Conflict: Creating the Best Conditions

It’s not like you get to choose when conflict erupts. Conflict can happen unexpectedly, like a tornado. There may be a little warning – but there’s not much. That’s why, in conflicts like in natural disasters, it’s important to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

Best Conditions

If someone told you that you were going to be in a conflict with a colleague, and you wouldn’t know when or the topic the conflict would be about, what would you do to prepare? You can’t “bone up” on the content, because you don’t know what the topic of the conflict will be. You can’t lie in wait, because you don’t know when it will be. All you can do is to try to create the best possible conditions for the conflict.

The best possible conditions for a conflict are to build a relationship with the other party, so that you trust and respect each other enough that you already have trust and respect before the conflict starts. Finally, there’s the issue of finding your own inner peace so that you can enter the conflict without being triggered by it.

Trust

Benjamin Franklin knew the best way to develop rapport was to make a small ask of someone else and treat that request respectfully. He’d ask to borrow a book and then return it promptly. Trust works the same way. We make small requests of the other person and respond appropriately, and they’ll start to trust us a little more. By doing this repetitively, we build trust with the other person and ultimately build a foundation for successful resolution of conflicts.

Trust allows us positive affinity for the other party in a conflict and provides a reassurance that the commitments they make will be met – thus allowing for more creative ways to address the conflict.

Respect

While trust may require personal interactions, you can develop a respect for someone even if you don’t have the ability to interact with them directly. You can observe from afar how their decisions are determined or their actions convey their care and concern for a value, cause, or person. Respect is fundamentally admiration for someone or some aspect of them.

Respect therefore requires that you cultivate that feeling of admiration. In some ways, it can be actively looking for the aspects of their personality that you can admire and respect. For instance, you may not respect a manager’s temperament towards workers, but you may be able to respect the commitment to quality, the company, or some other aspect of their makeup that is virtuous or notable.

Inner Peace

Inner peace is working through our disturbing thoughts, our past hurts, and the pains we’re holding on to, so that they’re not accidentally stumbled over during a conflict. If conflict was always scary and risky as a child, it’s desensitizing yourself to conflict so that it can become more ok. If you are triggered by someone who seems to be ignoring you, it’s finding the root cause for this and working on it until it doesn’t trigger you as much – or doesn’t trigger you at all.

The goal is more inner peace – not absolute inner peace. Richard Moon, an Aikido master, said, “It’s not that the great masters never lose their center, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover faster.” The point isn’t perfection. The point is that, the more self-aware you can become, the less likely you’ll be triggered by a conflict and the more quickly you can do something about it.

All Together

If you can put these pieces together, you’ll find that your next conflict is easier to get through. Not that any conflict is completely easy, but the more you can build on trust, respect, and inner peace, the less effort that conflicts will require.

Conflict: The Importance of Acceptance

A great number of the discord that we face today across the political isles and in our media are squarely because we’re unable to accept the other person or the other person’s position. We see the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community as bad, because we can’t accept that it’s their life and their choices. The LGBT community fires back, because they can’t understand how the heterosexual community can fail to see people as people first. Whether it’s political candidates or people in your neighborhood, we seem to have lost the fine art of living and letting live.

Understanding and Agreement

We seem to have confused the need for acceptance and understanding with the need to agree with others. We’ve forgotten that we don’t control other people – and we’re not responsible for them. We’ve decided that what is right for us must be right for everyone. We’ve lost our ability to accept that we may not have all the answers, and what we’re doing may not be right for everyone.

The prerequisite to accepting is understanding. Before we can truly accept someone else’s position, we must seek to carefully understand it. However, we’re often blocked by our belief that our approach to life is right. We believe that, to accept someone else, we must agree with the way they’re doing life.

Our belief that we need to agree with other people interferes with our human need to connect and understand other people. If we let go of agreement, which is judgement-based, we can enter the conversation in a way that truly seeks to understand.

What’s Wrong with Understanding

The real problem with an attempt to understand someone else isn’t about them at all. It’s a fear that the other person will change our mind. Our world is built upon our beliefs. If we’re open to understanding the person, then how might that change our beliefs?

