You may struggle to think of a resolved conflict in your life. It is often the case that we resolve our conflicts so effectively we hardly notice that we have done so. Hopefully, if you can think of a resolved conflict, by the end of this article you will see that at least one, and probably more of the ‘3-Cheers for Conflict’ as I like to call them – Learning, Connection and Insight – were present in any conflict you have resolved or which you have seen resolved by others.
But first of all what do we mean by resolution? Remember, from the preceding two articles that looked at ineffective responses to conflict, I do not mean a conflict that has been suppressed through greater force or will or some other means of ‘overpowering’ another person (the ‘Competitive approach to conflict‘). This would be like putting a lid on a boiling pot and exerting force to keep it there but never being able to leave it in case the lid came off. We can’t ‘let go’ of the situation.
I also don’t mean a situation that we have managed to keep ‘out of sight’ because we have found a way of avoiding dealing with a particular problem…until a similar situation comes up again and we struggle with the same issue but perhaps this time with a different person. This would be like knowing the pot is boiling over but if we just turn and look away we aren’t reminded that the contents of the pot are spilling over and the fire is still burning away underneath.
Resolution is when the fire has burned out so that the pot is no longer boiling, often we’ve just stopped adding fuel to the flames by our own actions, or we’ve actively sought to put it out. We’ve cleared up the utensils and packed them away and moved on to pastures new. The situation is genuinely resolved. I almost say the word ‘dissolved’ sometimes as the sense of something being no longer present is what arises when a conflict is resolved. The circumstances will still be present but the impact is no longer noticeable, nor something we devote time and energy to thinking about or trying to ‘do something’ about – competing or avoiding.
Byron Katie, someone who I greatly admire, tells the story of ‘the snake and the rope’:
I walked into the Mohave Desert on a gorgeous day, minding my own business. Suddenly, Oh my God! – there’s a big fat Mojave Green rattlesnake directly in front of me. And I had almost stepped on him! No one around for miles and this could be a painful, slow death. My heart was beating to pop out of my chest, my brow had broken into a sweat. I was paralyzed by fear.
But then, and I don’t know how it happened, my eyes began to focus. I dared another glance at the snake – and miraculously, I saw: It’s a rope! That snake is a rope! Well, I fell to the ground and began to laugh, cry, and to just take it in. I even had to poke it.
What had happened? I knew one thing. I was safe. I knew that I could stand over that rope for a thousand years and never be frightened of it again. I felt such gratitude and ease. – from the Foreword of ‘I Need Your Love – Is That True?’ by Byron Katie (website www.thework.com)
While many of our resolved conflicts may not be as sudden in their resolution as the one Katie describes, resolution means that what we were originally deeply affected by is no longer something that we respond to with fear, frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, addiction or any of the other destructive responses we create when involved in unresolved conflict. The people we saw as our ‘snake’ or the situation where we chanced upon it can no longer be a ’cause’ of our suffering because we create change in how we perceive it and consequently learn to respond to it in an entirely different way. This different way arises through the creation of Learning, Connection and Insight.
- Learning – relates to the situation
- Connection – relates to the other person(s)
- Insight – relates to ourselves
These ‘3-Cheers for Conflict’ cover all the bases involved in an unresolved conflict. There is ourself, the perceiver of the situation, the other person or persons with whom we have a difficulty of some kind and there is the context in which that occurs, which could be in our family home, at work, on the street, on the phone, between our organisation and another, between our nation/religion/race etc. and another.
So how do we create the 3-Cheers for Conflict when we are involved in an unresolved conflict?
First of all, we will need to acknowledge where we are responding ineffectively through either or both competing or avoiding in the situation. If the conflict is unresolved it is inevitable that we are responding in one or both of these ways. This acknowledgement is simply to open the door to the fact that we have the choice and the ‘power’ to revise our responses. If we say the situation is about ‘them’ and only ‘they’ must change, then we are both avoiding and competing and have locked ourselves into the continuous loop of repeated action with the insane expectation of a different result, to paraphrase Einstein’s quote from the first article in this series.
This is not, it must be emphasised, saying we must somehow turn off our competing or avoiding once we acknowledge it. If we could do that we would not be involved in an unresolved conflict in the first place.
It is to enable us to step back from, and become more mindful of how we are responding so that we can start to create choices for ourself in the situation. We can create a different response rather than simply ‘react’. We are no longer in ‘fight or flight’, we are actively considering and creating new responses.
When we create a new choice for ourselves we empower ourselves. Instead of being locked into one repeated cycle of actions, in which we feel powerless because we are not aware of any other way, we now have a choice of actions. The old one and/or the new ones.
How do we do this? We start to consider questions such as:
What can I learn?
What connection can I make?
What insight can I gain?
These questions have relevance whether we are discussing a personal relationship difficulty, a family difficulty, a community dispute, a workplace dispute or even an international dispute.
1. What can I Learn?
Learning relates to the situation. A difficulty can be resolved simply by doing something at a different time, in a different place or in a different way.
A neighbour may do their washing on a different evening so that the person who lives below them can sleep unaffected by their washing machine whirring overhead when they have an early start the next day.
A workplace difficulty may be resolved through changing the policy relating to the situation. A new safety procedure may lead to a worker feeling less at risk from their boss’s expectations of them following a ‘downing of tools’ in response to a dangerous incident occurring.
Within the mediation world, such resolutions can be considered to be ‘solution focused’ outcomes in that the solution to the problem has been addressed, but it may not be that the underlying causes that led to the situation being a problem are addressed. Ultimately that is for those involved to decide. If a simple change to the actions occurring in a situation mean that all involved feel the situation is resolved that is their decision.
