Pablo Picasso. Guernica. 1937.

How I Learned to Accept Conflict

Conflict is actually a really good thingbut I didn’t see that until I learned how to mine it’s treasures.

I have always had a hard time with conflict. Who doesn’t?

Whether it’s conflict with family and friends, or (very rarely) on the street with strangers. I freeze up and have a hard time knowing what to do other than try to avoid it.

If the worst case scenario happens and things get violent, then I really get paralyzed.

I’ve asked myself many times: What can I do? How can I stop this? How can I avoid this?

It wasn’t until I learned what I’m about to outline that I began to see a tangible path through conflict…

  1. Conflict occurs where expectations, goals or objectives diverge. Divergence can be emotionally heated, or shrouded in rational argument. These divergences are at the personal level and the societal level — and everywhere in-between. Just think of the dynamics of some of your closest relationships, or the partisan political culture of the USA. So…
  2. …Conflict is everywhere. Every day we diverge with others. This is life. Conflict permeates our quotidian existence, and in this sense conflict can be latent, emerging or manifest. When it’s latent it’s usually at the individual level. Think of your relationships with those close to you, or at work. Your relationship with your boss (if you have one) is an obvious example. Emerging conflict is often more public. The different sides are communicating badly, if at all. Think of folks contesting information and vehemently arguing in public settings (during presentations on social media, etc.). Think of long-term conflicts that are slowly emerging (like the conflict between a city’s long-term plans and housing affordability), creating more and more tension as time passes. Manifest conflict is when conflict transforms into actual disputes: this is the part where the violence can happen. Fighting, non-violent direct action and law are all forms of violence (in diminishing degrees of bloodletting). When conflict manifests as a dispute, it can take the form of litigation, facilitation, negotiation and straight-up problem solving.
  3. Conflict is not abuse. As Sarah Schulman argues in Conflict is not Abuse, when we misrepresent another person’s difference as a form of abuse, our tendency will be to overstate harm. When we do this, we replace the possibility for problem solving together with cruelty, shunning, undeserved punishment, incarceration, occupation and other forms of violent dispute between people and groups. Think of this as misrepresenting latent and emerging conflict as manifest conflict, through an abuser/victim paradigm.
  4. Conflict is desirable. Conflict can suck. But it is also an essential part of our human history and experience. We need conflict to grow and change. It can be the catalyst needed to break logjams of inaction, static holding patterns and emotional and cultural toxicity. But we have to learn how to handle conflict in a constructive way, therefore…
  5. It is important that once conflict becomes manifest — once it becomes a dispute — that conflict be addressed constructively. Leaving a dispute unattended to is not ideal (shunning, running from the problem, ignoring it, forgetting and repressing it, and so on). Addressing conflict through violent dispute is not ideal (though as Schulman points out, our culture has become desensitized to this). For obvious reasons, I think unattended dispute and violence are both fundamentally destructive: one destroys your character (and your community’s sense of dependability, trust, belonging, difference); the other destroys people, places and things.

So, how do we constructively address disputes?

This is where the field of Integrative Negotiation enters the picture, and one tool in particular…

The Tool: Seeing Past Positions to Interests to find the Commons Beneath Conflict

What is it?

A simple set of questions that can help you see past “positions” to reveal and discuss the underlying interests in any dispute. By using this approach you create space in the dispute for everyone to begin understanding each other’s interests.

As you uncover the interests beneath positions, some interests will remain exclusive, others will be revealed that are complementary and some that are common. Once common and complementary interests are recognized by the parties, cooperation and collaboration can emerge.

A few definitions to help distinguish things at the outset:

  1. Position: an ideal or preferred outcome from the position-taker’s point of view. Think of these as solutions formed in isolation from the other party.
  2. Interest: the fundamental motivating objectives that inform the positions that each side takes. This is where we can co-design solutions from and create win-win outcomes.

Why should I use it?

There are lots of reasons why this approach is something worth practicing, here are a few:

  1. To expand the solution-making potential of everyone in the dispute. To develop more detailed and rigorous outcomes.
  2. To preserve and enhance the relationship between everyone.
  3. To increase the quality and the depth of everyone’s communication around the problem.
  4. To encourage collaboration and cooperation.
  5. To maximize the ability to co-design integrative solutions.
  6. To create more durable agreements.
  7. To promote creativity, inventiveness and imagination.
Fights break out between Trump supporters and protesters during a rally in Berkeley (April 2017). Source: JOSH EDELSON / AFP/Getty Images

How does it work?

