Framework for Creative Conflict Resolution

Injunction [What to do]:

Remembering that you cannot change anyone but yourself, identify something which is arising in your life that is so troublesome to you that you are willing to change what you do in order to create what you need.

1. Identify the Significant Relationship. There may be several relationships which are implicated in this troublesome circumstance. Pick one. We can't address them all, all at once.

2. Identify the Pattern of Conflict. There is something about this circumstance which keeps happening over and over. There may even be several patterns. Again, pick one. We are trying to take something very complex and tease out a part of it which will be simple enough to resolve.

3. Clarify the event. Describe the event is such a way that all parties to the event will agree that this is what happened. If you can't agree on the event that already happened, you will never come to an agreement with yourself about what you hope to have happen.

4. Feel the effects of the event. Notice the impact the event has on you. What are your sensations, emotions, thoughts, and wishes? When have you had these feelings before?

5. Identify the qualities that you need when this event occurs. Yes, you want others to be different; but if they were as you want them to be, what qualities would arise in the relationship?

6. Choose an action. Nothing will change until we change our behavior. What can you do which will move you toward what you need without expecting or depending on the other to change.

Rationale [Why do it]:

The reason for steps #1-5 is to get to #6. We can't count on anything changing until we change. But we are often in a hurry to get to what we are going to do before we know what we need. We put step #6 ahead of the others. We risk making a choice that will get us the opposite of what we need if we choose an action before we are clear about what we need. We can't know what we need until we know how we are being affected. And there are many events causing many effects, so which one are we addressing first? Each of these steps is essential to discovering what we need so we can act to create it.

Conflicts can be very complicated. Sometimes the complexity of the conflict leaves us certain that it can't be resolved. When we go to the trouble to tease the complexity apart and only address one part of it at a time, we discover that it is manageable in small pieces. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

Promises [What it will get you]:

We imagine that we can't resolve conflicts unless the other changes. By consistently using this discipline to change how we are choosing to show up in the conflicted relationship, we not only discover what we need and thus what we might do, we discover how powerful we really are and how effective we can be at constructing what we need.

The truth is we can only change ourselves. It turns out this is an immensely powerful thing to do when the transformation we create for ourselves is one which moves us closer to our own center. This discipline is designed to help us become more Self aware at those very times when we are going to be most inclined to focus on the other.

If you resist the temptation to try to manipulate the other into changing but instead pay keen attention to how the conflict is affecting you, what you are feeling, what you are making these events mean, what they remind you of from your past, then you will draw yourself closer to your Self. As a figure skater in a spin gains speed when she draws her arms in, so will you gain power when you move more of yourself towards your own center. When you focus only on others and how you want them to change or what your judgment of the them is, then you move away from your own center and you pull yourself out of balance.

Suggestions [How to do it better]:

Be patient with yourself as you work at mastering this discipline. The first few times you try it you will almost certainly feel as though it isn't working. Check to see how you know it isn't working. What do you look to as evidence that it isn't working? Are you waiting to see if the other is going to change? If so, you are trying to change them. If instead you are looking to see if your have been able to change your own behavior and you find that you can't yet, then you are not yet able to see some of the motivators for your own behavior. You may have decided what you want to do but can't get yourself to act the way you decided. That is fine. Just focus your attention on the part of you that doesn't want to do what the rest of you decided was the best thing to do. As long as you are moving to greater self awareness you are making progress in addressing the conflict.

Only very rarely are we able to make a shift in our behavior and be able to sustain the shift in a way that fully resolves a conflict. When we are able to do so, we have reason to celebrate. But more commonly we find we have only been able to address a part of the problem or we find that we were able to show up differently for a while and then slipped back into old habits. Be gentle with yourself. You have been doing what you have been doing for a very long time and it is hard to change our habits, especially when we are under pressure.

For that reason it is especially important that you notice any small success you have at shifting what you are able to do and to enjoy how it opens things up for you. Give your self praise for your successes, no matter how small. This will help you gain momentum in your transformation.

[For the pdf of this discipline follow this link.]

