Have you ever had a conflict and wished you could have handled it better?
Conflict results from differences – in needs, values and motives. Sometimes through these differences we complement each other, but sometimes we oppose each other. Conflict is not a problem in itself – it is what we do with it that counts.
It is important that we do something because whether we like it or not, conflict demands our energy. In fact, an unresolved conflict takes a lot of our attention. We all know how exhausting an unresolved conflict can be. It is not always easy to fix the problem but a great energy boost can come when we do. Resolving conflict requires skills.
They are the skills that enable us to bypass personal differences and open to possibilities. The skills of CR draw us closer to other people, as we jointly search for fair solutions and balanced needs. It involves a huge relationship shift from adversaries to co-operative partners. In this shift each person benefits.
Organisational managers find conflict-handling skills important. Conflict is an opportunity for learning more about the company – its bottle-necks and inefficiencies, as well as its areas of expertise. The learning potential of conflict often goes unrecognised when staff and management react with “fight” or “flight”. Conflict Resolution skills require a third way, “Flow”.
These interpersonal skills are also the tools for building friendship and intimacy. A deeper trust develops as people learn “we can work it out”. Relationships become more fulfilling and supportive.
The Conflict Resolution Network has put together a toolkit of 12 skills – you can reach in and take out what fits for any occasion. Conflict Resolution skills teach the psychology of effective communication. They are:
The resolution of world conflict does not lie only with governments. Everybody can support international peace endeavours. The Conflict Resolution Network is a peace program with daily relevance. The conflict-resolving manager helps build an effective economic system. The effective individual builds friendships and intimacy around them – vital components in social communication. We are all part of the giant web of communication and we can start from where we stand in it.
Conflict can develop in a predictable way. Here we see the value of skilful action or intervention, even when it all looks like “small stuff” or “nothing much”.
Discomfort is a worrying feeling that something is not quite right and you are not sure why.
How can you get comfortable? Say something or ask a question. Check how the other person feels. Are they worried about something? Try some small talk to relax the relationship or get more general information. It’s not a big issue yet. Perhaps it really isn’t about you and you should stay out of it.
An incident is relatively minor. Something has happened that leaves you feeling a bit irritated or upset. You might think you should just forget about it because it’s not important. Over time it might cause problems.
Talk with them about it as soon as you both can. Use facts and good dialogue and listen to their explanation. It is a small thing and you want to be sure that the relationship goes well from now on. Express respect and good will to put it to rest.
People misunderstand each other when they make false assumptions. They might have confused some facts or misinterpreted the other person’s motives. Perhaps a sensitive issue was raised and communication has not fixed the problem yet. You often think about the problem and perhaps exaggerate it with new concerns.
Have a longer, deeper talk about the situation. Make it relaxed and unrushed. Don’t assume you understand. Check your assumptions, conclusions and the meaning you are making of it.
A build-up of failed communications precedes a state of tension. Emotions are high and the relationship is weighed down with the negative attitudes and fixed opinions of both.
It has taken time to get this bad. It will take time fix it. Name the good reasons to resolve the issues. Everyone has to want it fixed. Deal with your own bad feelings first. Be prepared: you will need a plan with a range of actions. Work patiently on the relationship as well as the bigger issues. Work together over time with everyone involved. You may need a neutral person to help.
A crisis has extreme behaviours and emotions at boiling point. Perhaps someone walks out of a job or a relationship. There may be a very heated argument or violence. It feels out of control.
Someone with authority may be needed for control. Someone with a cool head may be able to make the communication of information clear and simple. People may need support and practical help. First, make sure it is safe and calm. Work on long-term outcomes later.
Opponents or Partners?
The win-win approach is about changing the conflict from attack and defence, to co-operation. It alters the direction of communication.
One person consistently applying a joint problem-solving approach can make the difference. That’s you. Therefore, the first person you have to convince is yourself.
Until we pay attention, we are usually unaware of the way we argue. We find ourselves having a knee-jerk reaction in difficult situations – based on long established habits combined with the passing mood of the moment. If one person is right, then the other person must be wrong.
