Conflict is not an inherently bad thing. It is often through conflict between old and new ideas that progress in relationships and the world emerge. What is a bad thing is entrenched conflict.Entrenched conflict that risks escalation into violence or war is another matter completely and should be resolved at the earliest opportunity.
As a dispute resolution professional and trainer I’d like to share nine principals with you to help with dealing with conflict and moving towards resolution.
1 Understand the conflict escalation scale
Conflict can be defined as a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.
The diagram above demonstrates how conflict is an escalation of tension experienced when differences are not accepted and there is no agreement about how to proceed with a relationship, contract or any other form of human interaction.
It is normal and natural to disagree. It is only when we don’t have strategies to deal with those disagreements that we have a problem in the relationship which can come to a head as a dispute ( argument)
In other words by the time that your disagreement has reached the level of a dispute you will find that both sides have gotten to the point of developing their positions. In other words each side has a different and seemingly mutually exclusive view of what is “right” and a firm belief that the others a wrong. Sometimes that is true but sometimes it’s simply a matter of perspective.
When each “side” gets fixed in their position over time you end up with conflict. In the family dispute resolution work that we do at Mediation Centre this can continue to simmer making it difficult for parents to put their differences aside in order to provide the best possible parenting for their children. In other cases it can continue to escalate into family violence where one or both people try to force the other one to their view of the situation or to behave in the way that they think is acceptable.
When things turn violent the underlying issues get lost and the who focus of the user of violence is to hurt and control the other. Be warned. Conflict that is unresolved can lead to “war” on a nationally scale that can literally mean citizens of one country trying to kill citizens of the other but on the interpersonal level it can also literally mean murder.
2 Make respectful communication a ground rule
In the Mediation and Family Dispute Resolution training that I facilitate and all mediations that my organisations deliver respectful behaviour is a fundamental ground rule.
Respectful behaviour has different meanings for different people so the mediator generally outlines that in a bit more detail.
In my mediations respectful behaviour means:
- no swearing or abusive language (imagine you were talking to a grandmother or grandfather who you respect) If you swear or use abusive language to your grandparent google Elder Abuse and take a good hard look at yourself.
- active listening which means actually listening to what they are saying and trying to understand their point of view.
- being empathetic which means being willing to try and understand the other persons feelings and the impact of the conflict on them (rather than justifying anything you’ve done to them and blaming them for your behaviour)
Some mediators believe that “venting” is OK in mediation.
Being open about what you are feeling, telling the other person what the impact of their behavour has been, saying things that are hard to hear are all OK.
Doing that in a way that is disrespectful and causes fear and anxiety is not. Fear and anxiety are not helpful in conflict resolution as they inhibit creativity and problem solving abilities.
3 Deal with disputes at the lowest level of intensity possible
The sooner you recognise and deal with problems in a relationship the better. The more disagreements escalate towards entrenched conflict the more upset and angry the people involved in the conflict will be.
It is also human nature to “enlist” others to your side when you have a disagreement. That often involves exaggerating the hurt done to you, playing down any positives on the other side and generally locking yourself into an entrenched position. Don’t give yourself a hard time. They’ll be doing the same thing.
That is why when people separate there is often a battle for the friends and sometimes even efforts to turn each others family members against the other person. Of course far too often children get caught at ground zero of the battle that their parents are engaged in.
The difference between getting advice and escalating disputes
Too often I hear of people reaching a financial or parenting agreement at the end of a relationship without getting professional advice.
Sometimes they do this in the belief that going to a professional is likely to escalate the issues. It only will if you let it.
Other times it is an abusive strategy where someone is trying to keep the other person ignorant of their rights and obligations. Don’t make that mistake as the future goes on for a long time. If you lock yourself into a commitment that is detrimental to you and possibly your dependants because you were not willing to get good quality advice you really only have yourself to blame.
Dealing with disputes at the lowest level doesn’t mean doing it without getting information and advice.
Interact Support has Legal Advice and Strategy Sessions available for $275 for an hour and a half session with specialist family lawyers.
It also has Guidance Sessions available with a family dispute resolution practitioner available for $190 to help you look at all of your options and to develop a plan for resolving disputes and conflict in relationships.
4. Support the people, solve the problem.
The principle that we use in all conflict resolution “Support the people, solve the problem”.
This is directly opposite to the normal reaction that people have to being in conflict with someone else which is “Attack the people, ignore the problem”.
Just look at the conflict around the world and how often people are blamed when the underlying causes are ignored.
In mediation the goal is always to understand firstly what the problem is from all perspectives so that everyone can understand what the issues actually are. Once that is clear then it is so much easier to resolve them.
All that needs to happen is to consider the options available to resolve the issues. Some will be only acceptable to one side but if people are acting in good faith and willing to be honest about their needs and interests (what matters to them) then there is usually some way of resolving the problem that is acceptable to both.
5. Keep it Confidential
The confidentiality of the mediation or facilitated negotiation process is one of it’s most deeply entrenched principals.
There is a good reason for that.
If you enter into a negotiation in mediation and you know that anything you consider can’t be used against you later it makes the whole process much more open and likely to succeed.
If even thinking about proposals put to you put you at risk, clearly you wouldn’t be willing to even listen to what the other has to say. Thankfully that isn’t the case in mediation. In mediation everything can be on the table and fair game for an open discussion.
Confidential doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to your personal or professional advisors. You always have that right and we encourage you to speak with your lawyer, financial advisor, new partner, parents or anyone else within your inner circle who may help you with making decisions. That’s fine.
What it does mean is that the professional who is assisting you can’t speak about your case in a way that identifies you unless they have your permission or they believe that they have to contact authorities to prevent harm to a child or other person or property.
That means don’t threaten to burn down the ex’s house one night if you don’t want a visit from the police or child welfare authorities. In fact don’t even think thoughts like that. They are not going to help your mental health and nothing is so bad that you should consider hurting someone.
There are anonymous services like LIfeline who provide crisis support if everything feels like it is getting too much for you. Their number is 13 11 14.
6. Be honest
When you have been wrong, admit it, and ask forgiveness. Attempting to hide a mistake or something you did wrong will just compound the problems you are experiencing. It will also destroy people’s trust in you and prevent any efforts to rebuild trust.
If you feel ashamed of your past behaviour that is actually a good thing. Shame means that our beliefs and values have changed and when we look back at how we behaved in the past and consider that behaviour through the prism of our new beliefs we think that what we did was wrong.
If you (or the other person) is blaming others for your own behaviour (what you did or didn’t do) we call that living below the line.
Justification, blaming the victim and denying fault are all symptoms of refusing to take responsibility for your own behaviour.
Learning to live as a responsible adult is a journey and sometimes people grow up with poor role models or in violent homes where admitting fault had consequences that far outweighed the crime. While it is hard to admit fault or failure it is the only way to be responsible for your own behavour.