We all deal with conflict, whether we like it or not. There are many ways to work through a difficult conversation, or find a settlement in negotiation. Some outcomes are more sustainable and satisfactory than others. The difference is in how you approach each conversation, and how you present yourself and the situation to others involved.
Conflict resolution starts with a few Simple Rules. Much like using ground rules in mediation sessions, Simple Rules are agreed upon ways to interact. Yet, Simple Rules, rooted in Human Systems Dynamics theory, goes beyond “ground rules” to setting conditions for self-organizing with respect to similarities, differences, and exchange patterns. In difficult conversations or negotiations, I use the following Simple Rules to help my clients set conditions for effective conflict resolution, both at the negotiation table and beyond.
1) Focus on patterns not problems
Patterns can be influenced; problems imply the need for a solution and sometimes blame or punishment. Patterns include shared responsibility and accountability, where each party must take action to shift the patterns.
In simple situations we could have problems: for example, getting a flat tire. This is a problem, and it has a solution. In difficult conversations, we mix in emotions, needs, identity, values, beliefs, resources, goals, and so on. This is very different than a flat. It is complex and has no immediate or clear solution. It is tempting to apply a “solution,” but by focusing on patterns you can see and understand the dynamics at play and more effectively influence them.
2) Stand in inquiry
Without inquiry there is no resolution. I could even go so far as to say without inquiry there is no conversation. I challenge you to think of a conversation where you, or the other, did not feel any inquisitive impulses. We are naturally curious, until we are upset, and then we shut down. We can try to protect ourselves with insulation from external probing, but the only way to move beyond being upset is to ask questions: to yourself and to others.
If we are not in inquiry, we are probably making judgments or assumptions. The information will come from somewhere, either from our conversations or imaginations. Having a lot of assumptions and judgments of another person or a situation is a guaranteed way to escalate conflict. We de-escalate conflict with openness, questions, and self-reflection.
3) Set conditions for the future
When you are trying to engage in a difficult conversation, your approach, openness, and receptivity sets conditions for the next question and the next conversation. If you think about your conversation as one of many, then you can lay the ground rules for how you want it to be, for example: respectful, trusting and generative. If you approach the conversation as a one-time deal then it is not a relationship, it is a transaction.
When I meet with my mediation clients I am helping them set the conditions needed for them to have effective communication with the people they are in conflict with, for the mediation session and for when they are on their own.
4) Appreciate complexity
Human interaction is rarely simple. We have the most elegant ways of making it complex, but thinking it is simple. I’ve had many clients come to me and say, “it’s simple, he/she is to blame.” Blaming the other is a simple way to get stuck, and stay stuck. It is like giving up our agency in a situation, and stating to others that we are happy to limit our options to ignoring or condemning the other.
We are each complex individuals with complex needs values and interactions. Acknowledging the complex nature that characterizes our individual thinking and action is difficult. Acknowledging the almost overwhelming complexity that emerges when we come together is the key to taking action toward positive change.
5) Iterate and adapt
It’s not about getting “it,” it’s about continuously trying it. Resolving conflict is not just doing one thing or being in one place, it is about continuously trying to listen, ask questions, and get heard. You don’t get to a place where suddenly you are a pro at dealing with conflict, even the most skilled communicators are constantly learning about themselves and others, growing into new places and relationships.
Use each difficult conversation or negotiation to learn something new, about yourself and others. Listen and ask good questions. The more you learn, the more insight you gain; this leads to new questions.