Causes of Conflict: When Taboos Create Trouble

Among the many causes of conflict, taboo issues that arise in negotiation and other realms can be difficult to address. Here’s how to identify and broach these hot-button issues.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

causes of conflict

In negotiation, some topics are difficult to even bring up. Such taboo issues can easily become causes of conflict, writes Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (Viking, 2016). Consider these real-life conflict scenarios:

  • While negotiating an acquisition that would include key personnel, members of the buyer’s team are concerned about rumors that a top executive from the target firm has a serious drinking problem that impairs his performance. They are reluctant to raise the issue with those from the target firm.
  • Teaching a workshop in a Middle Eastern country, an American professor senses rising tension in the room. Later, he learns that he offended his foreign counterparts by exposing the sole of his shoe to those present—a violation of a cultural prohibition.
  • Two department heads, Deb and Lina, have been planning a long-term project that their teams will work on jointly. In a meeting to discuss business team building, Deb mocks a politician whom Lina supports. Lina doesn’t speak up for fear of straining their work relationship.

As causes of conflict, taboos can require us to look more closely at hot-button issues and engage in conflict resolution.

What Is a Taboo?

Every taboo has three components, according to Shapiro:

  1. A prohibition. A taboo specifies particular feelings, thoughts, or actions as being off-limits within a community. For example, curse words may be taboo during a formal negotiation but more acceptable during an office happy hour.
  2. A punishment for breaking the prohibition. Every taboo has a punishment for violation. A negotiator who asks whether a prominent member of the target firm has a drinking problem—a taboo topic—risks damaging and even ending the negotiation.
  3. Protective significance. Taboos serve as unwritten social rules that protect us from saying or doing something that offends community values. For example, the common taboo in many workplaces against discussing politics or religion can keep divisive conflict from arising.

Taboos as Causes of Conflict

Taboos serve a useful function, but can be causes of conflict for at least three reasons, writes Shapiro in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable:

  1. We are unaware of the taboo. Sometimes we inadvertently offend someone by violating a taboo due to lack of awareness. It was Shapiro himself, for example, who caused a stir by unintentionally exposing the sole of his shoe to his workshop participants in the Middle East.
  2. We fear discussing the taboo. “To break a taboo can feel frightening—but to avoid breaking it keeps you mired in a conflict.” In families, long-buried painful memories can prolong hurt feelings and tension, for example.
  3. We have no framework. Taboos vary widely from one context to the next. Because we are likely to lack a systematic framework for dealing with taboo issues, we may be confused about whether to accept, address, or break them.

Navigating Taboos

In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Shapiro recommends three conflict-resolution strategies that can help us bring taboos to the surface of our minds and our negotiations.

  1. Increase your awareness. Because taboos protect important parts of our identities, people often react strongly when taboos they hold dear are violated. Consequently, it is important to try to prepare for the taboos you may encounter and think about how to cope with them. Consider the unwritten rules, off-limit topics, and prohibited emotions (such as anger or sadness) that may govern how others expect you to behave. We also need to become aware of taboos that may constrain our counterpart’s behavior. For example, a cultural taboo might prevent an indigenous tribe from selling land it deems sacred.
  2. Establish a safe zone. Move “sensitive topics from taboo territory to a safe zone” where they can be “examined without fear of punishment or moral compromise,” writes Shapiro in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable. Identify your reason for discussing the taboo: Do you want to air grievances, clarify points of contention, or share your pain? You might also discuss with your counterpart which issues are off-limits and which you can broach respectfully.
  3. Make an action plan. Mutually decide whether to accept the taboo, chisel away at it slowly, or tear it down quickly, Shapiro recommends. For example, an indigenous tribe might decide to break its taboo against selling sacred land to use profits from the sale to educate its younger generation about the tribe’s history and customs.

What other causes of conflict have you identified, and how have you addressed them?

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