Commentary

You have probably had times in your most significant relationships when a familiar conflict recurs and you think to yourself, "Here we go again." The shoes are in the middle of the floor again. The toilet seat is up again. The car is on empty, the trash is overflowing, and the refrigerator door is open...again.

Conflicts arise in every relationship and they matter the most in our most significant relationships. Events we would hardly even notice in a relationship with someone who is not important to us become monumental when they arise over and over again in the context of relationships with people who are important to us. While these conflicts can be very aggravating, they are also rich opportunities for creativity and transformation.

As you spend five minutes every day doing the Bothers Me Log (you have started that haven't you?), you will begin to notice how the same things arise day after day. The best issues to work on tend to be the little things that happen over and over again. We can also get great satisfaction from addressing the really big events that happen only occasionally, but those tend to be more difficult to address so it helps to start with small things that happen often. That way we get more chances to practice.

I want to give an example of how this can work, but let me first offer a very helpful turn of phrase and a shift in perspective that is given to us by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey in their book, How the Way we Talk can Change the Way we Work. They invite their readers to develop an awareness of the language of complaint. They invite readers to notice what is bothersome in the ways they function together as a group. They lead the readers through a process of looking at the values they hold and the behaviors they choose and urge them to sit with the tension of the competing commitments and to resist the urge to solve the conflict. Instead they invite us to "let the conflicts solve us."

Rather than solving the conflict, instead of trying to get others or the system to change, can we let the conflict solve us? Can we see how the conflict invites us to know ourselves better, to identify what it is we are actually committed to, to see the assumptions we are making that may be constructing the problem we are having, and then to alter ourselves, rather than insisting that those around us change.

Eddie is a guy who was in one of my groups many years ago. He had been ordered out of his own home as a consequence of his abuse of his daughter, but he was steadfast in his wish to restore his marriage and his family. In order to minimize his own expenses so as to continue to financially support his wife and children, he moved back in with his parents.

Eddie was earnest and honest and hard working, but not very psychologically minded. He had no sense of what was going on with him when he sexually abused his daughter. He insisted that he had not been abused himself as a child. He was able to recover a memory of feeling abused by the school system when they put him into a program with mentally retarded kids when he was found to be severely dyslexic. He did remember when he was about three and the emergency room nurse asked him if the gash on his head was from falling down the stairs as his father had said. Not realizing that he was supposed to lie, he corrected the report explaining that his dad had thrown him against a radiator. But he was quite certain that he had never been sexually abused. He had seen his dad sexually abuse his mother and his sister, but he had never been sexually abused himself.

Eddie had a difficult time identifying any of his feelings. This was most evident around his anger. Many people suffer from being too angry, that is they tend to act out anger over even small things that happen. Eddie was one of those people who don't have enough access to their anger. Some people are so unaware of anger that they are easily taken advantage of. This was a problem for Eddie.

Thus it was quite a breakthrough when Eddie came to his Monday evening group and announced that he was angry. I was delighted. "So, Eddie, what are you angry about?"

"It is my dad. He just doesn't treat me right."

"What happened?"

"It was yesterday morning, Sunday morning, and I was in the kitchen fixing my breakfast, I was frying some eggs, and just as I was about to use the spatula to get the eggs out of the pan, my dad comes in, it is a small kitchen, and as I get the spatula under the eggs, he pushes me to the side to get to the coffee pot and the eggs fly across the room and onto the floor."

"Wow, so what happened?"

"He poured his coffee and went into the breakfast nook to read the paper."

"No, I mean what did you do?"

"I cleaned up the eggs."

"Did you say anything to him?"

"No, that wouldn't do any good. He isn't going to change."

"Right, well, whether he changes or not, you can't change him... but didn't you feel like telling him off or anything?"

"No, that wouldn't do any good, he isn't going to change."

In the discussion that followed we affirmed that we were not going to be able to change his dad but that there are things that he needs that he isn't getting when these things happen. Eddie was easily able to see that his dad always treats him this way and that it hurts his self-esteem. He was able to frame the issue in terms of self-respect. He was not getting the respect that he wanted from his dad. What might he be able to do that would create for himself the respect that he needed. What could he do which would create a greater sense of self-respect?

