The art of getting through difficult times
Our focus here is upon individuals and how they relate with each other, to groups, and to larger assemblages of people. These techniques also work between cultures in conflict. For example, some 25 years ago, 20 Jewish and 20 Palestinian families found answers to the ages-old issue of how to live in harmony. They founded a bicultural school, the only such school in all of Israel--School for Peace; Neve Shalom; Wahat al Salam, English, Hebrew, and Arabic respectively. Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam has existed in a sea of violence since its founding in 1979. 35,000 people have participated and 400 have taken the moderator's course and are working on peace projects world-wide. This school provides contemporary living proof that not only can Arab and Jew coexist, they can do so in peace and cooperation.
The method used by the School for Peace involves dialogue with empathy as the end point. But new classes do not begin that way. Banishing hatred and getting to know one another is not enough, even though common sense may lead one to think so. Ability to confront painful and touchy issues is also vital, and done up front.
Upon first meeting, feelings often burst out, with defensive accusations flying. Emotional separation may happen initially during the first encounter, but they achieve their ends because as as they work through delicate issues, each participant begins to realize the role s/he plays. The School for Peace operates on the principle that we cannot argue with emotions, but we can express feelings and learn to recognize similarities in individual responses.
We can talk about the roots of fear and how we feel about it. We can discover social differences in the process of firming up our personal identity as others firm up theirs. And we can find common cause. In these ways dialogue develops naturally across cultural divides. Integrity of self is one important key.
The School for Peace is for high-school-level students. Those attending the moderator courses may of course be older. In one exercise, each class may be asked to resolve the issues that divide Palestine; what to do with the 3.5 million Palestinian refugees, how to bring equality to the two groups.
If only these children could be in charge of Israel! Instead, we see Sharon canceling the new school buildings his predecessor approved. We see Sharon establishing a police station next door. Is there no end to the madness of authoritarians? For more, visit www.sfpeace.org and www.nswas.com.
Resolving Conflicts (Excerpts from "Square One." draft of book in progress)
Find the ROOT of the conflict and fix it!
Conflict is so common that many people think aggression is in our genes, and to an extent, that is true. However, there are peaceful societies; so there must be ways around controlling aggression. People in such cultures have obviously learned a few things about turning their differences into positive account. It is not conflict in and of itself that is the problem, it is the means employed to work through conflict that is the major issue. Conflict in dialogue can, in fact, yield quite creative results. So avoiding conflict has a lot to do with avoiding emotional arguments, edicts, put-downs, fights, and ultimately terrorism or war. This is best done through
While it is not often our place to get into the personal business of others, we can set examples that are effective at reducing tensions related to conflict. Mood swings may occur as one moves among home, work, and other places. Conflict may occur anywhere. Techniques we discuss below have proven their efficacy. They are general, whether you are in conflict with another person or whether you are playing the mediator role. For more on the mediator role, see The Third Side by William Ury.
How to Fix a Root Cause(s) (More excerpts from "Square One," draft of book in progress}
A conflict simmered for many months between two valuable group leaders in the same department in a small business. Eventually a new department head was hired partly because the first one could not damp down the turmoil in his group and recover old levels of productivity.
Everyone was curious to see how Alex, the new supervisor, would approach his problem. For three weeks or so, he seemingly did nothing. Then, as if by a miracle, the people in conflict suddenly became like buddies. When asked how he did it, Alex replied, I just figured out what the root problem was and dealt with it.
Alex had listened and observed and talked to everyone in the department and realized that only one of the group leaders was responsible for the problem. After taking time to satisfy himself by direct observations that that was really the case, Alex talked with that person privately. Alex simply pointed out the true costs of returned goods and told him that his emphasis on speed over quality was hurting the bottom line, depressing morale in the entire department, and was precluding any possibility of his promotion. The individual involved was self-aware enough to know the fault was indeed his and he was able to change his attitude toward the other group leader. Alex's approach was simplicity in itself--find the root of the conflict and fix it!
If our role is to mediate when conflicts erupt, our ability to deal with them depends mostly on us. If our own internal conflicts have been settled and both sides trust us, we have a chance. Trust can only be earned--by our personal integrity.
Conflict may arise from any number of ingredients:
- dominant people exerting power over others breed resentment or destructive competition;
- closely related to the above is when one person humiliates amother to the point where they become alienated;
- the immediate above can lead to closed minds, a defense mechanism in essence;
- misperceptions held onto stubbornly can get in the way of both their owners and the group;
- differences in culture, social background, economics, religion, political affiliation, principles, values, and ethnicity;
- defensive individuals who will not engage in dialogue (two-way searches for truth with integrity);
- needs unmet, obstructed, subverted, or incompatible with functions performed;
- precepts blocking creative thinking individually and within groups, and
- situations leading to individual feelings of frustration and powerlessness.
