(Supplement to a workshop at the Omega Institute / Crossings' "Heart of Happiness" Conference in Austin, Texas, May 18, 2002) Revised for website: December 11, 2002.
Conflict resolution is a vast field, growing along with the new profession of mediator (Isenhart & Spangle, 2000). This paper offers a few strategies derived from the methods of sociodrama, psychodrama, role playing, and group dynamics that may be helpful in working out some of the arguments which come into your life. Even if you tend to avoid actually arguing or expressing your difference of opinion, the underlying conflicts often can be a source of stress. Also, they may well become compounded in time, and the initial issues obscured by the maneuvers that were used in avoiding the conflict.
One of the reasons that conflicts tend to be avoided is that few people know a specific strategy for addressing conflict. In turn, knowing a strategy at least gives a general map that may then encourage you to become more explicitly aware of the discomfort and to proceed with addressing it in a constructive fashion. In general, it's better to attempt to deal with frictions or problems than to avoid them, especially if you can approach the process positively – that is, so you don't contaminate the relationship with hard feelings.
There are many kinds of conflict and the field is complex, as I mentioned at the outset (Donohue, 1992). However, for our purposes, and for many of the simpler conflicts, consider that process of conflict resolution has three main parts that we’ll be talking about today: (1) bringing out the issues; (2) having each party understand the other's position; and (3) negotiation. Knowing how to achieve these ends will lead to a greater readiness to address conflicts more openly and cleanly. Again, this presentation cannot claim to cover the whole range of problems, but is rather geared to offering some specific concepts and techniques that may aid in the process of addressing and resolving or at least de-escalating those problems.
Bringing Out the IssuesThe first part of an intelligently handled argument, one which will be turned towards a constructive solution, is to lay out the issues involved. Often people jump to seeking a particular solution and remain themselves only dimly aware of the reasons for their position. In fact, these reasons may have both reasonable and irrational components, and people are often ashamed to admit, even to themselves, the presence or influence of the latter category of irrational needs.
In fact, irrational needs are important and part of conscious living involves the ownership of our irrational needs. This requires courage and the skill of recognizing that there can be a core of health in those needs, even if they are layered over with fantasies of how those needs must be fulfilled. The point is that you can begin to become aware of your "inner child's" feelings, and in that awareness, more consciously work out ways that you can get what you need, even if, as the late 1960s Rolling Stones' song goes, it's not exactly what you want.
Using Role Reversal and EmpathyAlthough I’d been using this technique for twenty years as a derivative of psychodrama, I recently discovered that Jacob Needleman, in a recent book on “The Soul of America,” notes that the Iroquois Indians used a very similar technique in their council meetings! The key point is that both sides are willing to really open their minds and hearts with their opponents, so that while they may disagree, they are nevertheless willing to show that they really respect and care about the others’ intentions and concerns. This builds trust and helps to break down barriers of pride and narrow-mindedness.
The main technique is that of role reversal, the activity of systematically imagining and talking about what it might be like to be in the other person’s situation. As the difference of opinion emerges, instead of simply restating your own opinion, which is what most people do, or, worse, superficially attack the other person’s position, try this instead: Pause and say, "Wait, let me look at this from your point of view." Then engage in the activity of role reversal, imagining from what you've heard the other person say, what that person's perspective might be. It's essential that you attempt to find some reasonable or understandable position, however you might not agree with it.
Doing this exercise does not mean you give up your position or your needs. It only means that you are strong enough to pause in your assertion of those needs long enough to consider the situation from a wider perspective. The goal is to shift from a context in which one person has to lose in order for the other to win (what in logical game theory is called a "zero-sum" game) to a context in which both parties can feel as if they've worked something out. In complex social situations, rarely is it that one person can be found to be "right" and the other "wrong." Things aren't that simple. The goal is to move beyond this childish attitude and to seek intelligent compromise.
It often works better if both sides are acquainted with the technique, and if there is someone to be a kind of mediator or master of ceremonies, who can help draw you out, or, as it is called in psychodrama, “warm you up” to this new unfamiliar role.
What makes this technique especially powerful is that it is connected with this built-in coaching sub-technique of that helps the person who is trying to empathize become more accurate: After you have made an attempt to understand the other person, invite your "opponent" to correct you! Again, this seems to increase your vulnerability, but in fact it shows your strength of character. It also shows your genuine humility in being willing to be corrected, which communicates that you'd rather be effective in understanding the other person than preserve your own egocentric position. In short, it builds trust.
