Imagine for a minute that it's 200 years ago. We have the medical technology to do surgery, and survival rates are OK. But surgery always involves a great deal of violence to the body. A simple thing like removing an inflamed appendix might mean that you have to open up a person's abdomen entirely, rather than making the tiny incision required today. It's not that the surgeon wants to hurt the person — it's that at that time, the technology simply didn't exist to do it a better way.
This is kind of how many people approach conflict resolution today.
The process in and of itself is often inherently difficult. But it's made so much more stressful and damaging than it has to be when people don't know how to do it well. It's like trying to do surgery with a kitchen knife. You might make it happen, but it's not going to be pretty.
We're simply not taught how to resolve conflicts well, societally or individually — so we fall back on our instincts.
Just one problem: your instincts are there to keep you alive, and to protect you. And when you're feeling emotional, they're going to take over and make your survival (mental, emotional, and physical) the priority, which means that compromise is going to take a back seat. This is why it's so easy to get into the middle of a conflict and suddenly find yourself arguing over the tiniest little things like your life is on the line. It's natural, but it's not productive — and it can be harmful.
That's where I come in.
A big part of my job is helping people realize that there's a better way to resolve conflicts, and over the years I've developed a lot of strategies for productive conflict resolution, including six ground rules that lay the best foundation for collaborative problem-solving, instead of deteriorating into a straight-up fight. They are a primer of sorts, meant to get everyone involved ready to do the hard work of finding a creative solution everyone can live with.
Here's how it works:
1. First, do your best to get in sync with the person you're in conflict with.
This doesn't mean that you have to agree with the other person. It just means that you try to work through the problem at the same pace, recognizing that if one of you gets ahead of the other, you're going to start talking past each other, and things will likely deteriorate from there.
2. Identify and stay focused on your overarching goals.
If you don't have a big-picture view of how you want your negotiation to play out, it's hard to keep things moving forward, because there's no clear end point –– if you don't know what your goal is, how will you know when you've reached it?
So give some thought to who you want to be in this negotiation, rather than what you want out of the negotiation.
It's a subtle difference, but an important one, because if you jump straight into what you want right away, you might skip right over figuring out what's really important to you, and end up later realizing that you've been negotiating for something you don't really want.
3. Now flip it around and think about that from the other person's perspective.
What do you imagine their goals are? This helps you access your empathy for the other person, which is key — without empathy for the other, there's no way to figure out a win-win solution when you have the hard conversations to come.
4. Look at the context of a situation, rather than its content.
Taking things at surface level in a dispute resolution is a surefire recipe for misunderstandings. So try to look at the underlying meaning of what's being said, and what's being left unsaid. Why is the other person acting the way they're acting? What's underneath the things that you can't see, touch, or hear?
5. Recognize that emotions are normal, natural, and not to be ignored.
Get the right kind of support to put them in perspective, and to get the tools you need to cope with the stress of the conflict.
6. Remember that you and the other person are in this together.
As unhappy as you might be with them, and as disparate as your interests may appear, you have at least one thing in common: you both agree that you're having a conflict, that it's uncomfortable, and that you'd both rather not be in this situation.
You're both dependent on each other to say "yes" to something to move past this conflict, so understand that you're in this together, and that each of you is the others' best bet for getting this thing resolved quickly.
It's as simple — and as complicated — as that. Which is why many people choose to bring in a professional like me to help keep things moving in the right direction. If you're struggling to resolve a dispute and could use a neutral third party whose only agenda is helping you move through things as painlessly as possible for the both of you, I'm here to help.