The first five are quite common. How we prevent conflict is to follow Alex's example. Insight into individual behavior and how that can affect his/her group is key.
Defensiveness is often difficult to handle. It arises from behavior patterns developed as people grow through childhood. Later, behaviors that worked early on may go underground to the point that their owners are not even aware of them. When they are not appropriate to the situation, they lead to conflict. How we prepare ourselves for avoiding conflict or mediating conflicts between others depends a lot on our orientation. Thich Nhat Hanh has a philosophical approach that every peace worker should at least understand. Daniel Goleman has written books on emotional intelligence and how to work with it. William Isaacs is a first class writer on Dialogue. For more on defense mechanisms, see the writings of Karen Horney.
Being reality-oriented while working to improve our interpersonal relations with others through dialogue is our very best antidote for conflict. The more social influence we have, the more important dialogue becomes.
While integrity is a must, understanding is, too. We must be understanding of opposing viewpoints without being phony, biased, or defensive. Empathy for each side is a great plus. Understanding each side gives us a basis from which to work toward a permanent fix. Ultimately, understanding is the capacity to really feel with and truly understand another person. Without such feeling for the other, it is hard to find the right words to begin the process of getting to the core of the matter. We tend to fall into using trite platitudes that help not at all, even though they are well meant and may even sound good. Superficial responses to conflicts only make them worse.
For more on what follows, see Talk To Me, by Kris Rosenberg. Her frame of reference is family but her principles are universal. She illustrates two effective ways to lesson conflict: avoid escalation by not using Wordtraps and improving communication and fellowship by using Wordbridges. We provide some examples here.
There are several that discourage communication. All run counter to establishing understanding of each other and empathy. Many of us discourage communication without even realizing it when we opt for empty reassurance. Instead of searching out how the other person really feels, we try to provide immediate reassurance. These WordTraps take communications in the wrong direction; they are overused, and do not recognize how the other person really feels. We may offer them to soothe the other and get ourselves off the hook of dealing with the worries of the other person. We may be hardly aware that we are saying timeworn and habitual phrases we heard others use in similar situations. These seem to come when we can think of nothing else to say. But the message is clear: we cannot help, and we do not care enough to try to feel with the other person.
- It will turn out OK.
- Think positive.
- The worm will turn.
- It isn't that bad.
- It could be worse.
- Lets shoot some pool after work.
- "You shouldn't get mad over a little thing like that."
- "What you're really feeling is"
- "You don't want to do that."
- "You don't really mean that."
- "If you do that, you'll regret it."
- "I have been through worse."
- replying in a way that doesn't respond to what the other person said or which steers the conversation off in another direction,
- responding to accusations with ones of your own in turn, e.g."Well what about you..."
- telling the other person what to do or prefacing with, "If I were you..."
- denying the others perceptions,attacking the other persons defenses, hitting a low blow in effect,
- blindsiding, presenting the other with a fait accompli, and
- questioning the other person in ways that s/he may interpret as coercive.
Phony phrases miss the mark. Some examples follow:
Imagine yourself boiling mad or depressed after being put-down in front of others. Would any of these phrases really cool your anger? It is not easy to turn off the emotional spigot. People cannot just turn their minds on and off like computers, erasing 'worry' from the page
Condescension will likely make things worse instead of better. For example:
People have feelings, justified or not. It isn't possible to erase feelings by attacking their rationality. If feelings are denied, they are shoved under where they smolder and build steam. Without opportunity to talk feelings through, pressure builds and often leads to acting out in destructive ways; certain school shootings are examples.
Dominating devices are particularly hard to take coming from people who believe that a heavy hand can solve any problem and gain them respect in the process. Like the other WordTraps, these lie near the bottom of the communication pit. Some dominating devices are:
Dominating devices are not even temporary Band-Aids; they are destructive. Their messages are loud and clear that we have no understanding; we are not real; we do not care. The receiver will likely continue to simmer and stew, as the situation worsens.
A much better way follows.
Word bridges have the effect of encouraging communication and ultimately reaching dialogue. They have the purpose of making connection in mutual understanding, and ultimately tackling the issue at hand together rather than separately. Word bridges provide respect as they command it. They are the form and substance of Dialogue.
Talking things out before blowing up weakens the motivation to act out in destructive ways. Word bridges have just this effect by encouraging communication. To resolve conflict we must provide understanding while not being phony whether we are trying to resolve a conflict between others or between ourselves and someone else. People who are empathetic and genuine in personality can become effective mediators.