We need to take a moment to consider the best approach for the circumstances
The most important win-win manoeuvre you can make is to change direction by listening, then discussing.
The win-win approach says:
I want to win and I want you to win too
How to have this happen?
Go Back to needs
Discuss underlying needs, rather than only looking at solutions. The following story makes the point quite well:
There are two people in a kitchen. There is only one orange left and both of them want it. What would you expect as the solution? Compromise is one option. They might cut it in half and each gets half.
Let’s assume that’s what they do. One person now goes to the juicer and starts squeezing a too-small orange juice. The other, with some difficulty, begins to grate the rind of the orange to flavour a cake.
If they had discussed needs rather than heading straight to solutions, they could have both had the equivalent of a whole orange. Their needs were complementary, in fact, not conflicting.
Addressing each person’s underlying needs means you build solutions that acknowledge and value those needs, rather than denying them. Even where solutions cannot be as perfect as in the orange story, people feel differently about the outcome.
To probe below the surface, redirect the energy by asking questions like:
“Why does that seem to be the best solution to you?”
“What’s your real need here?”
“What interests need to be served in this situation?”
“What values are important to you here?”
“What’s the outcome or result you want?”
The answers can significantly alter the discussion. It digs up the raw materials for co-operation. It allows you to say what you need and for other people to say what they need too.
A win-win approach rests on:
It succeeds because co-operation gives both people more of what they want. The Win/Win approach is conflict resolution for mutual gain.
Problems or possibilities?
The Creative response to conflict is seeing problems as possibilities. Deciding to see what can be done, rather than how terrible it all is, choosing to extract the best from the situation.
See how our attitudes colour our thoughts, for example, “Perfection” versus “Discovery”. Let’s call them attitude “hats”. Which “hat” do you wear each day? Do you see difficulties as problems or as challenges?
The Perfection hat judges and says: “Is this good enough or not?” (Usually not …) “Does this meet my highest standards?”
The Discovery hat is curious, it says: “How fascinating! What are the possibilities here?”
What is our mind chattering about under our Perfection hat?
The search for Perfection sets you up for “Winners – vs – Losers”
Such yardsticks can be used to make decisions about traffic jams, your partner, the kids, the photocopy machine, the boss and, above all, yourself.
Is there a Discovery hat still sitting on the shelf of possibilities? When you were a young child and learning to walk you didn’t go “right foot”, “wrong foot”, and each fall was as interesting as the next step. To the young child, everything is part of the great experiment, including the tumble.
You can take out that Discovery hat again and dust it off? What’s tucked away underneath your Discovery hat?
The process of Discovery invites: “Winners – & – Learners”
If there are no failures, only learning, self-esteem gets a big boost. You can put on your Discovery Hat and problems look like intriguing puzzles. “What will make the difference so that he stops complaining to me all the time?”; “What else can I try to get the kids to help with washing up?”; “What are we freed up to do now that $7 million order has just been cancelled?”; “The photocopy machine has broken down again, how fascinating!”
The process of Discovery invites, “Another Challenge? How Fascinating!
A not-so-famous but should-be maxim: “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing ….. !” is an invitation to experiment and risk.
Life is not about winning and losing – it’s about learning. When you fall down, you pick yourself up and note where the pot-hole was so you can walk around it the next time. A person who has gone “too far” knows just how far they can go. No “winners – and – losers”, just “winners – and – learners”.
Ah, conflict! What an opportunity…
The tasks of active listening
Empathy is about building rapport, openness and trust between people. When it is absent, people are less likely to consider your needs and feelings. The best way to build empathy is to ensure the other person knows that they are understood. That means being an active listener. There are three specific tasks to use in different situations: Listen for Information, Affirmation and Inflammation.
AIM OF SPEAKER: to clarify the facts and what is wanted, so there is no confusion or misunderstanding.
TASK OF THE LISTENER: to clarify your understanding of what the speaker is saying, to check and confirm your understanding of the facts; plus ask about anything relevant that they might not have said…
As listener, you want to hear your speaker to confirm something like: “Yes, that’s it, that’s what I want” so you are both clear.
Don’t jump straight into solutions. Collect information. Find out how it is on the other side first.
