This article was written in preparation for a presentation at the NCPCR Conference in Fairfax, VA. (June, 2001)
If training conflict theory requires adoption of a new set of beliefs and the giving up of current beliefs, is it realistic to believe that adult learners have the capacity or desire to do so? Training and education for adults should respect their need to make choices about the integration of new information with their own life experiences.
As educators, we must be mindful of our audience in terms of who they are as well as how they will relate to the subject matter we teach. Conflict management education requires teaching of new skills and new theories, but also requires application of these skills to the life of the participant. As adult learners, we try things on and choose whether or not new theories and skills fit our experience. Some buy-in quickly, others slowly over time, and still others not at all. The more we try to use our expertise and experience to convince them without giving them a choice, the more likely they are to reject our ideas. It is our belief and experience that conflict management must be taught from the perspective of the learner: elicitive in nature, respecting the wisdom that each learner brings; experiential, allowing the learner to try it on; with some proscriptive teaching, serving as a flexible model and offering a necessary level of expertise.
Conflict management education must be considered from the earliest intervention point possible, rather than after participants are enmeshed in conflict. It should be viewed as the equivalent of boosting the immune system before illness sets in. Conflict management training is most effective when provided pre-conflict to increase one’s own competencies for managing conflict. What can help is education that gives people an understanding and awareness of what happens in conflict and the necessary grounding to self-regulate prior to the onset of conflict. This kind of education helps people understand their pre-conflict and in-conflict emotions in order to increase their awareness of the lack of “rational-ness” they feel. See Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.
The field of conflict resolution education (as opposed to conflict management) has focused primarily on post-conflict issues and resolution of conflict. However, the human experience of conflict is long-term and constant. Conflict is a natural part of life. We feel internal conflict as we fail to achieve various goals, like dieting or testing. We feel conflict toward inanimate objects and people who we don’t know, as in the case of road rage. We encounter conflict with ourselves, other people, institutions, politics, values and the environment. The bottom line is that conflict is constant and natural, and not necessarily negative.
At a base level, conflict can be defined as an incompatibility or a divergence in one’s own values or behavior, as well as with more than one person. Contained within many current theories seems to be the assumption that we can only deal with conflict after it has happened, which assumes there are starting and stopping points. However, our human experience tells us that when we have a conflict with someone or something, it can be difficult to determine the origin or the conclusion, and even when we think it’s over, it often resurfaces. Although our lofty goal is to resolve conflict, it is unrealistic to believe that all conflict is resolvable. Rather, we believe that the goal should be to manage conflict, resolve those that can be, but deal with this natural occurrence more effectively.
Many theorists in the field apply principles such as “separate the person from the problem,” “focus on interests rather than positions,” “invent options for mutual gain,” and “use objective criteria.” Fisher & Ury, Getting to Yes (1981). Others teach communication skills, creative thinking, empathic responses, all of which you may be able to do as a third party to conflict (i.e. as a mediator), but become difficult to utilize when you are engaged in the heat of a conflict. The problem is that conflict often creates an irrational state for people and the present theories require a rational state of mind and emotional stability to utilize the skills. When is the last time you used an “I feel” statement when you were outraged with your spouse? Our real experience often does not lend itself well to the current theories, exercises or examples, unless, of course, we are a third party, untouched by the conflict.
Based upon our research, we believe that all people experience conflict in very similar ways. This session will examine how our organization approaches conflict management training and has developed language to describe and explain conflict. Our conflict management training has transformed lives by empowering people to better grasp what happens to them in conflict, to name it, and then manage conflict more effectively. It has helped people recover from the experience of conflict by recognizing its universality in all people, which tends to bring about the capacity for greater perspective-taking.
In order to teach and build lasting conflict management skills, participants step back and relive the moment of conflict. It begins with increasing self-awareness and self-regulation (personal empowerment), and follows with building empathy and perspective (recognition). This type of training requires the use of adult-education based theories of training and the willingness to use an elicitive model which respects the experience and wisdom of the participants. This is not to say that one must not “prescribe” anything, but that participants be allowed to question, try on, and even reject the theory or practice. Therefore, it requires internal strength, confidence and courage on the part of the trainer.
It is important to elicit the wisdom and experience of adult learners as much as possible. Thus, as we return to the “heat of the moment” with the participants, it is important to elicit the “in conflict” words used to describe the associated personal feelings, such as powerless, angry, stressed, over-heated, manipulated, unheard, despised, hurt, disappointed, hopeless, out-of-control, emotional, stupid, belittled, etc. . . Regardless of age, race, educational background, or socio-economic status, we feel weak and powerless when in conflict (Of course, this varies with the degree of the conflict itself, the most entrenched conflicts causing stronger feelings.) See “The Promise of Mediation” by Bush and Folger. (However, we do recognize that people respond differently to conflict based on culture and experience).
Defining interpersonal conflict also requires that we think about our perception of the other person while in the heat of conflict (as opposed to after conflict or in hindsight). Although these people are often friends and loved ones, in that moment we tend to view them as jerks, powerful, uncaring, not listening, wrong, out of control, emotional, insane, manipulative, selfish, etc. . . We feel weak, self-absorbed, and defensive. We attribute negative intentions upon the others and treat them with suspicion. See “The Promise of Mediation,” Bush and Folger. The experience of conflict, the words and feelings, are reciprocal and universal. If the same questions were put to those people with whom we have experienced conflict, their descriptors would be identical: they would feel weak and self-absorbed, and we would be perceived with suspect intentions. This experience of conflict takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us feel uncomfortable, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. We call our comfort zone our Homeostasis, and it has become the reference point for our work.
The term homeostasis was used by W.B. Cannon to describe the natural steady-state balance or equilibrium we experience when we are not faced with stress (Cannon also named the “fight or flight” response). We describe homeostasis as a zone of comfort that exists on a continuum between peace and conflict. It represents an area of peacefulness and comfort where we prefer to stay; where we feel calm, clear, and collected; where we can handle some highs and lows in terms of stress or conflict. When we are in this zone, we are better able to live congruently with our values, better able to solve problems and get along with others.
One method used to describe homeostasis is the listing of words to describe how we would want to live our lives, to wake up feeling each morning, or how we wish to be remembered: words that fairly and simply describe our values, norms, ideals, etc… These words are enveloped by our homeostasis and remain subjective to each person as we define our own values through our experiences and culture. Participants begin to recognize how conflict affects their sense of self and how they relate to their own self-described values, and how the experience of conflict separates them from their values. They get a sense for where their homeostasis lies along the continuum of peace and conflict, and what it means to be “out” of that comfort zone.
Homeostasis is difficult to define. Some questions to consider are: What does it look like? What is it comprised of? Does everyone have one, and if so, how do they differ? How can you increase it? In order to move these ideas into training, we must begin to understand our own homeostasis, as well as the homeostasis’ of our families, relationships, workplaces, and neighborhoods and communities. We must also become aware of our impact on the homeostasis of other people/entities.
This description provides a basis for our continued work in managing conflict. It explains why we can’t use “I Statements” when in the heat of battle and why we choose not to apologize the moment we realize we are wrong. It provides a basis for recovering from a conflict experience and climbing back into our homeostasis through empowerment and recognition. It can also provide a foundation for skill-building in the area of emotional intelligence, communication skills, and other areas which are traditionally taught in conflict resolution/management education, but with a closer connection to our real human experience and our homeostasis. It is important for it gives us a language within which to process and discuss the human conflict experience.