Your opponent will very likely correct part or all of what you've said in the reversed role. Your job is to accept that as if you were an actor in rehearsal receiving guidance from the director. Use the feedback to try again, with the understanding that you may try three, four, or however many times it takes to demonstrate clearly your willingness and ability to empathize with your opponent's position. When you have finally been able to re-phrase what you've heard in words which show you understand, the tension between you will drop a notch.
Again, if possible, the mediator’s role is to encourage you, to support you so that you not feel shamed if you “didn’t get it right” the first or even fourth time, and to remind the group and the other person that trying to open one’s mind is an act of deep courage!
Then ask your opponent, who is through this process becoming transformed into the role of co-explorer, if s/he will do the same for you. (Or the mediator makes this request.) Then, as the other person tries to appreciate your viewpoint, act as supportive coach, encouraging and praising for however your opponent is able to restate your position accurately, and gently correcting any statements which seem to be omitted or distorted. Beware of temptations to be angry if the other person distorts or misunderstands you– the point is that they’re trying and are willing to be corrected! (This almost never happens in ordinary situations–although my hope is that it will be taken as a basic mode of conflict resolution by kids in high school and younger within the next century. It’s merely a technology for relationships, like Robert’s Rules of Order.)
Finally, when both of you have succeeded in re-stating your opponent's position accurately, you'll find in most cases that you've laid out the issues more clearly. Having discovered the essential points, you'll be in a better position to construct a solution which includes the needs of both parties as much as possible and/or in reasonable balance. And as I said, the most important thing is that you’ve broken the barrier of distrust to some extent and both of you have demonstrated your willingness to open mind and heart to the other–the resulting negotiations becomes more of a collaboration so as to help both sides have their deeper concerns met most fully.
This is the basic technique. It takes a bit of practice to get the knack of role reversal–it’s close to what actors have to do to “get into character,” but, like learning to swim or ride a bicycle, once you begin to catch on, it gets easier.
Still, since arguments are often more complex, a number of associated techniques may also be needed.
Integrate ApologyMany if not most arguments quickly become contaminated by "process" elements, the way the argument was presented, the non-verbal communications, the opening of the encounter with an adversarial attitude. If something is carelessly or inadvertently done to make the other person feel less respected, some loss of “face,” or shamed, the defensive response will obscure the original issue. The conflict comes to be as much about “how” you may have begun to deal with the problem as “what” the original problem was about. So such contaminants need to be identified and withdrawn.
Thus, one of the most useful skills I know is the art of apology. This involves your learning to simply acknowledge that you have made a mistake regarding one of the role components in an encounter. The reason most people don't learn this skill is that they haven't been helped to discriminate between being mistaken in one role component and having one's entire position discounted. There's a feeling that if you give in even a little bit then you're completely vulnerable. Make it explicit in your consciousness that this is not so.
Indeed, it's more than likely that in a complex interchange a certain portion of your actions have been less than perfect. If you're showing your interest in cleaning up your own act rather than attacking the other person, it reduces the adversarial atmosphere. Perhaps you initiated the interaction with a sense of exasperation, and communicated irritability, which was then experienced by the other person as undeserved. In fact, that person may not have known that you fantasized that they "should know better." This is the first they heard about the problem. But now they're hurt because you came on too strong, as if you expected the worst from them.
For this and other small things that either of you might have done to contaminate the relationship of trust between you, you should apologize. State what you're aware you have done as a process issue and attempt to rectify it. Ask if you may begin again in a nicer way, and then, if they agree, do so, replay the opening few lines. It's likely that the other person will do likewise.
Although it would be ideal if they’d notice how they also ruffled your feathers in the opening phase, if they would also apologize to you a little, let’s face it: Very few people know these concepts or skills. So, if you can, at least in the early phases, don’t expect it–you go ahead and model the behavior by apologizing for some of the ways you might have mis-communicated. The kinds of things which may be included in process contaminants include such elements as:
voice tone facial expression choice of words excessive explanation manipulations veiled threats over-generalizations saying "never" or "always" ...etc.
Recognize Power GradientsAnother element in conflict resolution is the subtle awareness that in all relationships there are gradients of power.