After this you will want to share your own perspective (see Appropriate Assertiveness).
AIM OF SPEAKER: to talk about how the problem affects them.
TASK OF LISTENER: to help the speaker really hear what they are saying and/or to hear that you acknowledge their feelings.
Here, you recognise that the other person is helped by your taking time to hear their problem.
Offering advice won’t really help. The speaker finds greater clarity and understanding of the problem for themselves. Active listening builds relationship and trust.
Remember that active listening is a method of helping the other person focus below the words to the unresolved issues. Notice sighs and body shifts as they often indicate some insight or acceptance. Pause before asking something like, “So how is it now?”
AIM OF SPEAKER: to tell you that you are the problem.
TASK OF LISTENER: to ensure the speaker knows that you have heard what they are saying and to defuse the strong emotion. This is not the same as agreeing with them. We know that this is not easy and will take lots of practise and deep breathing!
When someone is emotionally blaming you, you want to defend yourself. You feel attacked! Before getting defensive, take a pause and move into active listening. It’s common to blame the other person, but not useful. Acknowledge that it is difficult to be objective when emotion is high. Active listening is an effective tool to reduce emotion of a situation.
Every time you correctly label the emotion the other person is feeling, the intensity of it dissipates. The speaker starts to feel heard and understood. Once the emotional level of the conflict has been reduced, reasoning abilities for both of you can function more effectively. When someone is telling you they are unhappy with you, criticising you, complaining about you, or just getting it off their chest:
Slow down and draw them out further. Explore gently with them if there is more behind the emotion. Once the heat is out of the conversation, you might say how it is for you without denying how it is for them.
Ask what could be done now to make it OK again. If they heat up again, go straight back to active listening.
When the speaker says something like, “Yes, that’s what I said”, they know the listener has taken in their point.
Move towards options for change or solution. Ask what they really want, or what they want now.
For them to change first I must change.
Keep on reflecting back as accurately as you can until they calm down from the high emotion. If it is working they will explain everything in some detail, but as the interchange continues the heat should be going out of the conversation. When this happens, you have really achieved something! Eventually they will be ready and able to listen to you.
When to use “I” statements
Appropriate Assertiveness is being able to state your case without arousing the defences of the other person. It works when you say how it is for you rather than what they should or shouldn’t do. “The way I see it…”, attached to your assertive statement, helps. A skilled “I” statement goes even further.
The “I” statement formula can be useful because it says how it is for me, how I see it from my point of view. It stays out of their space.
You could waste brain power predicting the other person’s response. Don’t! Just be sure that you haven’t used inflammatory language, that is it should be “CLEAN”. Because you don’t know how the other person will respond, the cleanest “I” statements are delivered to state what you need, not to force them to fix things.
Use an “I” statement when you need to let the other person know that you feel strongly about the issue. Others can underestimate how hurt, angry or put out you are, so it’s useful to say exactly what’s going on for you, describing not blaming. Your “I” statement should be simple and “CLEAR”.
What your “I” statement isn’t
Your “I” statement is not about being polite. It’s not to do with “soft” or “nice”, nor should it be rude. It’s just clear.
It’s not the resolution; it’s the opener to a conversation. Don’t expect it to fix things straight away. Don’t think the other person is going to respond as you want them to immediately.
A well-intentioned “I” statement:
Sometimes the situation may not look any different, yet after a clean, clear “I” statement it may feel different, which on its own changes things. Here’s an example:
Nan was upset when she heard her adult son, Tommy, had visited town and not bothered to call or see her. They seemed to be growing further apart, and she had been brooding over this. She did not want to appear to nag him, or say anything to make things worse. She did want to see him when he came to town.
When next they spoke, she prepared herself for the conversation with a well-rehearsed “I” statement. She got it “clear” and “clean”. She was very sure she wanted a conversation that would be different from all those times she hinted at the problem without really saying it.
“When I miss out on seeing you I feel hurt and what I’d like is to have contact with you when you are in town.”
She said it. Tommy immediately reacted with “You’re always going at me with the same old thing.” But Nan had a clear intention. “No”, she said. “This time I said something different. I was simply telling you how I feel.”
