Collaborative conflict resolution rests on the premise that “all behavior makes sense”. No matter how outrageous or unreasonable a person seems, in his own mind, in that moment, his words or actions are fully justified.
Think about it. Think about how you view the world, and how your views influence your words and actions. Even when you say things which you later regret, in the moment that the words were spoken they were true for you.
In this way, other people are no different from you. Even the person whom you find the most difficult is certain that she is right. If you try to convince her that she is wrong, she will defend herself. Just as you believe that she is the one with the problem, from her perspective you are the one who needs to change.
This takes us to the heart of conflict resolution. As long as it’s a question of right and wrong, the chances for understanding, resolution, and healing are slim. Conflict resolution is not about getting your way, nor does it have to do with convincing others of your position. By the same token, conflict resolution is also not about bowing to another’s point of view. Conflict resolution takes us beyond the notion of “winner” and “loser” altogether.
In order to truly resolve a conflict, you must be willing to see the other person as he sees himself. As best you can, you must put aside your own perspective for a time and “walk a mile” in his shoes. Deeply believing that “all behavior makes sense”, your challenge is to find out, “Why?” Acknowledging that you are confused, hurt or even offended by what the other person is saying, you could then say, “I just don’t get it. I can tell that you feel strongly about this and it doesn’t make any sense to me. Help me to understand where you’re coming from.”
It’s as though you and the other person are standing on opposite sides of a bridge. You have a whole world of experience on your own side of the bridge, a world that hangs together in a way that makes sense to you. So does the other person, only his world is different from yours. A conflict situation is an opportunity for you to cross the bridge to his side and experience his world for a while.
This is where courage comes in, even humbleness. When everything inside us wants to be right, to get our way, or to be the “good guy”, we are called to put it all aside, to reach out, to consider the possibility that there’s another point of view that’s just as valid as our own. And even if we think we know exactly what’s going on with the other person, we don’t really know unless we ask. Whew! This stuff is not for sissies.
Having experienced the other person’s world for a while, you then get the opportunity to take her by the hand and bring her back across the bridge to your side. You get to tell her how you see the situation, what it looks like in the context of your world. Just be aware that you don’t get to say when she is ready to make that journey back to your side of the bridge. If you try too soon, she will let you know (by her body language or other signals) that she’s not ready yet.
But if you listen well while you’re on her side of the bridge, taking a genuine interest in her perspective, then sooner or later she will be ready to listen to you.
This wisdom is not new. There are biblical references for it, and Habit #5 in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It sounds easy, doesn’t it? But even if we aspire to this principle, we tend to forget it when we’re in conflict. So practice by cultivating an attitude of curiosity in the ordinary, low-stress situations of your life. When you catch yourself judging another person, even just to yourself, try replacing the judgment with curiosity: “What’s that about for him?”
If you find it hard to ask the question, just notice that. You have discovered new information about yourself, a place where you’re resisting. It’s OK. There’s no requirement to take it any further. But now you know that this is not just about the other person, that you have something at stake as well, and it’s helpful to acknowledge that. Applying the principle “All behavior makes sense” to yourself, you could get curious about what’s behind your resistance.
As John Winslade & Gerald Monk say in Narrative Mediation, “A sense of wonder and exploration can prevail over a sense of certainty.” All the certainty in the world will not resolve conflicts between people who are in any kind of ongoing relationship with each other. For that we need respect, appreciation, and simple curiosity.
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