Resolving Conflict by Alan Sharland

Posted by Alan Sharland
27 March, 2019

“Conflict is the beginning of consciousness.”

Unresolved conflict can be a longstanding cause of stress, physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion and mental health challenges such as depression, paranoia and a sense of powerlessness.

I have been a Mediator since 1994 and this has given me the privilege of seeing how people move from feeling ‘stuck’ in their conflicts with others, and within themselves, to a place of using conflict as an opportunity for positive change.

Conflict has a bad reputation for something that is entirely natural. The sun, rain, clouds and mountains are rarely seen as ‘bad’ but conflict often is, and yet it is continuously and naturally arising and being resolved – so continuously that we often don’t recognise it happening.

Occasionally however conflict isn’t immediately resolved and we notice the destructive responses to conflict that are then associated with conflict itself.

Conflict just is!  It exists and always will and we can’t change that, whatever we feel about it. But our responses to conflict can be reflected on and changed by us because all conflict is inner-conflict projected outwards:

“It only takes one person to end a war and you’re the one! What a perfect set-up.”

Byron Katie

This doesn’t mean a conflict is ‘all our fault’, it means we have the power to resolve our experience of the conflict when we direct it towards that purpose and not elsewhere such as outwards on to others as blame and criticism or even violence. It also doesn’t mean we are ‘letting others off’. It means we are focusing on what we do have control over rather than what we don’t have control over.

How to NEVER resolve conflict

Over the past 25 years I’ve come to see conflict as being responded to in two different ways that never work:

  1. A competitive response
  2. An avoidance response

In a competitive response we take the view that ‘I am right and you are wrong’, and when you don’t acknowledge how right I am, then ‘I am good and you are bad’ – which then gives us justification for labelling others: ‘bully’, ‘arrogant’, ‘Brexiteer’, ‘Remoaner’ etc. ‘I am a victim of your badness and wrongness’ also falls within this approach and our focus on our victimhood renders us powerless.

Many of us will identify with that stance and may even feel very clear about our ‘rightness’. Unfortunately, when we do this it often reinforces or even induces the same response in others.

When we both take this approach, we are stuck in an alleyway with no escape to either side, trying to push each other out the way. We are both telling ourselves ‘I’m not going to budge!’. It’s a ‘go-nowhere’ situation and very exhausting.

In an avoidance response we tell ourselves ‘If I stay away from the other person(s) and, perhaps, the situation we have a difficulty over, the conflict will go away’. This is a very seductive response as it brings an end to our previously competitive confrontations. For a while, it feels like peace.

Unfortunately, the avoidance response means that our lives are now defined by where the other person is – ‘Will X be there? OK, I’ll stay away then.’ The other person becomes a continuous influence on our activities and so we don’t live a life of freedom regarding where we go and what we do. We can soon find ourselves staying in all the time as we encounter more people who behave in a way we find difficult. It becomes a form of self-created agoraphobia. 

‘Stay away from negative people and your life will be better!’ sums up this approach, but is intrinsically flawed. It is self-contradictory because to see someone as ‘negative’ is itself being ‘negative’ and so we would seem to have to stay away from ourselves. Additionally, no-one is ‘positive’ all the time so eventually we will have to stay away from everyone.

In both of these approaches the focus of our energy and attention is on the person(s) with whom we have the conflict and not the conflict itself – and so it can never be resolved.  The conflict sits there unnoticed while we carry on this awkward dance with the other person, whether pushing against them or avoiding them. Its damaging consequences fester and possibly escalate while our attention is on the other(s) we have fallen out with. We blame them for any consequences while abdicating our own responsibility for taking actions to address the situation that do not rely on their involvement or on them ‘changing’.

How DO people resolve conflict?

Conflict is resolved effectively though what I call, ‘The 3-Cheers for Conflict’:

Learning   Connection   Insight

Learning is simply a change in the situation. It could be that doing something at a different time or in a different place immediately means there is not a problem any more. Or perhaps a procedure that is continuously bringing up difficulties may be reviewed and changed such that the difficulties have informed the creation of a better procedure.

Connection is a willingness to at least hear and try to understand the other person’s point of view without having to agree with it! The competitive approach will not entertain another view as it undermines the idea of being absolutely right, rather than simply ‘right for me, from my perspective’. It acknowledges that your opinion or action or behaviour can be ‘right for you from your perspective’, but different to mine. Connection is ‘weakness’ and ‘giving in’ when we take the competitive approach, but it’s actually an assertive act that has the confidence to hear other interpretations that may inform the creation of a better way forward, whether just for ourselves or for the other person as well. One will usually lead to the other anyway.

Insight is the recognition that we have uncomfortable feelings about a situation or another’s actions or behaviours but rather than depend on them to change in order for us to feel better, we acknowledge that the feelings are ours and that we have the capacity to support ourselves through our own actions such that we feel differently – less frightened, intimidated, sad, angry etc. In recognising that we have created that change without depending on the other to change, we also feel a sense of empowerment.

The ‘3-Cheers’ are retrospective understandings of resolved conflict. It may not be that in the process of resolving conflict we create each of them separately. For example, a change in action (Learning) may arise from an understanding of the other’s perspective (Connection) or from our own actions to support ourselves with our difficult feelings (Insight) which, in turn, help the situation overall because we now have less to be ‘at war’ over.

What matters most is to develop an awareness, a ‘mindfulness’ about whether we are defaulting to the ineffective responses that never work – because we will remain stuck in the conflict until we do.

We will easily point out how others are taking a competitive or avoidance approach if we are stuck in a competitive approach! But what about ourselves? Where are we still doing so and how can we seek to create the ‘3-Cheers’ instead? Where are we owning and taking control of what we have control over and where are we not?

It’s not ‘wrong’ to compete or avoid, there will be reasons why we’ve used those approaches that are unique to ourselves in particular situations. We can’t just flick a switch and turn them off. But they don’t work and never will, so once we become conscious that we are competing or avoiding we can start to create alternative choices for how we respond that lead us towards creating one or more of Learning, Connection and Insight instead – ‘The 3-Cheers For Conflict’.

As Mary Esther Harding said, “Conflict is the beginning of consciousness.” It provides an opportunity for us to awaken.

Alan Sharland is Director of CAOS Conflict Management – Promoting Mindful Communication, Growth Through Conflict. He is a Mediator, Conflict Coach, Trainer, Author and Bullying Resolution Consultant who has worked in a wide range of contexts including neighbour, workplace, family, community, complaints and group disputes. 

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