We discussed what he might be able to do differently whenever these events come up and to set up a three part response to these events in his relationship with his dad. They were;

  1. "Dad when you (in this case) push me and my breakfast ends up on the floor and you don't acknowledge responsibility for what you have done, [event]
  2. I feel as though you don't have respect for me and are not interested in being accountable for how you affect me, [effect] and
  3. I wish we had a relationship in which we treated each other respectfully." [need]

Eddie agreed that it might feel good to say this to his dad, but he had to remind us again that his dad wasn't going to change. I assured Eddie that we weren't trying to change his dad but were supporting Eddie in being different in a way that created the respect that he was missing. He agreed to try this different way of being in the coming week whenever his dad treated him in a manner that didn't feel respectful. He allowed as how that was just about any time he and his dad were in the same room.

The next week when Eddie checked in at the group session he reported that,

"It didn't work."

"How do you know it didn't work?" I asked.

"My dad isn't going to change."

"No, he isn't going to change and we aren't going to change him. What happened?"

"I was sitting in the living room reading the newspaper and he came in and took it right out of my hands. I said to him, 'When I am reading the newspaper and you take it from me without saying anything to me it feels like you don't have any respect for me and I want to have a relationship where we treat each other with respect.'"

"Excellent! So what happened?"

"He looked at me like I had two heads and then sat down and read the newspaper."

"Okay, but what happened with you?"

Eddie had to stop and think about this for a minute. He was not yet accustomed to paying attention to his own feelings at this point and he had to do make some space in his awareness.

"Well, actually, now that I think about it, it felt kind of good. Even though my dad looked at me like I had two heads, he looked at me. He doesn't normally do that. And another thing, it felt good to hear myself stand up to him."

We talked some more about how it felt to him and then he committed to continue to respond to his dad this way.

Here was a pattern of conflict--Dad treating him disrespectfully--in a significant relationship which Eddie had set with long enough to let it begin to solve him. He had a new way of being in the relationship which could begin to construct what he needed without depending on or insisting that the other change.

Over the course of the next several months Eddie continued to practice this speech to his dad whenever his dad treated him in a manner that did not feel respectful. Over the months Eddie got better and better at delivering the speech and felt stronger about himself for being able to present his wishes clearly. But he also began to notice a shift in his dad. From time to time his dad would start to do something disrespectful and then stop himself, as if he didn't want to hear the speech. His dad's behavior was changing, not because he changed his dad, but because he changed his relationship to his dad and his dad had to adjust to the change.

Eddie was able to identify a pattern of conflict in a significant relationship and to be able to fashion a plan for how he wanted to be different whenever the pattern emerged. The goal of the plan was to change the way Eddie acted such that he would be responsible for creating what he needed without expecting or depending upon the other to change.

Discipline #9: A Framework for Creative Conflict Resolution

We are ready now to look at the central discipline of Creative Conflict Resolution. This is essentially a map of what Eddie was able to do with his dad. It is also the ninth discipline.

Significant Relationships

As we have already mentioned, we are awash in conflict. We have far too many conflicts to be able to respond to all of them with the care that assertiveness demands. We will have to limit our field just a bit. So we will want to focus especially on those relationships which are most significant.

Pattern of Conflict

Still, within our most significant relationships there are very many conflicts. As we do the Bothers Me Log we will discover to what degree it is the same conflict over and over, though perhaps in somewhat different forms.

As Eddie was able to discover with his dad, when he isolated a particular pattern of conflict, he was able to design a specific intervention which he could use every time it came up. Sure, there were minor modifications for each event, but the heavy lifting of figuring out what to do to be assertive was already in place. That is, all he had to do was to name the event, know how it affected him, and what he needed; and then act in a manner which moved him toward what he needed.

Event

Be able to name the event in such a way that everyone who is a party to it can agree that this is happening.

Effect

Be able to be as clear as possible how this event and the pattern of events of which it is a part affect you.

Need

Be able to identify the quality which is missing when this pattern of events occurs.

[You will of course recognize these three items (event, effect, and need) as the steps to being assertive.]

Action

And then, and only then, act in a manner which moves you toward what you need without expecting or depending on the other to change.

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