Conflict Resolution and Prevention - some cool tips!

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Conflict Resolution - Edited and Revised Transcript by Alan Seid

Hi, this is Alan Seid, founder of Cascadia Workshops and the Blackbelt Communication Skills online learning program.

This video is on conflict resolution.

Conflict: Can we get good at handling it well?

Now, I wrote a blog post a few years ago called, You Suck at Conflict, and what it was trying to point out is that so many problems in our world, in our relationships, in our families and at work happen because we are conflict-avoidant.

My point in that blog post was that we need to become good at doing conflict.

We need to know how to handle conflict well and to be able to see it as an opportunity to create more connection, more mutual understanding, and a lot of healing.

Conflict Prevention is Preferable

Now, that said, conflict prevention is much more powerful than conflict resolution.

Conflict prevention is preferable for a thousand reasons. I’ll just name a few:

It’s cheaper. It takes less time. It has less of an emotional toll. And it tends to erode trust less than once a conflict actually happens. There are so many reasons why conflict prevention is really important.

Now, before there’s a conflict, most of us are not in enough pain to be moved to learn the skills of conflict prevention.

Once there is a conflict, often times the pain level is such that we seek out a professional mediator or we reach out to someone who can help us to resolve the conflict.

Without conflict prevention and without conflict resolution, things can escalate with really devastating results.

There are Many Methodologies for Conflict Resolution

Now there are many, many methodologies for resolving conflict.

I’m a Certified Trainer in Nonviolent Communication, which was named that because the founder of it wanted to align himself with Gandhi’s movement of truth-telling and compassion.

But I’ve also studied many other methodologies. For example, I have 60+ hours of training with our Dispute Resolution Center, which was created by our state legislature.

There are many, many methodologies...

...but again, conflict prevention is preferable.

Formal and Informal Conflict Resolution

When we get into conflict resolution there are generally two types of situations for conflict mediation.

One of those is formal mediation, where you’re invited to help somebody out with their conflict.

The other, informal mediation, is also known as sticking your nose in somebody else’s business.

I’ve done plenty of both.

The Locus of All Conflicts and Needs vs Strategies

Now one of the keys to being able to resolve conflict is to know where in the situation the conflict is and isn’t.

Let me clarify this.

What motivates us in our day-to-day, in our actions and our words — are our universal human needs: That which is deeply, deeply important to us.

Now, beyond survival needs — beyond air, food, water — we have needs that are core human motivators. They're the conditions that are necessary for us to thrive, and they’re common to all human being.

Examples of universal human needs are things like love, trust, creative expression, having a sense of choice about the things that impact us, a whole list of needs.

This is not where the conflict resides, because we all have the same needs.

However, a very important distinction is the distinction between needs and strategies.

I’m going to define strategies as the ways we go about meeting our needs.

Needs, the way I’m defining them, are an energy that wants to flow, not a hole that wants to be filled.

Our universal human needs are, again, common to all human beings.

However, the strategies — the ways we go about trying to meet these needs — are not universal.

When it comes to conflict resolution this is a key distinction, so I’ll give you an example.

An Example of the Distinction between Needs and Strategies

I have a need for safety and protection.

My strategy — which will contribute to my need for safety and protection — might be that I go out and I get to know all my neighbors.

So once I know all my neighbors, that contributes to my need for safety and protection.

One of my neighbors has the same need, safety and protection...

...but that neighbor goes out and buys and assault rifle.

Again, it’s the same need, safety and protection.

It’s a beautiful quality, a beautiful energy.

However, the strategies — the ways we're choosing to go about meeting those needs — can pull us apart, and that is where the conflicts lie.

So conflicts are always at the level of strategies, at the level of how are we trying to satisfy universal human needs.

But, there is no such thing as "conflicting needs," because we all have the same needs.

However, in some situations, what’s alive, let’s say, in the moment, what’s present, might be one thing in one moment. It might be something else in the next moment, and something else the next moment.

So one moment it might be trust and the next moment it might be safety. The next moment it might be rest and relaxation.

And for that other person what’s showing up in that moment might be different, but we do all share all the same universal needs.

The most effective conflict resolution involves:

(1) discovering the deeper needs,

(2) facilitating mutual understanding around those needs, and then

(3) exploring new strategies now that all the underlying needs are on the table.

Sample Conflict With My Wife

So let me give you an example of this kind of conflict resolution.

Let’s say that I come home and my wife Tricia meets me at the door, and she is a little bit dressed up, looking nice, and she says, "Surprise! I got us a babysitter to be with the kids so that you an I can go out to dinner and see a movie."

And I’m thinking, "Oh my gosh, it’s been a long day, it’s been a long work week. The last thing I want to do is go out and be around people. I just want to sit on the couch and lay around for a couple of hours."

Now it seems that there is a conflict, but again remember that the conflict is only at the level of strategies.

So let’s say that she and I engage in a conversation and we’re curious about each other’s needs — the deeper motivations.

