The Function of Conflict; Conflict as a Tool
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May 11th, 2022

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The Function of Conflict

The function of conflict is sense making. It’s our fumbling attempt to determine who we are in the relationship, from the interpersonal to community, organizational to nation-state. One way to perceive the function of conflict is to understand it as a quadratic spectrum of clarity regarding the nature of the relationship, with deeper connection and firmer boundaries occupying the X and Y axes.

The takeaway from this visualization is the insistence that deeper connection and firmer boundaries are not mutually exclusive: deeper connection can come with firmer boundaries, firmer boundaries can result in more right-sized connection. The venerable thinker, writer, somatics practitioner Prentis Hemphill said this on boundaries, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

Conflict as a Tool

If we understand the primary function of conflict as clarifying the relationship, then conflict as a tool is the means in which we carry out this function. Said another way, conflict is the mechanism to clarify our relationships.

There are countless conflict engagement methods, about which I won’t explore within this post. Instead, I want to build a mental model for thinking about conflict as a tool. (I use this phrase conflict engagement instead of conflict resolution because it’s my belief that conflict is very rarely resolved.)

So what do we know about tools? Tools make the daily textures of life easier, and most of the time they’re a necessary precondition. Consider the tools needed to cook our food:

  • Tools can have similar, but divergent manifestations: an open fire vs an electric stove.
  • Tools can scale up and down: a backpacking “stove” vs 12-deck commercial bread oven.
  • Tools can produce significantly different outcomes: smoked meats vs braised meats.
  • One can have varying levels of fluency: can navigate a stove, but not a sous vide.

Let’s game out what’s possible when we attempt to use a tool that’s unfamiliar to us: we could break the tool, or we could break the thing we’re working on; we could hurt ourselves and/or someone else in the process; we can do all of that at the same time, in a single moment. (Disclosure: I’ve managed to accomplish all of these within conflict.)

If we think of conflict as a tool, then we recognize the utility of conflict as something to integrate into the everyday texture of our lives — and we recognize that we have to learn how to use conflict as a tool.

There are multiple ways to learn how to use a tool, and people share divergent opinions on the superior path to mastery.

But is it possible to gain mastery in conflict engagement? Certainly not — conflict engagement requires the ability to shape shift and read the room, to dial up and down various conflict engagement elements to output a process that is uniquely suited to the context and relationship of the people involved at that very specific and irreproducible moment in time.

That being said, in the way that someone with mastery of a craft begins their craftmanship education by learning the foundational concepts of their tools — either by deep study (learning by learning), hours of practice (learning by doing), or a combination of the two — only by integrating both the practice and the study of conflict engagement do we develop a meaningful praxis.

Current Sources of Inspiration

Reading: Maria Popova’s Figuring: “We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.” Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling.

Listening: Every episode of the Rehash Podcast.

Watching: The perennials emerge in the garden.


This weekly serial investigates the tensions that flow from our pursuit of the next phase of digital evolution. As we’re building the infrastructure, finding shared purpose, and establishing digital coordination norms at dizzying speed, it’s easy to forget that we’re still complex and divergent humans collectively traumatized by a previously unimaginable global pandemic. Body language is here to help us remember.

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