For the first time on this issue, he really heard her. There was a moment’s silence. Then instead of getting defensive (his usual pattern) he said “Well, actually I’ve tried to phone a few times. You weren’t home.” She acknowledged that was so. She felt much better and they then went on to have the best conversation in ages.
The next time someone shouts at you and you don’t like it, resist the temptation to withdraw rapidly (maybe slamming the door on the way out). Resist the temptation to shout back to stop the onslaught, and deal with your own rising anger.
This is the time for APPROPRIATE ASSERTIVENESS. Take a deep breath. Stay centred, feet firmly planted on the ground, and get your mind into “I” statement gear. Start mixing a three ingredient recipe:
When… I hear a voice raised at me
I feel... humiliated
And what I’d like is that I… can discuss an issue with you without ending up feeling hurt.
The best “I” statement is free of expectations. It is delivering a clean, clear statement of how it is from your side and how you would like it to be.
What will steer us to use power ‘with’ rather than power ‘over’ each other?
Power underlies most conflicts, dictating outcomes. For positive, constructive and inclusive outcomes, we must take account of how power is operating.
Empowering and disempowering relationship patterns
In conflict we often try to openly overcome or defeat others, or to manipulate them covertly. Here’s a story ….
The helpless innocent is attacked by the big, bad monster! But all is not lost! The Shining Knight comes to the rescue, the Dragon is defeated, the innocent rescued and peace restored to the Kingdom …
You will recognise these architypes in stories from all cultures. We absorb these stories and talk to ourselves in these terms. We can identify ourselves and others in these roles, deciding that people are “innocent, helpless victims”, “wrong, bad bullies” and “only here to help”. When we think in these terms, we are caught up in a perpetual cycle where no-one wins. This is called the Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer cycle. This is a psychological setting, not a situational description; when bad things happen to you, you are a situational victim. Here is how it works psychologically and clues to finding the way out and reclaiming your power.
This is a simplified outline of a pattern where each player fails and feels powerless to get what they want. The Bully loses to the Knight, who is now stuck with a weeping princess. The Victim will do it again and have to be rescued again. When they fail, they change position. An exhausted or frustrated Rescuer becomes a Victim or a new Persecutor, “I know best, just do it my way!” A cornered Persecutor becomes a Victim, “They all hate me!” A persistent Victim becomes a new Rescuer or even a persecutor, “You should help me!” or “I know how you feel, let me help.
Empowerment begins with you taking responsibility, declaring yourself able to respond. The Victim wants to learn from the situation, they want to actively seek support to help themselves. The Persecutor allows others to contribute, listens and negotiates, whilst the Rescuer would only help out when asked and then within defined boundaries, without judgement or personally identifying with the role.
There are no absolutes about power. Power is situational, personal and negotiable. The power of people cooperating has overcome huge obstacles.
Do you “should” on yourself? Or do you have choice?
Taking back your power goes like this. See what happens to your “shoulds”, the ones you put on yourself and the ones others put on you. Read this and run your own experiment. Think of a recent ‘should’ you have struggled with. Make up your own dialogue, either internal or interpersonal. Perhaps: “I know I should go to that boring family party” or “He says to me: ‘You should do it my way!’ “
OK, so now try this, using the same dialogue of two voices, only run the “I choose” version.
If we are not caught up in Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer power plays, if we choose to respond rather than react, we can become creative with options and negotiate about meeting the needs of both ourselves and the other person.
Create richer relationships
Think of a conflict situation where your strong feelings get in the way. Ask yourself these questions and make some goals to aim for. Print out the questionnaire below to complete the following:
When angry/hurt/frightened …
Why am I feeling so angry / hurt/ frightened?
What do I want to change?
What do I need in order to let go of this feeling?
Whose problem is this, really? How much is mine? How much is theirs?
What is the unspoken message I infer from the situation? (e.g. they don’t like me, they don’t respect me.)
In communicating emotions …
Aim to avoid the desire to punish or blame. Action / words?
Aim to improve the situation. Action / words?
Aim to communicate your feelings appropriately. Action / words?
Aim to improve the relationship and increase communication. Action / words?