Often however, connection and insight are interlinked with learning as each of the ‘3-Cheers for Conflict’ can influence the other.
2. What Connection can I make?
Connection relates to the other person(s) involved in the situation. We come to understand their perspective without having to agree with it. Within the ineffective, competitive approach to conflict this would be suicide – to acknowledge that another viewpoint could have validity would mean it is no longer ‘wrong’ but just different, and consequently our assertion of being ‘right’ is no longer absolute but ‘only’ relative – the other person can be ‘right’ too! In the competitive approach, this is not acceptable and is usually dismissed and so the battle continues for any/either person involved who sticks with that approach.
When someone involved in a dispute or other difficulty stops dismissing the other person as crazy, irrational, mad, outrageous,dangerous, threatening, or any other dismissive label there is an end to the ‘tennis match’ of labels that occur in many unresolved conflicts where the interactions have become personally attacking. Even if the other person continues with this reaction, the lack of labels returning back to continue the reactive cycle means the intensity of the dispute reduces.
When we have this understanding that there can be another perspective, however difficult we find it to relate to, our future actions can accommodate that perspective rather than ignore it and so again, learning can arise from the connection through a response that accommodates both perspectives. Those who dismiss this possibility as naive will be overlooking the fact that they themselves do this on a regular basis, day in, day out in the smallest of incidents. It is how we resolve conflict. We are all experts at this, but in the moments where we don’t maintain that level of expertise, we can return to what we do everyday as our source of wisdom to help us return to a more effective response to any given conflict:
As I walk along the pavement and a mother approaches me with a pram and the pavement isn’t quite wide enough for us to both continue without some adjustment to our progress, I can decide that she is ‘in the wrong’ and keep walking without accommodating her perspective, and she could do the same and we would block each other’s path. I could start to say how terrible it is that there are so many young mothers with prams in the area, why aren’t they indoors playing with their children not clogging up the pavements with their prams. She could say how outrageous it is that arrogant males strut along the pavements expecting everyone to get out of their way, why don’t they stay indoors and get on with some work instead of imposing their self-importance on the world.
But actually, no, we simply accommodate each other by slowing down, assessing the situation, deciding that if one moves over a little to one side and the other squeezes in a little we can both pass and continue on our way, barely noticing that the event happened, quite possibly without saying a word, and probably forgetting it ever happened within minutes. We used learning in the moment by changing our path, mutual connection by realising each had a different perspective on the situation without any consideration that one was more ‘right’ than the other. We resolved the situation and moved on.
Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.”
Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
– The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
And so finally to the last of the 3-Cheers for Conflict:
3. What insight can I gain?
Insight relates to ourselves. What realisations do I have in the midst of my unresolved conflict? Do I feel frightened, threatened, angry, passive, frustrated, stressed, depressed, or some other difficult feeling? Why do I feel that way? If I can’t understand why, what, at least, can I do to support myself given that I feel this way?
Within most unresolved conflicts, people tend to ‘lose touch with themselves’. We can lose self-awareness regarding how we feel, what we are thinking, how we are acting based on these feelings and thoughts because our focus is on the other person(s). We are looking for faults in their actions or words or their argument when we are competing or we are simply looking out for their presence if we are avoiding, so that we can seek a way of continuing our avoiding. However we are acting, our focus is outwards on the other person and not inwards on ourselves.
Myself and my colleagues have often found, when mediating, that when we ask someone involved in a dispute “How is the situation affecting you?” or “What has been the impact on you of this situation?”, the response has been a temporary silence while the question sinks in and they realise that they hadn’t really thought about that. When they do stop to consider such questions, they realise they have been snapping at their partner, or they have been distracted from talking with their children, or they have been more ill than they would normally expect, or they haven’t been sleeping well or a range of other issues can come up. When we ask what support they have had with these or what support they can use to help them with the impacts of their unresolved conflict, their choice of actions following this can sometimes literally lead to their feeling that they have resolved their conflict.
It can often be that within an unresolved conflict, the lack of supporting ourselves and caring for ourselves is more damaging than the impact of the unresolved conflict itself. We will often say that the ill health or lack of sleep or difficulties in our personal relationships or work performance are ‘because of’ the unresolved conflict, or perhaps ‘because of them!’, the person(s) with whom we are having difficulty. But very often the greater impact is because we have not sought insight into our own feelings and thoughts about it and as a result not cared for ourselves simply because we have not recognised the negative consequences of our external focus in the situation. I have known people who started drinking habitually in order to be able to sleep through the noise when they were involved in a neighbour dispute, and people who have stayed up late into the night, waiting for a neighbour to make a noise that they can record in a noise diary to give to their local council’s noise team, when normally they would go to bed much earlier. These behaviours are often attributed to the situation or blamed on ‘the other person’, but ultimately it is ourselves who carry out these actions – until we choose to create a different way of responding that is more self-supporting and this can only arise following a gaining of insight, a reflection on, and exploration into ourselves.
We resolve conflict every day, in the simplest of events and in more complex events, and we are very good at it! The 3-Cheers for Conflict are just a breakdown of the features of how we do it, and through self-reflection and self-responsibilty or ‘ownership’ of our thoughts, feelings and actions, we can return to creating those features in situations where it has not occurred for some reason. If we want support with this the processes of mediation and conflict coaching are designed to provide this support. But ultimately their purpose is to support us in doing what we can already do, we just haven’t recognised it for one reason or another.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, please post them in the comments box below.
Are you presently involved in an unresolved conflict – with your partner, a family member, at work, in your community?
What learning, connection and/or insight can you create within that situation, even while you are still competing to be seen as right or good, even while you are seeking to avoid dealing with the problem in the hope it will go away?