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.

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