Conflict Resolution 101
Conflict is like fire – hot, exciting, shooting in all directions, dangerous – but warming and powerful. It draws you in. Watching fictional conflict in films and TV dramas can be exciting. But being involved in real conflict on a personal level often makes people feel powerless.
When we watch a good movie, we enjoy following the stages of a conflict. We usually understand what is going on, we know what is at stake. But when we encounter conflict on a smaller scale in our families, with our friends or at our workplace, things are usually less clear cut. Conflict can come as a surprise. But even if we see it coming, it may make us feel quite vulnerable.
In my work as a counsellor and trainer, I have learnt that family-level conflicts often remain unsolved because few of us have been taught about good conflict resolution. In our families and schools, we have not really talked about why conflicts arise or been given tools and strategies to solve the conflicts which arise. Conflict resolution skills are like cooking. You learn – or do not learn – the basic skills in the family.
Think about the families you know best. How do the people in them instinctively approach conflict? At one end of the spectrum are those whose instinctive belief is that the best way to deal with a conflict is to ‘have it out’ to ‘give someone a piece of your mind.’ They are the ‘fighters’. In other families, at the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘flight’ is the most likely approach. In these families, voices are never raised, conflict is brushed ‘under the carpet. ’For ‘flight’ people - the motto is: ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’
Neither of these tools is the ‘best’ way to go about conflict resolution. It is true that ‘having it out’ can clear the air and the two sides can get on with their lives. Sometimes however, ‘having it out’ spontaneously means that people say things they don’t mean and cannot ‘unsay’. People are wounded and if the scars from those wounds don’t heal, they can create or intensify a renewed conflict later.
‘Letting sleeping dogs lie’ can also be a useful strategy. Time can heal. New understandings can develop without a confrontation. The opponents can find new ways of looking at each other and the wider world. Sometimes, though, unacknowledged hurt and injustice fester and develop like gas in a balloon – and one day the balloon goes up! Feelings of being ignored or slighted can go deep until one day, a large and complex conflict emerges.
So if there is no ‘right’ way to deal with conflict, why is it important to think about whether our families are ‘fighters’ or ‘frighters’? The important thing here is to know oneself, to be aware of what one’s instinctive responses are likely to be. Knowing our likely relational responses helps us to stand back and ask what other strategies we might use.
In the old days of celluloid when a film was made of thousands of pictures all shown very fast, it was possible to slow down the film and see an image of each little movement. If we slow down the film of our lives and see the small pictures which constitute our response, then next time there is a conflict, we may find that we have choices. We may see that on this particular occasion, I need to approach the conflict in this particular way. Another time my response might be quite different but the point is that I am choosing my response rather than offering a reflex reaction.
But before we say more about possible responses to conflict, let’s think about what conflict is. I like this definition from Kirsten Zerger, Director of Education and Training at the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution. She says,
‘A conflict is an expressed struggle between two or more interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from the other in achieving goals.'
There are a number of important words in this definition. The first is ‘interdependent parties’. Without mutual dependence, there is no conflict. No relationship, no conflict. Reconciliation is always about improving relationships. Not necessarily about deciding who is ‘right’ but about restoring connection. Not necessarily about becoming close friends – although restoration of intimate relationships, is, of course, the goal of many reconciliations in families.
The second important word in the definition is ‘struggle’. Struggle implies focused energy. An important question to ask in every relationship is, ‘What is my energy focused on here?’ What do I really want out of this relationship? What might the other person want that they are not saying? Are our needs and wishes compatible?
The third important word in this definition is ‘perceive’. Perception, knowing how people see and value things, is a core issue in conflict. What are the perceptions of each party about themselves, about the other, about the available resources? Are these perceptions accurate? Have the perceptions been articulated and checked recently?
Resources are always significant in conflict. Individuals may be like countries at war, fighting over scarce material resources – money is a favourite. Invisible resources can be even more significant. Sibling rivalry, for instance, is frequently about parental attention. Partners and spouses may fight about affection, levels of commitment, unequal responsibilities in the home – the list is endless. It’s always important to ask, ‘What resources are we both seeking?’
Finally, and often most importantly in this definition, are the words, ‘interference in achieving goals’. One person wants something and the other is using or abusing some sort of power to prevent them from getting it. Once again, invisible goals and the invisible exercise of power are the most significant and the most difficult to identify and admit. One partner aims for social success leading to professional success and that seems to require socialising for the couple. The other partner’s goal is for more rest and/or privacy. Goals conflict.
So, if you’re someone who wants to create good relationships, how should you start to deal with conflict?
Here are a few simple questions to ask yourself before you talk to the other person in ‘your’ conflict and then some practical strategies to use as you talk.
Before you speak together get some clarity in your own mind.
1. Ask yourself how much time and energy you are prepared to give to the other person. How important are they to you? – and why? Explore what you really want to come out of this attempt to resolve conflict. Be as specific as you can. ‘A quiet life’ is not specific enough! ‘I’d like my spouse not to bring work home more than one night a week’ is a clear request.
2. When might be a good time and place to talk? Many of us know that when we are tired and overwrought we say things that we regret in the cool light of day. We know that we didn’t really mean them. Finding a more neutral and mutually agreeable time and place to talk can be helpful. That probably means waiting until both parties are a bit quieter.
3. Ask yourself ‘Am I ready to listen to the other person?’ Time yourself in an ordinary conversation. How long can you silently listen to someone? In conflict situations, most of us want to tell our story, put our point of view, explain our position. Think about how you want to be heard and give that sort of hearing to your opponent.
When the other person speaks
Listen and keep listening. Pay attention not only to what is being said but how it is being said. Listen to the tone of voice, the assumptions, the perceptions. Listen to what is not being said. The teenage son of a mother I know was complaining that his mother had not treated him fairly in something that she had done. The arguments were put at length. She could not see the injustice but something else began to dawn. Finally, she said to him, ‘Do you think that I am paying more attention to your sister than to you?’ ‘Yes’ was the muttered answer. ‘So do you think I love your sister more than I love you? Do you really believe that? ‘No, of course not!’ He sounded almost surprised that he himself had found the root of the problem. A hug followed and the argument was dropped. Sometimes honest listening can help both parties to understand how they feel and the effect they have on each other.
When you speak
- Pay attention to your own tone of voice. Be straightforward and positive. Don’t talk down (bullying) or talk ‘up’ (whining).
Watch your language. Take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings and actions. Say ‘When we don’t have time to talk, I feel…..’ Not ‘You make me feel’… Use ‘I’ language not finger-pointing ‘you’ language.
- Desert the moral high ground! Be ready to talk to the other person with respect especially if it is someone you see as your junior. Explore and ask questions in a way which is out not to score points but to understand.
- Desert the moral low ground! No matter how much you may think you have been wronged, don’t turn yourself into a victim. You are the equal of the other person. Grovelling just perpetuates unequal power relationships.
- Don’t mindread and don’t expect the other person to read your mind. Say what you need and want. This is the time to say something like, ‘I’d like us to have half an hour just to be together and talk at the end of the day.’
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of strategies. But knowing ourselves, being clear about our needs and wants, and listening well to other people can generate greater understanding and improve all our relationships. A helpful goal is the kind of reconciliation Stanley Hauerwas describes: ‘Reconciliation occurs when my enemy tells me my story in a way to which I can say “yes”.’
* This article is a summary of the training courses I have offered on Conflict Resolution and a version of it was published in Focus magazine.