Listen; don't deny the other's perceptions or affirm his/her fears. Reach for mutual insight by asking questions in new directions and quietly relating our own observations. Stick to the facts. The thing about seeing a problem from many perspectives is that we may be able to redefine or rephrase it using different words, perhaps with new or deeper meaning. Using WordBridges effectively prepares the other person to hear our feelings and participate with us in deeper communication and reach true dialogue.
If we have a problem, handle it forthrightly and soon. We must ask the other person when s/he can meet with us. Blindsiding the other person with our problem out of the blue will likely escalate things. Offer options on time and place to lessen pressure and to facilitate his/her internal preparation. In these ways we can ease defensiveness.
Bring up one subject at a time
Telling the other person or group straight out what we would like to talk about specifically is both simple and effective. We introduce a single topic for discussion and deal with that issue via dialogue to the degree we can. Trying to honestly understand what the other has in mind provides a basis. Just as honestly, we must tell him/her how we feel about it.
Stay on track
When we introduce something we want to talk about, we must stick to the specific issue at hand; stay with it, finish it before moving on to other matters. By trying to deal with the whole conflict and its ramifications at once, we get mired down. By going too far back or too far forward, we may never unearth the core problem while risking defensive or angry responses.
We can do this by saying what we feel without implying that other person else is responsible for our actions.
When we approach the other person for discussion of a specific issue, even if we are enraged, we should not ask: "Why did you do that?" it is best not to blame, judge, or label his/her actions. Preferably, we should explore our own feelings and simply describe our response to one of his/her acts. For example: "I feel angry that you said that." Then we can calmly explore what the other person had in mind.
Most of us are taught that it is self-centered and impolite to start sentences with "I." On the contrary, active statements in which we give an account of our own feelings actually stimulate discussion, because we do not raise the other person's defensive wall.
If we want others to be open with us, we can start by being open with them. When we can be up front and clear, our own openness becomes part of our receptivity; our disclosure invites reciprocal disclosure.
We must allow our own vulnerability, even if we are part of the problem. Conflict resolution is about calming emotions, finding perspective, and deepening insight as we search for dialogue.
Openness invites openness in return. Few can resist an invitation that implies, "I'm trusting you with a my thoughts. Can you trust me back?" We may create some emotional collateral with the other person, such that s/he feels safe in offering true thoughts and feelings.
All of us are defensive if/when we need some protection for our psyches. (If we can drop these in dealing with others we can achieve a lasting result.) This is why knowing ones self is so important when trying to resolve or mediate conflicts. We may often find that the other person does likewise. Starting with the least risky issues works best.
At the same time, hiding facts pertinent to the conflict can be damaging to everyone involved. It damages our sense of self while leaving others in the dark. Respecting individuality and privacy of others is a common courtesy we must extend to those we associate with.
A note of caution: Always consider the ramifications of making yourself vulnerable emotionally. You might open yourself to attack by others, or those not close to the situation might hear of your vulnerability out of context. Each of us has our personal communicative boundaries. What to tell and what not to tell is a major issue connected with a healthy need for privacy.
Ask the other what happened in the interaction
- "What happened at the sales meeting?"
- "And then what happened?"
- "What did you do? What did he do?"
- "What did you say then?"
- "What did s/he say to that?"
- "What else did s/he say?"
- "So have you thought of what you'd like to do?"
- "What do you see as your strengths in this?"
- "What did you think when s/he said that?"
- "Did you think I was being pushy?"
- "Would it be OK if I tell him/her about that?"
Ask the other person to describe what was said and done. This kind of WordBridge is where to begin, the first rung of the ladder describing events, not feelings:
And when s/he has responded to this encouragement:
Asking what the other thinks shows our interest in the others perceptions. We've asked what happened, now move along to a higher level of dialogue; s/he will be more comfortable exposing thoughts than feelings:
Support further disclosure
Disclosure enables closure. [This is all about drawing the other person out, discovering their true feelings and beliefs.] Develop the habit of asking listening questions and making comments that support additional disclosure on the others part. When the other person speaks spontaneously, our receptivity to what they say encourages them to talk more openly as they begin to reveal feelings as well as insightful thoughts.
Supporting further disclosure invites fuller understanding.
- "Tell me more about that."
- "Help me understand that."
- "I'm sorry, I don't quite understand yet; can you tell me more about it? (Not implying that s/he is not sending it clearly.)I'd like to hear more about it."
- "How did that make you feel?"
- "Thank you for trusting me with that."