And so I ask her, "OK, so behind going out to dinner and seeing a movie, what needs of yours would that satisfy?" And let’s say that she says, "Well it would satisfy needs for connection and needs for play."

I can connect to that.

I also have the same needs.

Maybe in that moment I have other needs that are more present for me. So she gets curious about me and asks, "Well Alan, I know it’s not a need to lie on the couch, so could you tell me more what it is that that you’re trying to satisfy with that?"

As we peel the layers of the onion and we go deeper and deeper towards the universal human needs, we realize that my needs are for down-time and relaxation and self-nurturance.

Again, she also shares those needs so she can relate to that.

So now, and here’s the key: any conflict if we can take the conversation and strip it down to the level of universal human needs, we are much more likely to see each other’s humanity, much more likely to see each other as human being and begin the process of healing and resolving conflict.

And then we can find other strategies that can take into account all of the needs on the table.

Now if we start with a solution, with strategies, and don’t create the connection, those strategies will be more likely to be short lived.

They won’t be as durable and there won’t necessarily be buy-in, especially if we start fixing and resolving before we’re really clear what all the needs are.

But when we do have connection, when we do have mutual understanding, then problem-solving and conflict resolution becomes collaborative.

If you get what my needs are, and I get what your needs are, and you trust that I understand what your needs are and I trust that you understand what my needs are...

...and let’s say we take it a step further and both trust that our needs matter to the other person, then that’s a magical place.

Then problem-solving truly becomes collaborative and we can work together to find what’s going to be mutually-agreeable and mutually-enriching.

So going back to the situation with my wife, once she understands that what’s driving my behavior to want to lay on the couch is actually down-time, relaxation and self-nurturance, and once I understand that what’s driving her behavior are her needs for fun and connection, now we can begin to explore how we might possibly meet all the needs.

So, maybe we send the babysitter and the kids out somewhere and we get take-put and watch a movie at home.

Or maybe she says, "Alan, what if you lay on the couch for an hour and then we go out to dinner and see a movie, would that work for you?" Now I get to check inside and see whether or not that would work for me.

Or maybe I realize, Oh, I have the whole day off tomorrow and I can get all my needs for downtime and rest and self-nurturance met then. So I have a genuine shift, a change of heart, and I’m perfectly willing to go out to dinner and see a movie now. 

So again, let me just emphasize this piece:

For any set of needs we may have a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand strategies that could satisfy those needs.

In order to conduct the most effective conflict resolution we need to be able to separate what the conflict is actually about — where it actually resides, which are the strategies — and separate that from the needs, the universal human needs...— help people connect at the level of needs, and then we can problem-solve the strategies.

Universal Human Motivators

So it’s really valuable to learn a vocabulary of feelings and needs, and by needs I mean universal motivators.

Keep this in mind, universal human needs are an energy that wants to flow, not a hole that want to be filled.

Being able to name them allows us to take this energy that we don’t know what it is exactly and bring it into the conscious mind.

Now we have words for it, but additionally the words will allow us to give other people a window to be able to understand our experience.

And likewise, they will allow us to have a window to help understand other people’s experience.

So learning a language of feelings and needs is really important.

Create Connection Before Problem-Solving for More Effective Solutions

Next, we need to be able to distinguish between needs and strategies.

The things that people choose to do to meet their needs are not universal, and that’s where the conflicts lie.

The conflicts can never be at the level of universal human needs, because we all share the same needs.

Effective conflict resolution starts with being able to distinguish the two.

It gets us in trouble when we don’t distinguish the two.

Especially in an intimate relationship when I say something like, "You are my need," will get us into trouble if we can’t distinguish needs and strategies.

Now in an actual conflict, we need to be able to slow things down.

Slow down the conversation so that we can create the connection at the level of needs.

Needs are just another way of thinking about the life energy that is running through us and how it is seeking to manifest.

If we can slow down the conversation in a conflict, we can begin to reveal those precious needs and we can begin to connect with those needs with each other.

Once we’re connected at the level of needs, now we can problem-solve, now we can explore strategies.

I caution you not to jump to strategies too soon, not to jump to fix-it too soon.

Take the time. It’s so worth it.

Take the time to connect at the level of feelings and needs. Once you’re connected, then problem-solve all day if you need to, that’s fine.

But I caution you to notice the tendency to jump to solutions and to jump to fix-it a little bit prematurely.

Going fast can sometimes impede really hearing each other and therefore gets in the way of conflict resolution.

So slow things down. Make sure you’re connecting at the level of feelings and needs.

If you need to bring a professional mediator or some other skilled professional to help resolve a conflict or misunderstanding, that’s fine. That’s great.

My goal in my programs and when I work with my coaching clients is to help you become self-sufficient in conflict prevention and resolution so that you’re not relying on a third party to get you through it — so that you’re relying on yourself to get you through it and also you will be able to help others through it once you have those skills.

Thanks so much for your time and attention.

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