Aim to avoid repeating the same situation. Action / words?
If communication is not appropriate, what other action can I take?
People’s behaviour can be distressing, yet has a legitimate purpose. They are looking for ways to belong, feel significant, and self-protect. When people feel a threat to their self-esteem, a downward spiral begins. Some people behave obstructively trying to gain a feeling of belonging and significance. How we respond can determine how entrenched they become.
Without supporting destructive beliefs and alienating patterns of reaction, we need to break out of the spiral. We do this by acknowledging their feelings and supporting their legitimate needs.
Projection and shadow
Does the situation inform or inflame?
The more someone inflames me, angers or upsets me, the more I know I have something to learn about myself from that person or that situation. In particular, I need to see where projection from my shadow side has interfered with my willingness to resolve.
Projection is when we see our own memories, thoughts and feelings in the minds and behaviour of others or the relationship and not in ourselves. We push something about ourselves or our history out of our awareness and instead we see it coming towards us from others. We see that X is angry with us and we feel hurt. We don’t recognise that we are angry with X and would like to hurt X. It’s very similar to film projection. The movie going on in our heads is projected out around us. Each of us builds, in this way, a highly personalised world. Greater self- awareness is necessary if we are to free ourselves.
Shadow hugging and boxing
Extreme attachment or rejection is a sign that our shadow has us in its hold. If we are overly attached to someone because of desirable qualities or abilities that we see in him/her and deny in ourselves we are SHADOW HUGGING. If we are overly rejecting of undesirable qualities or behaviour in someone or something that we deny in ourselves we are SHADOW BOXING.
The hook The quality or behaviour in the other person that inflames me which is in itself a neutral event. My projection gets caught on this hook.
The symptom My emotional reaction (usually variations on anger or hurt).
The projection The part of my shadow that is causing my strong reaction.
Acknowledge your shadow
Being willing to resolve, we need to recognise and acknowledge our projection to ourselves. Remember a situation that inflamed you and now consider if you have:
If the situation inflames you, look within. Notice what aspect of your private history, or your own suppressed needs or perhaps qualities that you find unacceptable personally is being triggered. Look closely at yourself and recognise that others will always be different to you. Choose to respond in ways that seems more appropriate to the actual situation than the movie playing inside your head.
Consider everyone’s needs and fears
Here is an analytical tool that helps us to see the whole situation and find a way to address the issues. Take a big sheet of paper and involve the others if appropriate. Start with the headings and fill out the details as you work through the issue.
Title: Define briefly the issue, the area of the problem, or conflict in neutral terms that all stakeholders would agree on and that doesn’t invite a “yes/no” answer e.g. “Filing” not “Should Sal do filing?” Write that in the middle then make a section for each party or group. It might look like a pie.
Who: Write down the name of each important person or group.
Needs: Write down each person’s or group’s needs. What motivates him/her?
Fears: Write down each person or group’s fears, concerns, or anxieties.
Be prepared to change the statement of the issue, as your understanding of it evolves through discussion. You might draw up other maps of related issues that arise. You may need more space for writing all the significant needs and fears than the table below allows.
When you finish your map, you are likely to have some new perspectives or insights; you will see needs, fears or issues that are common, common ground. You will be able to identify issues that are specific to individuals or groups. These findings can then be taken forward to the Developing Options tools.
What is the range of options?
Use the tools below to generate ideas and options from your map.
Have we considered timing or resourcing?
Five basic principles
Where possible prepare in advance. Consider your needs are and also the needs of the other person/party. Consider outcomes that would address more of what you both want. Commit yourself to a win/win approach, even if tactics used by the other person seem unfair. Be clear that your task will be to steer the negotiation in a positive direction.
To do so you may need to do some of the following:
Ask a question to reframe. e.g. “If we succeed in resolving this problem, what differences would you notice?”
Check understanding. E.g. “Please tell me what you heard me/them say.”
Request something she/he said to be re-stated more positively, or as an “I” statement. E.g. From your own perspective, how could this work better?
Re-interpret an attack on the person as an attack on the issue. E.g. I can see this is a big issue for you.
