The first step on any journey is figuring out where we want to go. This sounds simple but how often do we function in crisis mode rather than taking the time to step back and look at how we got there? Having a clear vision of what we want our end result to look like is the first step in resolving any conflict.
There is a difference between needs and process. Needs (our destination) are fairly universal but the processes (paths) that we use to meet those needs vary widely. Imagine a map. There may be five different roads leading to the same place but if those roads intersect along the way we run the risk of a collision.
Everything we do, everything we say, is an attempt to fulfill a need. When needs go unmet conflicts arise. When we communicate there are six needs we are trying to fulfill. We want to
- Achieve our goals
- Fit into the situation
- Act consistently with our self image
- Be right
- Be heard
- Be seen the way I see myself
We all share these needs. This means that if there are two people in a situation, there are 66 possible combinations of needs trying to be fulfilled. With three people that number goes up to 816, with 4 it is over 10,000. With that many paths going that many directions, there is bound to be a few collisions.
To resolve conflict we need to change the conversation. We need to identify the needs before we design the process.
The first step toward changing the conversation is to change the environment. Bring the calm into the room. Emotions, positive or negative can be contagious. Take a step back, and possibly a deep breath, and look for the larger picture. What are the needs? Is there any common ground? Finding that one thing, even if it is small, that both sides agree on is a powerful thing because it opens the door to possibility. It gives us a common destination.
Secondly, assume good intentions. There is truth to the old adage about assumptions. When we are in conflict it is easy to jump to conclusions about the other person. We sit in our office and fume and fester about how that person intentionally caused us harm or is out to sabotage us. It is easy to assume the worst. The problem with that is that we are usually wrong about, or at the very least, exaggerating the situation. The practice of assuming good intentions simply encourages us to slow down and investigate before jumping to conclusions.
Third, be present to the way things are. Focus on what is, rather than what “shoulda, coulda, woulda” been. At the end of the day we are where we are. A good example is the proverbial glass of water. Optimism says it is half full. Pessimism says it is half empty. Being present says it is four ounces, how do we make the most of it. It allows us to be solution oriented. One way to do this is to replace “but” with “and.” For example, consider these two sentences.
I want to turn in our report in three days but my partner wants to get everyone’s input before we complete it.
I want to turn in our report three days and my partner wants to get everyone’s input before we complete it.
The speaker in the first sentence sounds more frustrated, don’t they? The difference between “but” and “and” is the difference between obstacles and possibilities. Being present to the way things are is empowering because when you look at a situation as a set of current conditions, rather than unmet expectations, it allows you to identify options.
Fourth, listen. Listen to understand, not simply to respond. It is okay to not have an immediate response. It is okay, even encouraged, to ask questions and dig deeper. This is the best way to identify the underlying unmet need. Listening to understand changes the dynamic because when we feel like we’ve been heard our emotions calm down and we’re much more likely to listen to others.
There is a wonderful story about two people arguing over an orange. They both need it to make their product. The initial instinct might be to split the orange down the middle, King Solomon style, but neither is happy with this option. However, after further investigation we learn that one person needs the peel of the orange while the other is interested in the juice. Now that we have identified their needs we can design a process that preserves the peel for one while supplying juice for the other.
Conflict can be intimidating and uncomfortable if we don’t know how to handle it. However, with the right tools it can also be an opportunity for engagement. When a breakdown in communication causes the wheels to fall off, mediation allows us to put the wheels back on and get everyone moving forward again.
 Ruth Anna Abigail, Managing Conflict Through Communication (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2011)