The source of interpersonal conflict, and what you can do about it

Understand. Be Understood. ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

15% of an iceberg is above the water, where we can see it. We know there’s much more ice below the surface, but it’s pure guesswork as to the size, shape, and nature of the submerged 85%.

Unless we dive down, which we’re now going to do.


Only, I’m not talking about icebergs today. I’m talking about you, your co-workers, your friends, and the next person you’re going to meet.

Our subject is nothing less than humanity itself. Let’s call it Introduction to People, or “People 101.”

You see, the universe gives us a magical thing called balance. I know this sounds weird, but it’s actually a practical, down-to earth matter.

Think of Newton’s Third Law:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

When we look at nature, we see action-reaction force pairs in everything. You push down on the earth, and the earth pushes up on you. If this were not so, car tires would have no traction. You’d float aimlessly in the air, rather than propel forward toward the office. (Maybe that’s a good thing!)

Human beings come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and personalities. At bottom, however, we all lean toward either a thinking / feeling orientation or relationship / task orientation. We are either introverted or extroverted, skeptical or optimistic, active or reflective.

We can be a blend of both, but most of us lean more toward one than we do the other.

Carl Jung observed that opposites attract. Look at your life and ask “Isn’t it so?”

A virtual Odd Couple, (almost) every marriage has a personality contrast. Maybe it’s a touchy-feely type and a hard-headed intellectual. Or maybe the outgoing, people-oriented person settles down with someone who’d rather stay home and read a book. One cares what everything thinks and wants to take on the world’s problems and make everything better. The other says “you’re crazy, and anyways who cares what people think.”

The universe gives us balance because without it we would not survive. Every human relationship is an action-reaction force pair. Someone in the company has to be good at balancing the books, and someone has to be good at selling.

For goodness sake, never ask your cautious, task-oriented accountant to go out and win people over. Don’t let the sales people keep your books. Learn to understand and leverage human differences.

The people around you fill in your gaps. Your strengths are their weaknesses, and vice versa. You pick your opposite because that’s a good life strategy. Alone, we’re all two-legged stools. Together we stand.

This brings us to a mystery: why is there so much interpersonal conflict in the world if the universe gives us balance?

The answer is that the balance is all happening under the water. Above the surface we see only the 15%—the behavior of others that drives us nuts, because we don’t understand what’s really going on. We don’t appreciate, or even understand, the true nature and value of human differences.

We find ourselves in a business or personal relationship with someone who is, in some important ways, very much unlike us, and we say to ourselves: “What is wrong with this person? Why can’t he be more like me!”

And by “more like me,” we mean “right.”

Conflict begins when we see others as impeding rather than as balancing us.

We human beings take the natural balance built into the action-reaction force pairs of relationships and we turn it into imbalance by wanting others to see as we see, to feel as we feel, to think as we think, and to value as we value.

If, in contrast, you can see what others see and feel what others feel, you can achieve the same end: harmony and understanding. You can restore the balance.

I’m not suggesting that we can all, or even should, fall in love with one another. Some people are going to drive you crazy, no matter what, but you still have to work with them in a productive, drama-free manner.

In my work I use empirical, data-driven workplace assessment tools to take my clients to the submerged dynamics of their interpersonal workplace relationships. I dive down with them to explore the talents, values, and personality of every individual—in a safe, positive, inspiring, and insightful way.

I focus on what’s right with people, not what’s wrong: their talents, strengths, assets, values.

When you take the world’s (fortunately rare) psychopaths and sociopaths out of the picture, all of us are just trying to do the best with what we have.

Because we live in a world of icebergs, and because most of us don’t know how to deep-sea dive, we make assumptions about our environment and the people in it that are incorrect, simply because we don’t have all the information we need.

The tagline of my business is “Understand, Be Understood.” That’s my guiding principle, and I use it to make workplaces happier, stronger, and more effective.

And it works, not only in your organization but also in your life.

Are you curious to know more? Send me an email, and we’ll talk.

2 thoughts on “The source of interpersonal conflict, and what you can do about it”

  1. I could not agree more. I used to be frustrated and believe that other people were “impeding” my efforts – until I came across Belbin profiles and realised that people just are what they are. Most do the best they can from their perspective and with the personality and capability they have and within the constraints they face. Most have no interest in “impeding” my efforts and often my efforts are improved by understanding their point of view. This realisation came relatively late, but changed my life for the better.


◌ You can write stuff down here ⬇

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s