Conflict Resolution 101
Conflict’s a part of life. But that doesn’t mean it needs to drain the life out of you.
“I was the one who spent years taking care of mom when she was sick and there’s no way you’re getting that money.” “Enough with the texting already!” “Really? That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard!”
Whether we’re communicating with a significant other, family member, colleague or friend, everyone wants to feel heard. And when we’re in conflict—when emotions are often inflamed—it's easy for understanding to be compromised and agreement to seem impossible.
We all see things from our unique perspective, a product of our worldview, our subjective way of making meaning of the world. The way we frame things is a result of our family and socially constructed background, experiences, culture, education and identity.
So, when we’re arguing with each other, what are some steps we can take to try to overcome barriers to understanding, promote collaboration and have a chance to find some mutually acceptable way to resolve the matter?
Active Listening’s Fundamental
Listening’s not enough. Active listening shows the other we’ve heard him or her and that we really “get” what they’re saying—whether or not we agree. Active listening involves:
The next time you find yourself at odds with someone, whether it’s a simple disagreement or a full-blown argument, take time to reflect back, or paraphrase, what you’ve heard the other say. This helps ensure you’ve got it right (which, in emotional situations, you may not have) and shows the other s/he’s been heard. “You’re upset that I was checking texts.” “No, I’m upset that you’re always checking them.” If you’ve misunderstood, rest assured the other will correct you. Reflect back till you get it right. When the other feels heard, s/he will be much more likely to be able to hear you. It’s far less draining to negotiate with someone who genuinely attempts to understand us and what’s behind the position we’re taking, even if we have differing ideas, goals, needs and/or interests.
Asking Open-Ended Questions
“What was it like for you to take care of Mom?” is an open-ended question. “How many days a week did you take care of Mom?” is not. While there may be a natural inclination to assume we already understand another’s underlying needs and interests, assumptions can be inaccurate and, at best, counterproductive. The most effective way to discovering another’s underlying needs and interests is to ask pertinent, open-ended questions.
There’s a famous story permeating the conflict resolution literature that wonderfully illustrates the importance of identifying underlying needs and interests to the process of conflict resolution. It involves two sisters fighting over one orange. Each felt she was more entitled to have it and wouldn’t budge from her position. They ultimately decided to compromise and split the orange in half; upon doing so, one sister discarded the peel of her half and ate the fruit while the other discarded the fruit of her half and used the peel for a cake she was baking. If they had asked the right questions to understand the other’s underlying needs and interests, they both would have had a much more satisfying result: One sister would have had a whole orange to eat, the other an entire peel for her cake. Uncovering needs and interests is an essential part of conflict resolution. As a matter of fact, even in disputes that involve money, the process of uncovering needs and interests invariably reveals the disputes are never just about the money.
When we’re arguing, we’re sometimes the recipient (and sometimes the perpetrator) of provocative comments. The only purpose they serve is to escalate the situation. Reframing, however, can help mitigate their effect. Similar to reflecting, reframing involves rewording what was said to you so as to remove any toxic or provocative comments, while maintaining the essence of the message. “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard!” might be reframed and reflected back as “I see you’re unhappy with my idea.” You’re showing you got the essence of message, but you’ve removed its toxicity. And the very fact that you’re not “taking the bait” can even be disarming to the other. Of course, as with any other skill, reframing takes practice.
Your capacity to put yourself in another’s shoes—empathy—is one of the most important abilities you can have when trying to resolve a disagreement. Empathy acknowledges the other’s feelings and perspective. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re agreeing with the other—but it does need to be genuine. “It sounds like you had to make many sacrifices to take care of mom on your own and I can see how difficult it was for you.” The person hearing this is much more likely to be able to hear you. Empathy’s essential to opening a path to collaboration and, even if we’re not having an argument, it’s fundamental to real relatedness in any relationship.
An insincere or ineffective apology can be worse than no apology at all. In his 2004 book, On Apology, professor of psychiatry Dr. Aaron Lazare asserts that for an apology to be most effective, it must be genuine, should acknowledge accountability for the offense and communicate regret or remorse. As he further indicates, other scholars believe one should also explain how the offense occurred and offer a commitment to not repeat it. “I know I’ve been texting and am truly so sorry. I can understand how disrespected you feel. I’d feel that way, too. I have a sick parent and realize I’ve had this exaggerated compulsion to keep checking my phone. From now on, I’ll take it down a few notches. I respect you and want us both to be able to enjoy our time together.”
Mind Your Emotions
What, you may ask, are you supposed to do with the anger, hurt and frustration you may be feeling? What you won’t want to do is ignore your emotions. Being mindful of them, that is, literally naming the emotion to yourself and even to the other, can actually help you manage it. When we’re emotional, our cognitive abilities can be compromised and the amygdala (our “reptilian brain”) kicks into fight-, flight- or freeze-mode. Mindfulness can help.
Mediation, If You’re Stuck
Okay, so you’ve taken all these steps, but you and the other are still stuck in your positions. You need to find a solution but are facing a concrete wall. This is where mediation can help. A mediator’s a third-party neutral who helps facilitate a conversation between people in dispute who are embedded in their positions and are unable to negotiate a resolution on their own. The mediator does not act as a judge or decision-maker, but instead helps guide parties past their positional barriers and forward onto the path to a mutually acceptable agreement. The beauty of mediation is that the parties are empowered to create options for settlement on their own terms, as opposed to facing the uncertainty of a court-imposed, win/lose decision. Mediation's an informal, voluntary and confidential process that's a highly effective alternative to costly litigation. It saves time, money and prolonged stress and can even help improve damaged relationships. Because of its confidentiality, it can also help protect reputations. The agreements are legally binding and the benefits of mediation have long been embraced by bar associations, law schools and our inundated local, state and federal courts.
Now that you’re equipped with your new conflict resolution skills and resources, designed to can help increase understanding and collaboration, it’s safe to say you can count on having opportunities to try them out. After all, conflict’s a part of life. But that doesn’t mean it needs to drain the life out of you.
Mallory J. Stevens, M.S. Negotiation & Conflict Resolution, is a divorce and commercial mediator as well as conflict resolution consultant in private practice in Manhattan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.msconflictres.com