Our Personal Colony Collapse Disorder

Admittedly our families are not honeybees. They just sound that way when they gather around a holiday dinner table. That loud buzzing sound we hear is argument and debate, some civil…some not so much. Conflict is normal, but coming right on the heels of a very divisive election season, it may get deafening. The queen bee, worker bees and immature bees swarming around the turkey and dressing sound like they can’t wait to sting each other.

By definition, Colony Collapse Disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when a honeybee colony’s worker bees disappear. They leave behind the Queen Bee, plenty of food and a few bees to care for the remaining immature bees. Perhaps the major difference in our human form of this disorder is there will be no food left behind!

Can we deal with conflict in our relationships in a manner that is mutually beneficial?  Believe it or not, the honeybees may hold the clue to help that happen in our human hives. Inside each teeming hive are members who must work together in order to succeed. Our families, communities and workplaces must do the same if we are to achieve our shared goals. Conflict is inevitable and not always a negative thing. Even in a group comprised of friendly individuals with common goals and interests, conflict can be useful IF it can be resolved in a solution-oriented manner.

If conflict is about anything, it is about perception.  We fail to see or seek mutually satisfying answers when we are deep in an argument with someone. Instead, we perceive (1) they think differently, and (2) they’re just plain wrong. Here is the reality about conflict with friends and family: It is impossible to avoid. Conflict is inevitable and its resolution, good or bad, is all in how we manage it.

No matter how angry we get with one another, remember that we are in this thing called life together. The interdependence of those we are closest to, family and friends, is undeniable; our survival depends upon it. If we engage in division and opposition, rather than recognizing our mutual needs, we miss opportunities to find common ground, build goodwill and maintain healthy relationships.

Dr. Thomas Seeley, a Biology professor who researches honeybee behavior at Cornell University, notes: “Conflict can be a useful element… it often pays a group to argue things carefully through to find the best solution to a tough problem.”

Seeley’s research focuses on how bees in a hive must resolve their conflicts to ensure survival, which is mutually advantageous. Honeybees instinctively understand that victory obtained through force and intimidation is shortsighted. As humans, we need to recognize that getting our way or causing more dissension are not mutually beneficial behaviors.  So why do we persist in it? How would it change around the holiday table if we stepped back, examined how we behave during heated arguments and agreed that we do not all think the same? Some of the issues are not even significant. Victory may be sweet, but unlike honey, it won’t last forever. Our long-term goal should be maintaining healthy relationships, not on always being right.

When we insist on the false perception that winning is everything, we fail to look for mutually beneficial solutions.  People on either side of an argument often get so hung up on getting their point across they fail to see their actions will eventually lead to anger and alienation. Refusing to budge or engaging in personal attacks are fine during a friendly video game, so save those strategies for after the table is cleared.

Experts say it is oversimplification to think there is a single “best” way to resolve conflicts. Many factors like time or the relative importance of the issues matter.  Communication researchers have studied four primary styles:

  • Lose-Lose—Avoidance. This is a temporary Band-Aid and for insignificant issues, it works well. However, the downside is avoidance never eliminates conflict. Changing the subject, using humor or denying that a problem exists may help us cool down, but it can also leave us feeling unsatisfied. On major issues, avoidance reflects pessimism, negativity and a willingness to put up with the status quo. When it matters, be honest enough to voice your concerns and to listen to the concerns of others, even if you disagree.
  • Win-Lose—Competition. If every conflict is a contest, you may find yourself controlling the situation…alone. Others do not view a winner-takes-all option charitably. If the matter is life-threatening, it may be necessary to be right. However, competition often breeds aggression through bullying, character assassination and creating defensiveness. Both direct and passive aggression can leave lasting scars on relationships, leaving recipients humiliated. Do you honestly want to leave a table filled with guests who feel inadequate, hopeless, even depressed?
  • Lose-Win—Accommodation. Sometimes it is obvious the issue matters more to someone else than it does to you. Accommodation has its benefits. But, when we consistently choose to accommodate others, always allowing them to have their way, we show lack of concern for ourselves. If you never value your own opinions or assert yourself, you become bitter and frustrated. Choosing your battles wisely is good advice, as is taking the high road occasionally. However, if this is your default choice, you may feel like you always get the short end of the wishbone.
  • Win-Win—Collaboration. This can be the most desirable conflict style when an issue is too important to allow compromise. Collaboration seeks to find solutions that satisfy the needs of everyone involved. When we show concern for ourselves and others through mutual respect, everyone walks away from the table feeling valued and validated. Those feelings go much better with dessert and coffee, wouldn’t you agree?

Flexibility in human behavior is the sign of a competent communicator. Choosing healthy relationships, like choosing healthy food, is the best way to set our tables for the upcoming holidays. Less conflict and chaos equal no relationship collapse.