Sep 3, 2012

Is it Conflict or Drama? 4 ways to tell.

Conflict is a part of life.  Most people don't enjoy it, some people go out of their way to avoid it, but in the end, if you want to have an adult relationship, you have to learn how to deal with conflict constructively.  Every genuine marriage, friendship and work relationship is likely to experience conflict at some point.  An "relationship expert" and author, Gary Chapman, stated, “Peace at any price carries a high price tag”.  Some would say that conflict is positive, when done right.  For more on this idea, I suggest this great article called "Why Conflict is a Good Thing".

On the other side of the coin is "drama", a term (I recently discovered) that may have been coined all the way back in the late 1960s by a Psychotherapist by the name of  Stephen Karpman.  He created a model of dysfunctional communication called "The Drama Triangle".  If you Google that phrase, you can learn all about it from one of the thousands of websites that describe the model in detail.   The other, more obvious, origin of the word is simply derived from the theater and "over acting".

As a person who works with teenagers, I find, as I watch the way teens interact, that most of their conflict ends up being "drama", even if it started as authentic conflict.  For me, when I am at odds with a friend, I often wonder if I am involved in conflict or drama.  Often, people call ALL conflict "drama", and seem to sigh in exasperation.  I believe that conflict has a purpose, and can be positive when it is healthy.  Unfortunately, healthy conflict is challenging to maintain, without it slipping into "DRAMA".

Some definitions from 
conflict: v. To fight or contend.  n. controversy, quarrel
drama: n. Any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.  An exaggerated or overly emotional reaction to events or situations
IS it conflict or drama?  Here are the differences:

1. The Audience
In conflict, the audience is limited.  The argument is kept between two people, with perhaps one or two "counselors" or "mediators" involved for advice or processing.

In drama, the audience is unlimited.  The drama is expanded to include anyone and everyone.  One or both members "air their dirty laundry" for the world to see. This includes (but is not limited to) Facebook jabs (I will discuss this more in a later post), group discussions with uninvolved people, and other public announcements of the conflict.

2. The Duration
In conflict, the duration is short-term.  There is a clear beginning and a resolution, followed by, at times, reflection on or processing about that resolution after it is over.

In drama, the duration is protracted.  There is a murky beginning and no end.  The same conflict occurs over and over, the involved members respond the same way over and over, with no clear resolution.  It becomes a dysfunctional script that is followed ad nauseum.

3. The Method
In conflict, there is direct, face-to-face communication.  The conversations may be emotional, angry, or even calm.  The members take turns being heard, and attempt to understand the others point of view.  The reactions, even when emotional, attempt to be rational. Both members realize they are working together toward a common goal.

In drama, communication is indirect.  This could be manifested as sarcasm, or other passive aggressive communication (like Facebook status updates, next post).  Conversations can happen over text messages, emails or Facebook.  The reactions tend to be out-of-proportion or "over-reactions" to the issue.  Threatening divorce, ending a friendship or threatening suicide would be examples of extreme reactions to an argument (though the first two are reasonable reactions in abusive situations).

4. The Goal
In conflict, when one person confronts a friend (or spouse), the goal is to resolve the issue in a "no-lose" or a "win-win" way.  This means both people are working toward a mutually acceptable solution, both are willing to "own" their part in the conflict, and both are willing to listen with empathy and be vulnerable in a transparent way.

In drama, the confrontation results in a "fight-to-win" situation, a "win-lose" way.  This means that one (or both) people are fighting to be right (while demonizing the other person), that one or both people refuse to accept or acknowledge blame, and one or both fail to listen or be honest with the other person, instead they become defensive and/or shut-down and ultimately destroy the foundations of the relationship. 

There you have it.  Is it conflict or drama?  Only you can decide.  Sometimes what begins as normal, healthy conflict unravels and becomes something that looks and feels like drama.  Sometimes one person in a relationship is unable (or unwilling) to resolve conflict in a healthy and reasonable way.  Ultimately it "takes two to tango"and regardless of how you wanted or intended it to go, some conflict shifts into drama without warning, the only control you have is how YOU react. In my next post I will be discussing this very topic as it relates to Facebook.

Friendships, marriages and other significant relationships are all worth fighting for.  Ultimately, as our society becomes more and more "throw-away", and social media becomes more and more prevalent, genuine relationships with other are increasingly valuable.  I would challenge anyone reading this post to think through your actions before burning bridges you might like to cross in the future.  

For those of you who are visual:

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