In this Big Think interview, Priya Parker, a conflict resolution facilitator and author, discusses the importance of conflict or what she prefers to call “heat” in human relationships. She begins by challenging the common perception that conflict is solely negative. Instead, Parker argues that healthy conflict is essential for meaningful change and human connection.
She introduces the concept of heat mapping, a tool used in conflict resolution, which identifies sensitive or heated moments within a group. This mapping is comparable to a doctor locating tender areas. Understanding these moments helps facilitators like Parker guide conversations that are relevant and impactful for individuals and groups. The goal is to enable authentic connections and provide a path forward for resolving conflicts.
As a conflict-averse facilitator herself, Parker empathizes with those who feel discomfort in conflictual situations. She highlights the importance of developing the skill to handle rising heat. This skill requires self-awareness and the willingness to become more comfortable with conflict. Both conflict-averse individuals and troublemakers play crucial roles in fostering healthy conflict resolution.
PRIYA PARKER: When people hear the word conflict, they often think scandal, politics, everyone clamping down into their own camps.
PROTESTER: You swore an oath to the constitution.
REPORTER: Someone's likely to be hurt.
PARKER: But human connection is as threatened by unhealthy peace as it is by unhealthy conflict. Sometimes in our fear of conflict we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I am a child of divorce. My parents separated when I was around nine years old, and when they announced their separation everyone was shocked because they never fought. Part of what I learned very personally is that conflict is relevance. Sometimes we need conflict because sometimes things need to change.
My name is Priya Parker. I am a conflict resolution facilitator and author of the book, "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters." I tend to use the language around heat rather than conflict. We have less judgment around heat. We have less baggage around heat. Heat is actually just relevance around a specific moment or event where a norm or a perceived norm is crossed in our relationships, or institutions, or organizations.
When are moments that you have perceived that conversation stops, and that you're getting into areas or territory that for whatever reason the group doesn't really want to get into? And what is your perceived reason as to why they don't want get into it? Those are moments of heat.
Heat can be around decision making. It can be around power. It can be around long-held and beloved rituals. I'll give an example. How tithes are spent is an area within a house of worship model that would usually have a lot of heat. Do we spend it on the new pews? Should we get a swimming pool for the church? Pockets of heat are basically places where the decision affects a lot of people.
Heat is not good in and of itself, it depends on the context. But it's the doorway into having conversations that are relevant and that affect our lives. Heat mapping is a tool that we employ in the field of conflict resolution, and it's basically the geography of heat in a room. Whether you're a new leader trying to understand an organization, whether you're a new in-law trying to understand the new family that you're entering - where are the sensitive moments? It's almost like a doctor, you know? Sort of like what is tender here and why? Where are the areas in this group that they are avoiding conversation and that avoidance is actually hurting the group?
As a facilitator, I, my peers, are trained to become heat-seeking missiles. We're looking for those pockets of heat. My job is to go into a team or a family system and help really discern what is the most important conversation for them to have that they haven't been able to have in a healthy way? And how do I help them have it in a way that allows for some amount of authentic connection and ideally a way through?
One of the deepest skills we can learn with our friends, with our families, with our teams is how to hold healthy heat. Good controversy is the gentle harnessing of the right amount of heat for a group to face what it needs to face. Good controversy helps us put in the middle of the table the conversations or the decisions that we've been avoiding, the conversations that sometimes feel too complex to have.
If you're trying to create good controversy, start first by determining and being really honest about your own conflict style. Are you conflict-averse? Are you conflict-seeking? Are you somewhere in the middle? Do you consider yourself a smoother-over, kind of a peacemaker? Or are you more of a troublemaker? Are you like "poke and prod," and you're not afraid of a little heat?
Our conflict styles are often very deeply based on our culture or country of origin, on our specific family of origin. What did we see growing up? What were the conversations we could have or not have at the table? And then also personality. I'm a conflict resolution facilitator and I'm conflict-averse. I know, a lot of therapy. Part of the reason I'm an effective facilitator when I am is because I have deep empathy for the other conflict-averse people in the room. When their hands get sweaty, my hands are getting sweaty. And I know, I've trained myself physiologically to be able to hold rising heat in a room. It's a learnable skill.
And so the first step to being able to hold more good controversy is to know your own conflict style, whether you're a smoother-over, or a troublemaker, or somewhere in between, and to work on bringing up your less dominant style and becoming more comfortable with whichever one that is because both are really needed to be able to hold conflict with care.