Changing your beliefs is scary stuff. The more insecure you are about your current beliefs, the more risk you’re taking on to consider someone else’s beliefs. Paradoxically, the less secure you are in your own beliefs, the less willing you are to explore whether they’re right or not. Instead of filling your time with people who believe differently than you, you fill your time with people who believe like you think you should believe, and you sometimes feel no more certain about those beliefs after you’re there.

Moving to Acceptance

If you can acknowledge there’s something about the other person that makes you feel uneasy – and that uneasiness is your problem to solve – you can begin the journey of accepting the other person. It doesn’t matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, or motivations. If you can learn to accept the person for who they are, you’ll find yourself more at ease, they’ll be more at ease, and you’ll be positioned to start the process of negotiating conflict.

Acceptance in Conflict

Acceptance has a lubricating effect in conflict. It reduces the friction between the parties and makes it easier to talk about the key concerns that each side has. Instead of viewing the conflict from a people-oriented perspective, it’s possible to view conflict from the perspective of good people with different perspectives disagreeing. From there, it’s a short walk to get to finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Conflict: The Impact of Trust (Self and Other)

Have you ever been in a conflict, and you knew that it didn’t matter what the other person said, you weren’t going to believe them? There wasn’t a resolution to the conflict, because you couldn’t trust they were telling you the truth. Therefore, no matter what they promised, you couldn’t accept that you would really get it. It’s a frustrating experience that unfortunately too many of us must go through. This is the extreme example of how a lack of trust can make conflict inescapable.

Defining Trust

To understand the problem, we must first understand what trust is and discover why it’s critical to being able to resolve a conflict. Trust is, simply, our belief in our ability to predict someone’s behavior. Whether we trust that they’ll do whatever is in their best interest or whether they’re going to be the most virtuous person possible, we trust that we can predict how they’ll respond.

Ideally, of course, we hope we’ll predict that their behavior will be good to us and others but trust itself is simply that belief that we can predict what they’ll do. Sometimes, it will be a blind trust, which ignores evidence to the contrary. However, it’s always the belief that we can predict the other person’s behavior.

In the Conflict

The challenge when we believe we can’t predict someone’s future behavior is that we can’t believe they’re telling us the truth and therefore any promises or commitments they make will be upheld. They can commit to changing their ways, considering our needs, or paying better attention, but, ultimately, if we don’t trust them, there’s no belief that these things will come to pass.

A complete lack of trust therefore can’t provide any foundation on which a resolution to any conflict can be found. There’s nothing solid to build on or push against. That’s why successful negotiators often will seek small commitments that are easily met to encourage the parties to begin to trust one another.

Building Trust

Trust seems like it’s a magical thing that you either have or you don’t, but there’s a simple formula to building trust. Make a commitment, then meet it. That’s all it takes to develop trust. The problem with the simple formula, and the one thing that keeps so many people from doing it, is that it takes a long time. You may make and meet dozens or hundreds of commitments before the other person decides to start to trust.

The greater the integrity of your words to your actions, the easier it will be for others to choose to trust you. The more consistent you are over time, the greater their capacity is to predict your behavior and the greater their willingness is to take the leap of faith required to trust.

Trust and Trustworthy

We often confuse our being trustworthy with our decision to trust another person – and vice-versa. We believe that if we behave in a trustworthy way, someone else must trust us. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Our decision to be worthy of trust (trustworthy) is based on our integrity and who we want to be. The decision for someone else to trust us is based on their willingness to be vulnerable.

Trusting someone, even in small ways, exposes us to vulnerability. Our decision to trust is based on the calculus of the benefits we expect to receive from the trust minus the potential costs of betrayal and the worries and frustrations. If trusting seems to be positive for us, we’ll do it, and if not, we won’t. Of course, it’s not like people get out a paper and pencil to work out the equation, but it’s the rough math approach to trust. What’s challenging is that some people’s experience with the other person will reduce the degree of trust, and some people’s life experience will increase the costs of betrayal while minimizing the values of trusting.