Empathetic people are able to "feel with" others, to feel their pain as well as their joy. This ability enables dialogue and open communication in a mutual search for truth. Authoritarian Personalities often have trouble being empathetic. Sympathy is certainly a good emotion, but it is not true empathy. We can feel sorry for someone without really feeling their pain, alienation, or humiliation. Women are usually more empathetic than men, but it is men who need to corral the emotion and use it to advantage in their relationships. That is hard for men to do when they are aggressive or dominant naturally. Nevertheless, time spent striving for empathy is time well spent for anyone seeking peace in the world.
True dialogue demands some level of empathy before people can begin to understand each other's points of view and attitudes. Arrogance destroys dialogue.
Some things you might say to move actively toward dialogue include:
These are listening comments, and listening is a third of the battle. Stating our own position clearly and calmly is another third. The final third is accepting the other's point of view, drawing the other person out, searching for truth and/or finding a resolution.
Keep our cool
If we can keep your cool, the other person will find it easier to do likewise. Encourage the other person to be open and honest, and do likewise. If we feel his/her anger is misdirected at us, it pays to be receptive, because once expressed, the anger may subside. Rationality may return and the other person may spontaneously apologize. We have defused an explosion, and perhaps gained an ally. When we respond, we should do so in a low-key matter-of-fact manner that is not threatening. Aggressive or angry reactions may escalate things.
It is the cool heads that most often come through. Panic reactions often lead to foolish decisions. Aggressive or angry reactions often only escalate conflict. Of course there are times when it is better to yield if the option is losing your life.
If you encounter a stressful situation try the sequence of:
- tuning in to the situation,
- remaining calm,
- responding in a simple matter-of-fact way,
- avoiding confrontational language or moves, and
- finding a resolution the other person could accept.
Tuning in and remaining calm can have a soothing affect; being matter-of-fact relieves tension; avoiding confrontation opens the door for dialogue, and reconciliation. Remaining calm allows us to find WordBridges instead of lashing back with WordTraps.
Breaking the Ice
Being sensitive to the fact that other people may have unconscious hang-ups (defenses), or that we might, is vital. (A cardinal feature of a hang-up is that its owner is not conscious of its existence.) Unconscious hang-ups lead their owner to act or react inappropriately to certain situations.
Start with current emotions; get them expressed in the here-and-now as clearly as possible. Then move backward in time to their historical origins. Trace events and feelings. If this brings perspective, we win a new foothold in awareness of each other as well as of self. If it brings emotional catharsis, tensions will ease. If it brings both, rejoice.
If nothing seems to work, it may be necessary to bring in a third party to mediate things. A dialogic environment can reduce or eliminate the need for mediation.
In a Nutshell
In dealing with conflict, we need to remember two things summed up well by others. From Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: The most powerful resource we have for transforming ourselves is honest conversation. This means dialogue on the level of feelings. Henri Matisse provides the other nugget: Feeling is an enemy only when one doesn't know how to express it. And it is necessary to express it entirely.
In short, we need to relieve emotional pressure and be honest about it with others. In this way our own perspective will change with hidden stuff revealed, acknowledged, and used or discarded as the case may be. Anger does not address the basic issue; discovering the components of a conflict does.
Conflict resolution works when people in conflict feel safe in saying how they really feel; they can express their worst thoughts in a safe environment. By hearing both sides out and feeling with each individual in a non-critical way, we establish an environment that wins confidence and trust. This may take awhile. Meanwhile, there are some effective things that we can then do to resolve the conflict. These boil down to using WordBridges instead of WordTraps, and bringing others to (or back to) the dialogue level of communication. Once dialogue is established, those in conflict can resolve their own conflicts.
A common mistake many people make is to rush the trust-building process; trust can only be earned, never demanded or commanded. Dialogue and empathy are so important that they must be part of the modus operandi of any conflict resolution procedure.
Another common mistake is to assume that one's own culture is the culture of the world and that everyone's outlook is the same as ours. In fact, every culture (even a subculture, as on the playground) puts a unique stamp on how to express emotions. Understanding the cultural issues can do wonders for conflict resolution across cultures. News media go astray here all too frequently.
Although human personality is universal in its outlines, cultures vary widely in their expressions. Nevertheless, all cultures produce individuals with damaged psyches that make conflict resolution difficult. Their patterns differ. See Locus of Control for how to develop psyches that are balanced in terms of responsiveness and progressiveness.
As societies, we can learn to think and reason for ourselves while appreciating and respecting the bounds of progressive society. We can include social, racial, economic, and cultural minorities in our circles of friends. We can learn a second language. We can study history, anthropology and the natural sciences. We can become aware of the Authoritarian Personality in its many manifestations.
Remember, it is not the mistakes we make, but how we handle them that is important.
For more on this important issue see:
Conflict Resolution Network
Association For Conflict Resolution.
Posted by RoadToPeace on Wednesday, August 24, 2005.