You can’t heal a conflict if you get lost in your own story. My conflict coaching clients are far more likely to have a successful resolution or positive change in their conflict, when I can help them shift the story they are telling about it.
Initially everyone tends to see what went wrong only from their own perspective. They blame the other person and assume they had bad intentions. They often feel angry, bitter, put upon, and self-righteous.
I experienced an incident recently that is a perfect illustration of this faulty thinking.
I frequently walk around the pleasant residential neighborhood near my gym before I go inside and lift weights. One day I was walking and talking on the phone, when all of a sudden I heard yelling. I looked up, and down the street on the other side there was a woman with a dog, her features contorted with fury, glaring and screaming at me.
She shouted at full volume, “You’re walking the same circuit I am. I’m sick of hearing your conversation. I don’t want to hear it anymore! Turn around and walk down a different street! Turn around right now! Go on, go on, get out of here!”
I was quite taken aback as you might imagine. I was not on private property but on a public street owned and maintained by the City of Santa Rosa. I did turn around, walk back to the corner and down another street, because even though I had every right to be there, I knew engaging with someone so angry and self-righteous would be unproductive and potentially dangerous. Afterwards I mused about what a perfect example that is of the power of illusion in people’s conflict stories.
Why this is a perfect example of people’s illusions in conflict:
- She clearly believed that it was her street and her circuit; everyone else was there only at her discretion.
- She knew her story was uncontrovertibly true, so she felt absolutely justified in her abusive behavior.
- The only solution she saw was to make me do something different, to get me to change. She had no conception that she could’ve chosen to walk down a different street instead of yelling at me and confronting me.
- In reality, this means that she was completely dependent on me taking action in order to have peace of mind. She had no ownership over her own feelings or her own behavior. And unless I did what she wanted, she would continue to be miserable.
Although this example is dramatic, I frequently find similar misperceptions with coaching clients who are embroiled in a difficult conflict.
Clients are angry, they know their story is true, and they believe the only solution is for the other person to do what they want.
But, when I listen to them deeply, offer genuine support and validation for how difficult their feelings and the situation must be for them, their stance tends to soften, and they become willing to open up their story and make room for the other person’s perspective. My clients can better understand that the other person may not have had the malicious intent they attributed to them. They can more calmly contemplate what they can change: their own attitude, their own behavior, and their own communication.
It takes courage, support, and persistence. But when that awareness and sense of choice show up, a path for compassion and creative problem-solving begins, and the conflict often shifts or dissolves.