I deal with conflict every day. Professionally, I deal with other people’s conflicts, but I can’t escape from conflict in my personal life either.
Someone once say to me that conflict arises when you put more than one person together. I say, that conflict happens even when there is only one person – after all, conflict doesn’t only occur when we are with others; it happens within ourselves as well.
I haven’t got all the answers to resolve the world’s conflict, but I would like to share what I have learnt about dealing with others’ conflicts and our own.
I have learnt that there are different skilful ways of dealing with conflict – consider when, where and how you should approach it. Always be open to the possibility of not dealing with conflicts as a way to deal with them. Sometimes, time is the best healer, and letting raw flaming emotions subside may be the answer on its own. If action is required, don’t be afraid to take it.
When you decide to act, consider your intention. Do you want to discuss how you’re feeling or thinking because you want to be understood? Do you prefer to leave emotions and feelings out of it and towards resolving the issue? Is the conflict your problem, the recipient’s problem, or both? Are you trying to gain something for yourself, or to help the recipient, or both? Try to be as neutral and honest when answering these questions. Really, do you want to resolve the conflict for your sake, or that of others? Depending on your answer, it will change your approach to the conflict.
You should also think about whether you are ready to deal with the conflict. This requires an honest reflection about yourself and your capacity. If all goes well, that is good. But if the conflict is not resolved, or is exacerbated, will you be ready to deal with any consequences. If your actions are merely to prove your point, are you ready for the recipient to speak his or her mind about your possible contribution to the conflict?
Choose a suitable time to do it; consider not only your mood, but the receiver’s mood. The best time isn’t when you need to talk, it’s also when the receiver is open to listen to you talk. You may need to drop a hint to the receiver that you want to discuss something important with them by scheduling a time to speak to them. This would give the receiver some time to collect their thoughts, without feeling like they have just been sprung upon and immediately bring up their defensive shields.
It’s important to create a ‘space’ to resolve the conflict. Often moving away from the immediate battleground to a neutral environment helps, such as in a park over coffee or in a restaurant over lunch. You may want a place with minimal distractions, or if you’re afraid the talk won’t go well, you may find a place where distractions are around in case you need to change the topic. You may choose somewhere more comfortable, such as at the receiver’s home if that is what the receiver prefers. You may decide somewhere more formal may be required if you’re trying to negotiate with someone on uneven grounding.
The ‘space’ that you create is not merely the physical environment. It is the presence that you give to the receiver when they are with you. For example, sometimes you may see couples in a world of their own as they sit for hours in a busy and noisy restaurant, oblivious to the mad rush around them. That is the space they have created for themselves.
Self-awareness is key. You need to know how the conflict has come about (whether you have contributed to it as well), how you want it to be resolved, and what you want the recipient to do in order for a resolution to take place. So often we just want to complain and make the recipient feel bad for what they have done as punishment, but if the recipient asked us what could be changed, we cannot answer them.
Just as important is an appreciation of the recipient’s motivations, and an objective assessment of their actions and how their actions contributed to the conflict. Sometimes we may start accusing the recipient of a particular intent or the way they act towards us, only to hear an explanation that makes us pause and reflect on how absurd our interpretations of their actions have been.
Flowing on from this is an understanding of the conflict itself. One question that a lot of people don’t ask because they too readily assume the answer is: what is the actual conflict? Many of my clients say they want something, but when I talk through the practicalities of what they want, they realise that’s not what they want at all. We can then discuss the different options in getting what they really want, and seeing whether the other party would agree to the new option.
To give a more concrete example, I remember doing a particular exercise during my mediation training. Group A was given a sheet of paper with what they wanted. Group B was given a different piece of paper with what they wanted. They were then asked to negotiate to get what they want. The groups then commenced negotiating on the number of eggs they should receive from the other. Of course, the groups got nowhere because there was no middle group since they were just negotiating on numbers. The best outcome they thought they could get was a 50/50 split. No one looked outside the square. No one asked the other group the crucial question: what did you want the eggs for. If they did, they would have realised that Group A needed the egg whites for a secret formula, and Group B needed the egg yolks for their special recipe. If they had asked, then they would realise that there really was no conflict at all, and both parties could have left with getting 100% of what they wanted; not just 50%.
To take a real life example, it is not uncommon for separated parents to fight over the frequency each parent gets to see the kids. At first glance, it seems as if the parties are fighting over numbers – the number of days. However, every case presents a different reason as to why one parent justifies why the other parent should have more/ less time. In one case, for example, the other parent would not budge on increasing the number of days my client was to see the children. It was only after some discussions that it became clear to me that it had to do with the cost of sending the children to see the other parent. When I suggested that both parties share in the transportation costs, it was a like a breath of fresh air and the negotiations were renewed with much success.
Another analogy I use is about trying to divide a pie. When you look at a pie, you can really only split it in so many ways. However, another way to look at it is to see that this is only one pie. Then I start exploring other options to get another pie to be split.
Another aspect of understanding conflicts is to remember that often in a conflict, what is said and what is meant are two different things. This is particularly true if the conflict is emotionally-charged. Some people may say they want what’s best for their kids, but really they just want to hurt their ex-partner for running off with another wo/man. Without dealing with the underlying issue, any resolution may be superficial, or even unworkable.
Some issues/ people may need you to tackle the issue side on, rather than front on. A well-known method of mediation is to look to any agreements between the parties, and use that as a basis for further discussion. This is a much better starting point that encourages fruitful and amicable discussions, than to start with all the things the parties don’t agree upon. I have seen how even the most stubborn party would come around when I offer something that even they want, without compromising the needs of my client. This requires some creativity in thinking of different solutions/ options beyond just what was initially placed on the table.
Finally, please don’t lose sight of the real antidote to conflict: harmony. Harmony and making peace with others is underestimated in these modern times of practicality and efficiency. Yet, they are so important to a workable world – whether it is the world as a whole, or our microscopic family or office unit. Sometimes by refocusing away from our immediate and self-centred goals and look to the greater good instead, we can place our conflict into its proper perspective and make sense of the situation for us. In all of this, try to humanise the people who you perceive to be your ‘opponent’ in the conflict. Once you dehumanise them, any negotiations and settlement that you come to will be degraded.
So now whenever conflict visits my life, I like to see it as me being in a situation of conflict, but not in a conflict with others.
As for conflicts with ourselves, the same themes of understanding, honesty, harmony and humanity apply. We deserve peace and happiness. We deserve to be understood and given the benefit of the doubt. Like the conflict with others, the resolution of the conflict within ourselves start and end with one person…ourselves.
I wish you all harmony within and without.