Discipline #10 - Conflict Resolution Meeting

Link to a pdf of the handout for this discipline.

Each of the prior disciplines are things we do on our own either to become more mindful about our conflicts or how we might begin to address them, or they are things we do on our own to prepare for addressing a conflict with another. We don't need the participation of someone else in order to apologize to them. In fact, when we are in a relationship with someone who is being short with us,  or is avoiding addressing an issue with us, one of the best ways to open up the relationship to healing is to offer a genuine apology.

But the Conflict Resolution Meeting is something we do with the other with whom we are in conflict. Thus, this discipline may not be available to us. We can't do it on our own.

On the other hand, it is simply a series of steps we already do all the time. It is not difficult unless the intensity of the conflict is too great. Remember that the intensity of a conflict is a function of the level of commitment or attachment the parties have to the issue or event, and the degree of separation they perceive between their perspective toward the issue and that of the other party. When the level of conflict is high we get flustered. When the level of the intensity of the conflict is low it is really quite easy to resolve conflict. One of the strengths of this discipline is that it reminds us that we really can do this... we do it all the time.

Conflicts are resolved to the degree to which the parties involved can move from a stance of opposing each other's ways of approaching a given issue to one in which they are acting together to meet their mutual needs. We do this by becoming clear about the nature of our relationship to each other, naming the issue or the event which is the occasion for the conflict, hearing how each other makes meaning about the event, discovering common needs, and agreeing to act to support those shared needs. Let's take each of those steps in turn.

Clarifying the Nature of the Relationship

For our purposes here we are going to assume a conflict between two persons. The same principles apply for more complex situations, but they become harder to talk about.

The relationship is the matrix in which the conflict arises. If we don't have an agreement about the nature of the relationship itself, we can never come to an agreement about the conflicts which arise as events within the relationship. And even if we do, it won't resolve the underlying conflict. If I insist that I have a right to assault you if you don't do what I tell you to do then we can't begin to talk about what we are going to have for dinner and assume that a genuine agreement is possible.

In many if not most relationships there is already a high level of agreement about who we are to each other. We are clear about how we share rights and responsibilities. We know the ways in which the relationship is mutual and whether there are aspects in which we have a fiduciary responsibility to each other.

But when we are constructing the relationship out of a different set of assumptions, or when we are constructing it in a way that does not balance rights and responsibilities, then we cannot have a stable and just relationship and none of the following steps are going to work. This is the reason why we don't do couples counseling in battering relationships. It is not just because there is a high level of violence or because the conflicts have a high level of intensity. High conflict relationships can benefit from intervention which addresses both parties together. It is because the fundamental problem is the structure of the relationship itself and nothing we do will repair the events in the relationship when the framework is itself oppressive.

Naming the Event or Issue Which Is the Occasion for the Conflict

Assuming we are in basic agreement about the nature of the relationship and it is constructed in a manner that is just and thus stable, then the question is, "What is going on that we find ourselves in conflict?" Can we be clear about what the problem is and agree about what it is about which we disagree?

We must keep in mind that each party is likely to be reacting most strongly to different aspects of a shared event or issue. Any circumstance is a complex web of events and concerns. There are many conflicts in the context we are considering. Can we acknowledge that each party may be responding with different intensity to different aspects of a given event or issue.

Sometimes we find that we cannot agree on what happened or what is happening. It may be that we are just on such different pages that the event itself gets lost. Then the issue is not the event itself but the way we are addressing it. It may be that the place to start is with the event which is when we can't agree on what happened.

Honoring How Each Is Affected By the Event or Issue

We already know that we are seeing the event differently. We know we are taking different sides of the issue. If we weren't, we would not be experiencing this as a conflict. If we are going to come to resolution, we are going to have to become able to see the other's perspective and to recognize how the perspective of the other is valid for the other. It is not necessary that we adopt the perspective ourselves, though we should feel free to do so if it makes sense to us, but we need to know how this makes sense to the other. If a blind man wants to get the fullest picture of what an elephant is like, he does well to listen to his fellows' perspectives and imagine how they might be accurate.

To do this each party must do five things marginally well. This is the hardest part of this otherwise simple process.

Each know how he or she is being affected by the event or issue: The event which is the core of the conflict has caused a set of feelings in each party and each has made the event mean something. When something troubles me I may have to do some work to figure out what it is that is bothering me. It may not mostly be the event itself. It may be that it reminds me of something else about which I have strong feelings. So I have to figure out what the sensations, emotions, thoughts and wishes are which arise for me in the wake of this event or in the midst of this issue.

Each be able to express clearly the effect: When each has clarified what each is feeling and thinking, then each has to find a way of talking about or otherwise expressing the internal content such that the other can come to understand it. I have to have the words to say what is going on with me such that I can convey it to the other. I have to have sufficient self-awareness and self-expressiveness that I have some hope of being understood.

Each find it safe to be known to the other when each is not who the other wants him or her to be: The fact that there is a conflict arising in the relationship may be so threatening to either party that to express a difference may feel too threatening, either to the person or to the relationship. I have to know that I can be known and not have it put me personally or the relationship itself at risk. There may be an onion which will have to be addressed before it becomes safe to be known.

