Conflict is often messy. When the conflict is prolonged, high stakes, or high emotion resolving conflict can be difficult. If finding resolution and ending the conflict is important to you, then doing some self-reflection before trying to resolve the conflict can be very helpful. Ask yourself these four questions, and give yourself time to calming think through the answers.
1. What is it you really want?
2. What is your contribution in the conflict?
3. What would resolution look like to you?
4. What would you be willing to do or give up to have this conflict resolved?
No one else can answer these questions for you. Don’t rush through them. You don’t have to have a final answer yet either.
What is it you really want? Be specific. In the end you may want a relationship restored, or a distracting fight over. Do you want the conflict over? How important is that to you? What you may want might be financial, practical, or relational. Do you want an apology? Would you rather keep the conflict going than resolve if the other person can’t or won’t offer the apology you want? If when you ask yourself what you really want the answer is to win, to get justice, or for things to be fair, then you are probably not ready yet to enter into the resolution process. In the pursuit of conflict resolution the drive to win, to be right, often costs people what they really want. Fairness is often a matter of perspective and hard to quantify. Justice is often bigger and more complex than the specific conflict. Consider what you need to move on past this conflict.
To be in conflict requires at least two people. This isn’t about degrees of culpability. You may not have any blame in the situation, or you may have a lot. Somewhere along the line, you had a contribution. It may have been unintentional, small, or even justifiable. That’s not the point. The process of understanding your contribution, big or small, is important in understanding how the conflict got to where it is now. It’s just you, asking yourself the question, so no need to be defensive or protective. Honestly consider what your contribution in the conflict was. You are not doing this for the other person, and you don’t have to tell them what you figure out if you don’t want to, but the knowledge is empowering to you in the resolution process.
Resolution can take many forms. It might be a settlement, a truce, a cease-fire (so to speak), or a full repair of a relationship. Resolution might mean the conflict is over, but so is the relationship. In a business conflict this is very common. Resolution might mean a relationship with the person is completely restored. In a family conflict, this is usually the most desirable. For neighbors, maybe it means you go on living next door without yelling or fighting. In some cases resolution means a court proceeding is canceled, lawsuit ended. This question goes beyond the issue of what the details of a resolution might look like. It is not about how much money might change hands, who will paint the fence, or who hosts the next family gathering. What would make you feel like the cloud is lifted, and a certain amount of peace is restored. What would make the stress and strain of the conflict melt away?
By this question, the idea of peace at the end of the conflict is probably seeming very appealing. You’ve pictured it now, and maybe you can even imagine what it will feel like. What would you be willing to do, or give up, to have that feeling for real? If there was a strong chance it would end the conflict, would you be willing to give an apology? Would you be willing to give up getting an apology? If the conflict is about money, how much would you pay out, or give up on getting, to have the whole messy conflict over? The answer might not result in technical fairness to you, but if it ended the conflict, would it be worth it?
Taking the time to ask yourself, and answer for yourself, these four questions will help prepare you for the resolution process. There will be other questions during the resolution process. Some will need to be answered by the other person, some by both of you. What does the other person want? What are they willing to do or give up to have the conflict resolved? Are there creative alternatives? Do they have information that you don’t about what led to the conflict? Who else does the conflict impact? Who else will benefit from resolution?
Resolving conflict, especially a messy one, will probably not be easy. It may require self-reflection, work, and compromise. A peaceful resolution might cost you something, but it will probably be very worth it in the end!
P.S. In my role as a mediator, I help people find solutions and resolutions for resolving conflict through a respectful and professional process. Mediation can be an effective way to resolve all kinds of conflicts including family, business, financial, neighbor, landlord-tenant, HOA, real estate, and work related conflicts. It is a low cost approach that allows the parties to retain the decision making power with a high rate of success. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in having me mediate for you. I also provide conflict coaching, to help individuals who are experiencing prolonged or frequent conflict.
Esther DeWitt, M.S., CAMS, is an organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict, anger management and leadership issues. She is a Credential Mediator and Certified Anger Management Specialist. As president of Conflict Navigation, her services include mediation, conflict coaching, leadership and organizational consulting and training, anger management coaching, and curriculum and material development.
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