Respond not react
• Manage your emotions.
• Let some accusations, attacks, threats or ultimatums pass.
• Make it possible for the other party to back down without feeling humiliated (e.g. by identifying changed circumstances which could justify a changed position on the issue.)
Re-focus on the issue
Maintain the relationship and try to resolve the issue. E.g. “What’s fair for both of us?”
Summarise how far you’ve got. E.g. “OK, so we’re talked about A, B and C, and we still need to find out more about D, yes?”
Review common ground and agreement so far. Focus on being partners solving the problem, not opponents. Divide the issue into parts. Address a less difficult aspect when stuck. Invite trading. Example: “If you will, then I will.”
Explore best and worst alternatives to negotiating an acceptable agreement between you. Consider: “So if we can’t agree, what could we do?”
Identify unfair tactics
Name the behaviour as a tactic. Address the motive for using the tactic. Example: “Raising your voice won’t help. I’m not going to quit now.” Have a break. Change locations, seating arrangements etc. Go into smaller groups. Meet privately. Call for the meeting to end now and resume later, perhaps “to give an opportunity for reflection”.
Be respectful of other people’s needs and just as respectful of your own. Look for solutions where more people get more of what they want.
Neutral: objective, supportive, no judgement
When you have learned and practised the skills of conflict resolution you can be of great help to other people who are in conflict with each other. Mediation is the practise of neutral, third party assisted negotiation. Judging and taking sides will make you part of the problem. This is not mediating.
These attitudes are relevant whenever you want to advise, in a conflict which is not your own. It may be a friend telling you about a problem on the telephone. It may an informal chat with conflicting people, together or separately. It may be a formally organised mediation session.
Use the simple, yet effective rules from the “Fighting Fair” poster.
Make introductions and agreements, explanation of roles and expectations, time frame, agenda if known.
While you will often find you can use these mediation skills, sometimes you will be involved in situations which are extremely inflamed or where there is a lot at stake. This may be the moment to call on a professional mediator who stands completely outside of the problem, and can bring their expertise to bear to help everyone concerned have a fair hearing and steer a reasonable outcome for all concerned.
Take in the bigger picture
Imagine that you are a traveller about to climb a mountain.
When you look around all you can see is the few trees that are directly in front of you, but as you climb you see that the trees are part of a huge forest. A little higher and you can see farmland beyond the forest and still higher a township and a river. When you finally get to the top you have the full 360 degrees panorama.
In this final skill we want to see the problem from a range of viewing points, other points of view and wider perspectives. Encourage yourself to adopt a wide range of thinking strategies: for example, personal/interpersonal impact, legal or financial implications, differing points of view, the historical past, the projected future, a broader group of stakeholders, critical analysis of facts, research into various aspects of relevant technology. Try for a more global perspective. Consider the team or group of which you are a part. Put some focus on the ‘us’ rather than ‘me vs you’.
Become observer as well as participant
When you take this overview of the problem you are less caught up in it, more observant. This wider view includes increased self-awareness. Additionally the observer position gives you some respite from the tension of always being the participant.
Respect and value differences
Just as we are unique and special, so are other people. We each have distinctive viewpoints that can be seen as equally valid.
Each person’s viewpoint makes a contribution to the whole and requires consideration and respect in order to form a complete solution. This wider view can open our eyes to many more possibilities. It requires us to change the idea that: “For me to be right, others must be wrong.”
Consider the context
If we believe that the actions of one individual are interconnected with every other individual, then we can have a sense how our actions can have meaning in conjunction with the actions of others. We can see the overall system, which may be the family, the organisation or the society. What does this larger unit need in order to function effectively?
Recognise a long-term timeframe
Consider how the problem or the relationship will look over a substantial period of time. The longer timeframe can make the size of the problem we presently face more realistic.
What you can and cannot change
By taking a broader perspective you may be confronted with the enormity of the difficulties. Identify what you can do to affect a particular problem, even if it is only a small step in the right direction. One step forward changes the dynamics and new possibilities can open up. If not, maybe it is time to move on. Or maybe this is not really your problem and you have to hold back while another person does or does not act. The Serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous is, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
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