The Cost of Betrayal

The costs of betrayal factor heavily into the decision of whom and how much to trust. The greater the risk taken in trusting someone, the greater the costs of betrayal. Our goal in navigating conflict is not just to ensure that parties are being trustworthy but also that we’re putting in appropriate safeguards to minimize the risk of betrayal – and increase the consequences should a betrayal happen.

Conflict negotiation isn’t easy, and it’s impossible if no trust can be granted. To properly confront the conflict, we need to make sure we’re addressing the factors of trust – including the cost of betrayal – so that it makes sense to everyone that trusting enough to reach a resolution is the right answer.

Conflict: Ownership in Communication

If you say something that makes someone else angry, are you responsible? That’s the question at the heart of taking ownership for your communication. At some level, you’re only responsible for your words and actions and the other person is responsible for their responses. On the other hand, there are things someone can say to intentionally provoke someone else. So how do you accept responsibility for your part in communications problems without becoming enmeshed in the other person’s responses?

Intent

Certainly, if someone intentionally tries to create a negative reaction in the other party, they own the reaction. We can ignore the reality that the other person can choose their response. The response that was received was the one that was intended. However, what happens when you communicate a message that you intend to be neutral or positive, and it’s interpreted negatively? Here, there is a challenge, because ownership for the problem may lie in the reasonableness of the response.

Consider a situation in which you thank the host for the meal they’ve provided with, “Thank you for the delicious feast that you’ve provided,” and the host is offended. Unbeknownst to you, they’ve struggled with overeating, and to them the word “feast” is associated with their overeating. They’re angry, and you have no idea why. Even if you knew that they struggled with overeating, you have no reason to believe the single word feast will trigger a response. In a case like this, there was no ill intent, so the communicator should feel no shame in accidentally triggering the other party.

Reasonable Prediction

Reasonableness is a fuzzy definition that’s prone to problems, as what seems reasonable to one person won’t be reasonable to the other – and vice versa. Despite the challenges, “reasonable” is the only criteria that is flexible enough to fit most situations. So, we’re stuck with the mucky world of what we should be able to predict – but sometimes can’t.

Eating everything on your plate in the Midwest of the United States is a sign that you appreciated the food provided by the host. In the Far East, it’s a sign that the host didn’t provide you with enough food – and they’ll be embarrassed. So, what is reasonable is context dependent. Where are you, and what is the experience of the person you’re communicating with?

Ultimately, it may not matter much whether the other person’s response is reasonable or not. It only changes whether you may feel guilt (or shame) about having not realized you might cause harm. The way you respond should be the same whether their response was reasonable or not.

Responsible vs. Responsive

Instead of worrying about who is responsible – or who is at fault – a better approach is to focus on the response. We’re not responsible for someone else – or their reactions – however, as concerned members of the human race, we should be responsive to them. When one of our brothers or sisters is hurting, we should seek to remedy their hurt. It doesn’t matter that they’re hurting because of something unintentional that we said or did or not. There’s no need to sift through whether we could or should have anticipated the harm or whether the other person is being overly sensitive.

Our response should be that we’re sorry they’re hurt and it was not our intent, and we should ask what we can do to make it better.

The Dangers of Feeling Responsible

So, while the response that we offer doesn’t change, there is a risk. The risk is that we’ll become focused on whether we are at fault and therefore guilty. It opens the door to self-condemnation and spiraling into an inner focus, which takes us away from being able to be responsive to the other person. A preoccupation with fault, guilt, shame, blame and the like doesn’t serve to heal the hurt feelings.

The goal should be to learn from the experience instead of getting caught up in the blame game. Instead of focusing on whether you should have known, focus on what you should now know – and what to do to remedy the situation. If you remain focused on addressing the hurt directly and improving for next time, the problems will get smaller and smaller until you almost never hurt the other person’s feelings, because you know what not to say or do. Without feeling like you can’t be yourself, you can learn to mediate your responses in a way that’s healthy for both.