There are a number of variations that you may perceive:And, let us note some of the variables involved in those power gradients:
your opponent seems more powerful than you, perhaps totally, perhaps in only one or two respects. your opponent seems less powerful than you your opponent thinks s/he is more/less powerful others around are likely to sympathize or actively side with either you or your opponent your opponent does/does not share your assessment of the power gradient between youAnd depending on the context, any variable may be the source of strength or weakness. For example, if a man is in a group with a majority of feminists, his gender may not be an advantage. An older person with rebellious adolescents may not have the authority s/he would have with more compliant younger children. age, gender, experience emotional intensity rank in the organization verbal skilfulness degree of neediness socioeconomic class manipulativeness other minority status ...etc.
Making these perceived issues explicit and discussing how to take them into account in assessing the real issues at hand is a useful component in any conflict resolution. Otherwise, they operate on an implicit level, and often in an illogical fashion.
Having AdvocatesIn family or small group situations, it's often helpful to ask others to help with the conflict resolution process. This doesn't mean actually asking them to take sides, but rather to play roles in working out the difference. There are two roles that are especially helpful: (1) the mediator; and (2) the advocates. The first role helps to organize the process, especially that of the aforementioned role reversal (as the core dynamic) and also of the components of bringing out the issues and negotiating them.
The second role, that of advocate, helps deal with the fact that often in conflicts one party is more articulate, more capable of impassioned argument, more skilled in the use of rhetorical devices. Or at least this is the perception of the other party. In any case, this power gradient can be moderated by both parties in the conflict having assistants, coaches, helpers.
The mediator may suggest it or you could ask someone in the group to become your coach or helper. It must be understood clearly that that person need not completely agree with you. They are taking this role only to aid in the bringing to the surface the full position, including the less easily justifiable but nevertheless significant feelings and needs. (In role playing, this is called the role of the “double.”)
This only works if the other party also has someone assigned in the role of their helper, too. The idea is that both parties can completely express their needs and perceptions regarding the nature of the issue. The advocates also help to make explicit the nonverbal and process issues that inevitably come up, and in so doing, such contaminants are somewhat neutralized.
The advocates can help further by modeling less emotional or manipulative types of communications such as apologizing or, on the other hand, being assertive. In this role, the advocate can use a variety of techniques to facilitate a shift to a more constructive encounter between the two opposing parties.
Another advantage to using advocates is that it "levels the playing field," reduces the gradient of power, makes the relationship more equal. Each side feels it is less alone. Sometimes, in larger groups, it is helpful to dramatize this by assigning two or even three advocates for each person in the conflict, thus implying that the essential issues are less a matter of individual personality and may be more relevant as a valid group issue. This takes some of the shame and vulnerability out of the situation.
The mediator acts as a director, orchestrating the three phases of the conflict resolution. Again, it should be understood that the mediator's role is not as judge or to take sides, but rather to empower both parties to find a more positive outcome for the conflict. In this role, s/he is able to reaffirm the principles of fair fighting, calling people on the use of blaming, devious or manipulative language, discounting, and other ways of shifting into less constructive discussion.
A word about blaming: This involves an assumption that the other party could change things significantly if they would only recognize what was "fair." In most cases, this view is a denial of the fact that the situation is neither that simple nor does the other person have the ability to change whatever needs to be changed. Because blame is so pervasive in our society it is hard to recognize how childish it really is.
SummaryInterpersonal conflicts are varied in nature and there is no single approach to resolving them simply. However, there are a variety of principles and techniques available, tools which can be used to systematically approach this sticky issue. The fact is that most people don't know any strategy, and so they often either blunder clumsily into the conflict or, more often, they avoid it until the underlying issues become compounded.
Knowing a specific approach helps change the tone of a conflict when it comes up. And role playing techniques are especially relevant.
This chapter has presented three techniques from role playing which are especially helpful: (1) getting support by using advocates; (2) role reversing to make sure that each party understands the other; and (3) the role of mediator. These offer a useful framework for at least approaching interpersonal or group conflicts.
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Donohue, W. A, with Kolt, R. (1992). Managing interpersonal conflict. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Gobey, F. (1996). Conflict, knowledge and transformation: Three drama techniques. In M. Liebmann (Ed.), Arts approaches to conflict. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Isenhart, M. W. & Spangle, M. (2000). Collaborative approaches to resolving conflict. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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