Why we get stuck in conflict, and how to get out

Have you ever been in a disagreement with someone, and you know it is not going to turn out well? Even with my training in mediation and studies in conflict resolution, I continually get pulled into these same situations. Why is it that even when we know we are not acting in the best interest of the situation, we still escalate the conflict and abandon the basic tenets of respectful communication?

My name is Eric Dirth, and I began my work this September at the local mediation center in effort to gain a better understanding of dispute resolution processes. I have spent my time observing or participating in several roles, and this fall’s blog entries will offer food for thought on the key topics in community mediation. This week I am considering the mediation and dispute resolution training processes to explore why we still get entrenched in conflict when we know it is not going to end well.

I recently was working with two peers to organize an event, and it did not take long before we recognized we had very different philosophies about how to make the event a success. We shared the same basic goal, yet with different ideas we became entrenched in a battle over minor details.

At the mediation center, at public participatory events, and in everyday life we are pulled into these conflicts well aware of the consequences of our actions. Why? I will spend the rest of this post reflecting on my own experiences, both at the mediation center and in my everyday life, to posit some idea on the magnetism of entrenched conflict.

I contend there are two reasons why we are pulled towards polarizing conflict: Open-mindedness is hard work, and the need to win.

Open-mindedness is hard work

The more complex the issue, the more open-minded we should probably remain. However, I see too frequently that the more complex the issue, the more apt we are to view the situation with blinders on. We naturally turn to what we know when faced with what we don’t know, and in conflict what we often don’t know is the other person’s side of the story, or the view of our actions and interactions from their point of view. For example, even though I know I communicated clearly to my colleagues, my colleagues’ views that I did not communicate clearly is certainly a valid claim. Moreover, recognizing their view and remaining opening to the fact that somewhere we are operating on different pages will transform the conflict from arguing over ideas to a problem with potential to be resolved. In other words, we need to exercise more of a willingness, not just to hear, but to listen to those viewpoints directly opposite our own.

The need to win

It is safe to say nobody likes to be a pushover. We have the urge to win in conflict, or at least keep from losing. As a result, different people adopt different conflict resolution strategies to win in conflict. Some people consider both parties losing in conflict as a success. Others prefer to give in on everything in order to avoid conflict (or have a passive aggressive victory). More often, however, disputants want to win everything on the table and leave nothing for the other party. Ideally, successful conflict resolution reframes the winning to mean a collaborative problem solving effort, but yet we frequently are much more comfortable with our own ideas of how to “win” the conflict. I believe this is because we don’t trust the other party’s willingness to work with us, and we fear they might actually persuade us to change our minds. I don’t have an easy answer on how to encourage more collaboration through development of trust, because I don’t think we should always trust the other party.

My advice to conclude today is to work in conflict to acknowledge these different types of conflict resolution strategies and have a better self-awareness of why we are acting a particular way in conflict. The self-awareness allows for more openness, and perhaps maybe a few less polarized conflicts.


Seeking to Understand: The Power of Participants

By Ali Steed

I am very shy. I thought that might be a problem when I entered into an SCOM class that centered on the organization and facilitation of public process. I was nervous about my ability to facilitate a dialogue for people I didn’t know. What would they be like? How would they speak to one another? What would I do if the conversation veered off into a bunch of name-calling and raised voices? My trepidation lingered until my first time as an official facilitator, where I began to see the unique ways that people interact in the type of environment that dialogue and deliberation makes possible.

It’s an interesting contrast: the point of having the conversation is for people with a stake in the dialogue to be able to contribute their perspective while simultaneously enlarging it through engaging with others. Yet, it is those same participants with a vested interest in the conversation that are likely to have the strongest feelings and opinions about the issue. On one hand, this is exciting—the prospect of knowing that you can help positively impact a person by allowing them to speak about some of their most deeply held truths is one of the most rewarding parts of being a facilitator. On the other hand, it is a daunting task as the facilitator to ensure that people so invested in the topic speak considerately and seek to understand those who also have deeply held beliefs.

Facilitating the dialogue The State and Marriage: Understanding Two Perspectives helped illustrate the unique ability of dialogue to foster an environment that promotes true understanding and valuable conversation amongst its participants. The small group that I facilitated was as engaged, compassionate, and thoughtful, as any group I have seen during my last few years as a facilitator. The marriage forum was a great example of a group of people seeking to understand. The participants asked with genuine interest and spoke with true consideration.

Sometimes, as a facilitator, you can get so wrapped up in the “what could go wrong,” that you forget all of the “what could go right.” My experience at the marriage forum reminded me of all that does indeed go right by virtue of engaging in community dialogue, regardless of how delicate an issue might be. Participants have the power to hold onto their own beliefs while still acknowledging the beliefs of others. Though centered on an extremely sensitive topic, the marriage forum ended up being one of the most productive dialogues I have been a part of. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the compassion and productivity that even the most value-laden conversations can produce.

This is not to say that every dialogue will be so smooth—free of hiccups and full of kindness. But, it is to say that the reason that public process is so valuable and can contribute such tangible benefits is because of the atmosphere that occurs as a result of dialogue. The true impact that engaging in dialogue and deliberation can have communities, and the power of the participants that make these processes possible, never ceases to amaze me.