Each be able to tolerate her or his own anxiety when confronted by an other who is different: Being with others who are different from us is inherently anxiety provoking. If each is going to hear fully the perspective of the other, each will have to self-soothe in the midst of that anxiety well enough to genuinely hear the other. If I am so anxious about the fact that we see this event differently that I can't actually let myself hear your perspective, I am not going to see it as valid for you. I have to take good enough care of myself emotionally that I can be present to your reality.

Each be able to mirror back to the other the other's perspective well enough that each knows that each is heard by the other: When we hear the other tell back to us what the other has heard, we get a chance to test whether what we said was what we meant, and it gives us a chance to hear whether we were heard accurately. We can then correct what we meant, perhaps even discover a nuance of meaning we had missed before. This is what intimacy is about.

Once we have each had a chance to do these five tasks in the wake of the event or issue, we then each have a clear picture of both what we bring to the event--what is our own perspective--and also what the other brings--how the other sees this shared event. We are then free to appropriate aspects of the others meaning into our own cognitive map if we so choose. Our choice.

Finding Common Needs

Given these two maps about the meaning and effect of the event, we can now identify where it is that we come together to identify common needs. This is always possible. The conflict is not about what we need, but around the strategies we have in mind to move toward what we need. The process of coming to see our own and each other's perspective has taken us deeper into our awareness and we are now closer to identification of the qualities which are missing when the conflict arises. All we have to do now is to identify what those missing qualities are for each of us and name them such that we can each hold them in our awareness.

Agreement about What We Will Each Do

Having identified common needs and clarified that these are missing or not sufficiently present for us now, it simply falls to us to each make a commitment to construct what we need. This usually means a different course of action for each of us, but this is simply a matter of constructing a reciprocal agreement about how we each accept responsibility and express our rights.

Some Examples

You may well be thinking that this doesn't seem so simple and that it isn't the way you normally resolve the conflicts which arise in your experience. Some examples may help to clarify what this looks like in practice to hang the theory on.

You may remember when Joe and Jane had a conversation about dinner and identified that they needed milk and lettuce but not who would be responsible for getting them. They each thought the other would. Upon them both being home and neither having stopped to get groceries, Joe grabbed his keys and went to the store. They have an agreement that they share responsibility for feeding the family and buying groceries. This was not something only one of them could or would do. They agreed that the issue was food for dinner and the event was that neither bought milk and lettuce. They each had a responsibility to the family at the moment and Joe offered that he be the one to go to the store. Jane agreed that she would stay home and tend to the boys and get the rest of dinner started. They each felt comfortable with their role. They both needed dinner but they also both needed to act responsibly on behalf of the family.

Notice that most of these steps were assumed or expressed and negotiated with few if any words. There was a very low level of intensity of the conflict. They have a high level of attachment to the issue, but a low variance in perspectives. If Jane had a sense that Joe routinely shirked his responsibilities, this might have gone down very differently. As it was, it reaffirmed their capacity to work well together. They would likely not even see this as having been a conflict.

So let's see what this looks like with a slightly higher intensity of conflict.

When Jack was first learning to drive he rode with his mom to an appointment after school which took them down a busy stretch of road which was once a country highway but which had become burdened by recent construction in the area. Jane was stressed by the traffic and by a fear of being late to the appointment. Aware of her wish to drive faster but her concern for safety and her awareness that in a few months Jack might be making this drive on his own she commented, "This is a really dangerous stretch along here. You should never go faster that 50 here."

Jack responded, "Dad says it is okay to do 55 here."

"What, no way, you listen to me. If you ever want to drive this car you are going to have to be cautious and responsible."

"Mom, why do you have to be so critical of me all the time? I am not even driving and you are accusing me of being irresponsible."

They rode in silence for a few minutes as each fumed. Finally Jane broke the silence with a change of tone in her voice. "When I think of you driving along this stretch of highway I get scared. I know that learning to drive is important to you and I want you to be a good driver. You are mostly pretty careful, but I am still afraid."

Jack answered back, "I just wanted you to know that what I hear from you sometimes is not the same as what I hear from Dad. He sees things differently from the way you do. I want to try to please you both but I can't if you don't expect the same things."

"Well," Jane responded after considering what Jack had told her, "I can see that we may not be giving you consistent expectations. I will talk to your dad about this, but I want you to promise that you will be a safe driver."

"Of course, Mom, I know that driving is dangerous and I don't want to get hurt either."

Jack and Jane are clear that they are mother and son. There is no question that Jack will not drive without his mom's permission. The event is Jack's reply to his mother's caution about speed by telling her what Dad has said. Jane is afraid for Jack's welfare. Jack is confused about parental expectations. They both want a relationship in which there are the qualities of safety and clarity of expectations. Jack will drive carefully. Jane will have a talk with Joe.

The more intensity in the conflict, the harder it will be for the parties to work through each of these steps. By the time we get to the intensity of two nations who share a commitment to living on the same land but deny the right of the other nation to exist we can find such intensity that the conflict may seem impossible to resolve. Nevertheless, if resolution is to be found, it will be through following these simple but very difficult steps.

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