The Anti-Antagonist: Conflict and intention

Wednesday, 15 August 2012 06:00 AM Written by  Ann Begler

20120815_officeboxer_photocom141113306_150The relationship between conflict and intention is often at the edge of my consciousness; then, from time to time, it comes more clearly into focus, and I’m reminded, once again, how intention and conflict are constantly looped together.

What do I mean? When we think about some of the common kinds of conflicts that come up for us and begin to dissect them, we often find ourselves to be confused. As we reflect back on a conversation we’ve had with someone else, we realize we were engaged in a myriad of misunderstandings. We were in the same room with the other person, we were talking with each other, and yet, it felt like we were sitting in the middle of a large jigsaw puzzle with no foreseeable way to get the next piece in place. We recall that we began to feel small pockets of conflict within ourselves and suddenly each of us was making a range of accusations we, at one time, never could have imagined making. Things that weren’t personal at the start ended up feeling very personal.

This notion of the absence of clear intention grabbed at me this week as I was facilitating the beginning stage of a planning process with two business partners. Sam was explaining that in his experience Jack never seemed to hear anything he was saying. Sam would give Jack information related to an event at work and Jack would seem to respond by discounting what Sam said. As Sam and Jack tried to pick apart what happened, and what often happens, Sam realized he doesn’t give a lot of thought to why it is he’s actually giving Jack particular information, nor is Sam clear with Jack about what he wants from Jack. Sam became aware of certain types of triggering events that happen that cause him to quickly go to Jack. Usually, Sam has an emotional reaction to these events. As we continued to talk, Sam realized the information he was imparting could be the result of different intentions: 1) his intention may be only to transmit information to let Jack know of the event, 2) his intention could be to use the information he’s transmitting to let Jack know of a larger problem taking place within their business, or, 3) his intention could be to open a conversation with Jack merely for the purpose of asking Jack to give the incident some thought so the incident can go on a future agenda for more discussion. (The possibilities related to intention could go well beyond the three mentioned.)

When Sam isn’t clear about why he is passing along information and isn’t clear about what he wants from Jack, Jack never takes time to simply ask Sam why he’s talking with Jack about the incident. Then Jack makes assumptions about why Sam has gone to him and what Sam wants. Jack responds based on his assumption, his response isn’t what Sam expected or wanted, and things quickly go in a direction neither anticipated and neither wanted.

A fundamental key to managing conflict, or preventing conflict, is to work toward clear communication:

1. Know what it is you want to communicate and why you are communicating it.

2. Tell the other person specifically why you are conveying information, or what your purpose is in entering the conversation.

3. Let the other person know exactly what you would like from him or her as part of the conversation.

If you are engaged in a conversation with someone who hasn’t been clear about his or her intention, it’s important to take steps to help find the clarity that is missing:

1. Don’t make assumptions. Pay attention to whether or not the other person has stated an intention and whether the person has been clear about what he or she expects from you.

2. If the other person has not stated an intention or purpose, ask what it is (for instance, say, “I appreciate we’re about to start out meeting that you set up. I just want to be sure I understand the purpose for the meeting before we start.”)

3. Help to achieve deeper clarity by asking questions such as, "Is this a time when you merely want me to listen? Do you want a response from me? Is there some action you will want me to take? "

Clear statements of purpose and questions that deepen intention lead to constructive conversations and positive outcomes. The more determined each person in a conversation can be about assuring intentions are clear and stated, and the more we work to identified desired outcomes as we interact with someone else, the more likely we are to find ourselves in a productive conversation and the less likely we are to find ourselves in a conflict we didn’t expect.

(Top image: Steven Blandin/Getty Images)


The Anti-Antagonist is a personal opinion column by Ann L. Begler, founder and principal of the Begler Group, a Pittsburgh firm providing services in mediation, advanced facilitation, conflict coaching and organizational development. You can e-mail Ann via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.