negotiate, but we can never directly act upon another person's perceptions or directly change their reference levels.

Conflicts can only be resolved by changing Reference Levels-how success is defined by the parties involved.

Attempting to resolve a conflict by simply calling attention to unacceptable behavior is ineffective in the same way that willpower can't change behavior directly-it's not addressing the root cause of the conflict. Each party in the conflict has a difference Reference Level, which is primarily influenced by the situation or Environment.

The only way to resolve the conflict is to change each party's reference level, which is best done by changing the structure of the situation.

In the case of procrastination, conflict can be ended by scheduling firm times for work and rest, ensuring enough of each.

In The Now Habit, Neil Fiore recommends creating an "Unschedule" that prioritizes rest over work. When your brain is sure that you'll be receiving all of the relaxation and enjoyment you need, and that you only have a certain amount of time to get things done, it's easier to focus on doing productive work.

In the case of the competing heater and air conditioner, the situation can only exist as long as you maintain the conflicting temperatures on the thermostats.

Change the reference levels, and you resolve the conflict.

In the case of squabbling children (or Vice Presidents), you can change the situation by ensuring each combatant gets roughly the same toy, gets no toy at all, or changes their measure of success from "getting mine" to "working together." Change the situation that creates the reference levels each party is using to measure success, and you'll eliminate the conflict.

Questions About 'Conflict'


"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Albert Einstein, renowned physicist


From Chapter 6:

The Human Mind


https://personalmba.com/conflict/



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The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an acclaimed business, learning, and skill acquisition expert. He is the author of two international bestsellers: The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours. Josh's research and writing have helped millions of people worldwide learn the fundamentals of modern business.

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