In a culture where fight or flight are the common options for engaging conflict, most of us have been conditioned to simply avoid it at all costs. Hearing people disagree or dive deeper into conflict inspires anxiety responses like sweaty palms, tightened chest, and that sick feeling in the pit in your stomach.
Some degree of tension, if not outright conflict seems to be a necessary stage through which groups must pass to resolve differences or embrace complexity of opinions. The mediator role helps navigate this terrain to uncover collective understanding. This understanding may lead to improved and more enduring solutions, agreements, relationships, and performance.
Collaborative solutions tend to meet the needs of multiple conflicting parties, and build relationships and communication channels to address future differences. They also integrate diverse concerns among previously polarized positions. This means that substantive, psychological, relational, and procedural needs are met. Don Beck in Spiral Dynamics refers to this process as Three Wins Negotiation.
The Mediator Competencies
- I can provide a safe environment for conflict to surface.
- I can engage participants in a collaborative negotiation process to address key issues.
- I can impartially articulate various perspectives of an issue.
- I can identify underlying needs and interests of all parties.
- I can develop and analyze options and consequences.
- I can constructively respond to disagreement in support of learning and group capacity.
Provide a Safe Environment for Conflict to Emerge
When properly understood and embraced, conflict is a gift of energy and passion that can be used to facilitate transformation, connection, and positive outcomes. Here are some shifts in perspective that may help you to embrace healthy conflict and help others do the same.
- Change your mind about conflict. Conflicts of ideas, disagreements as we call them, can be uncomfortable. However, collaborative solutions require the airing of disagreements. When viewed in a collaborative context, conflict can be a sign that we’re on the right path—the path to a win-win-win solution.
- Encourage healthy conflict; discourage unhealthy conflict. Healthy conflict is about people openly and honestly expressing what they see and what they want in pursuit of a cooperative solution. Unhealthy conflict requires a loser and someone to blame. Through malicious intent one party tries to win by undermining or attacking the other. Support and encourage healthy conflict, and confront and discourage unhealthy conflict.
An Integral Conflict Resolution Process
The following process is useful for effectively managing conflict in your workplace, in relationships, or in other situations where you have an interest in seeking a negotiated solution. These steps won’t guarantee an agreement, but they greatly improve the likelihood that the problems can be understood, solutions explored, and consideration of the advantages of a negotiated agreement can occur within a relatively constructive environment.
Enforce Group Agreements. First, establish and enforce group agreements to help prevent conflict in the first place.
When you notice a conflict, what do you do?
- Slow down… and center yourself using the
skills at your disposal.
- Embrace it…help create space for the conflict
to truly emerge so that it can be addressed.
- Listen deeply to the initial position … and help the group expose the underlying interests.
- Generate and synthesize options…use good problem-solving skills to generate and synthesize options to create win-win resolutions.
Identify Underlying Needs and Interests
“These rock climbing regulations are cumbersome and unfair”, says one participant. “I want to protect this area from overuse”, says another. Rather than merely repeating these statements, first help participants to clarify their interests.
Interests tend to be tangible things such as land, money, or jobs that can be traded and compromised. Needs are usually intangible things such as personal identity or values such as security, reputation, or recognition, that can’t be traded. If you can help parties explore and identify their need and interests, the chances for resolving the conflict expand.
Tips for Revealing Needs and Interests
Inquire about the need that underlies the statements above. “What leads you to believe that these rock climbing regulations are unfair?” “What is your bottom line need in this situation?” “Why is this important to you?”
Once you have uncovered needs, you can summarize interests which are usually more tangible and specific.
For example, my position might be: Rock climbing is dangerous to the environment. My substantive need is: To see that the environment is protected and preserved. Going further, my specific interest in this particular case is: To protect an endangered snake in the area that’s nearing extinction due to rock climbing activities.
Once the specific needs and interests are known, it becomes clearer what might be done to meet those of all parties concerned. In general, here are some tips for revealing needs and interests that are usually embedded in positions: firm stances on what needs to be done.
- Seek to understand the origin of this position…
- I’m curious why ____ is important to you?
- What does getting ____ mean to you?
- What does not getting ____ mean to you?
- Tell me more …
- Restate what you’re hearing to assure you understand and to help others hear themselves.
Develop and Analyze Options and Consequences
Use the typical problem solving and decision making tools, like we practiced on Day 2, to develop and analyze options and consequences.
Constructively Respond to Disagreement
As facilitators and group leaders, many will view us as authority figures whether we want them to or not, often viewing our behavior as a template for theirs. We can use this to the group’s advantage by the way we show up in the face of disagreement and conflict. Here are some suggestions on how we might do this.
- Cultivate Inner Peace. We can cultivate inner stillness in the face of outer turmoil. This usually requires a practice beyond the act of facilitating in the form of some kind of regular meditative discipline. Operating from stillness not only makes all our resources available in the present moment to address the challenge, but it also models for your participants another way to face conflict.
- Hold a Vision of Possibility. When disagreement or conflict emerges, it’s easy to respond with fear that your group is falling apart or slipping downhill. However, holding a vision of grand possibility can impact your countenance and behavior in such a way as to engender hope in the hearts of participants and inspire them toward a positive resolution of any chaos that emerges.