At a high level, it’s simple. The tools are different types of open questions that you can use in a dispute:

Use Probing Questions to uncover and identify interests. This is where seeing past the position to its underlying interest(s) really begins. These questions are used to dig beneath the positional statements and encourage further elaboration, articulation and discovery. These sorts of questions expand the conflictual discussions, so be ready to get into the guts of it! But this is a good thing: this is fuel for your exploration of the interests underlying positions and rigid points of view:

  1. “What is it about the proposal that worries you the most?”
  2. “I’d like to hear more about…?”
  3. “What was significant about…?”
  4. “Can you describe how…?”
  5. “What’s important about…?”
  6. Etc.

Use Clarifying Questions to identify and reduce confusion. These questions are used to further break down positions and create shared meaning. Since they are the presentation of a preferred outcome, positions have a tendency to be subjective. In addition, we too often hide behind slogans, technical terms, or broad generalizations, assuming that everyone knows what we are talking about. Clarifying questions aim to create a common language between everyone:

  1. “Earlier today you mentioned the “overbearing restrictions” of the plan, what exactly did you mean by that?”
  2. “When you said…what’s that all about?”
  3. “Help me out here, when you use the words… what meaning are you giving them?”
  4. Etc.

Use Justifying Questions to identify change. These questions are used to respectfully point out inconsistencies to the speaker and to then listen to what has changed. When we argue, we get carried away, and we might not be aware of shifts and changes to our view and position. By asking these questions, you help the person realise that their interests are evolving through the conversation. To use these questions, be genuinely inquisitive and curious. Avoid a confrontational tone, as it will threaten the speaker (the reverse of what you want to have happen):

  1. “A while ago you said that there would be no way to reach agreement on a way forward, but now you seem to be saying that in some areas, agreement could be reached. I’m confused, what’s changed?
  2. “At our last meeting you… now it appears you are… What’s shifted?”
  3. Etc.

Use Consequential Questions to identify cause and effect relationships. These questions help you explore implications, test out hypotheses, and assess the practicality of options, ideas, and proposals. Think of it as a way to “reality test” potential solutions — these are great to try using once you feel like you’ve gotten past positions and established some rapport:

  1. “What do you think will happen if the proposal included the altered wording around budgetary restrictions?
  2. “How will the situation change if you… ? How might that…?
  3. “What will each be able to do if…?”
  4. “How would this idea address…?

What resources do I need?

A notebook to take very high level notes in (you have to be engaging in the conversation, while capturing specific elements for when you ask your question).

A good pair of listening ears and genuine curiosity!

As you go through this work with people in conflict or outright dispute, you will begin to mine the hidden interests that will lead to common ground. This set of tools will help you do the mining that benefits everyone.

The best part is that you don’t have to be a neutral party to do this, you can be one of the disputants! By learning and practicing these tools you become an invaluable resource to any dispute — even your own.

You become an ally to working together.

Thanks for reading! If you liked what you read and found it helpful, be sure to 👏 + give it a share!

If you want more tools like this, sign up for my newsletter. In it I send social innovation and facilitation resources (like this tool) that will help you work together, better.

PS. here’s some key resources I drew on for this post:

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton is a foundation for the field of Interest Based Negotiation. Gordon Sloan and Jamie Chicanot’s training material The Practice of Negotiation: Solving Disagreement Through Skilled Discussion (2nd edition) was also extensively used to put together this post.

I believe that Sarah Schulman’s new book Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Responsibility and the Duty of Repair is an important step forward in working together through conflict. Victimhood and supremacy narratives feed off the same energy, misconstruing conflict as abuse. While I’m only part way through the book, Schulman seems to be offering some very helpful perspective shifts for people across the political and ideological spectrum. Even though divisive and partisan folk share little in the way of common interests (and have very vocal and at times narcissistic and exclusive interests), we can have shifts in perspective that will help us all accept and live with one another’s irreconcilable differences. What I’ve outlined above can help conflicting groups develop durable solutions, rooted in an exploration of common interests and collaboration on solutions. What Schulman outlines in Conflict is Not Abuse is how to live together, especially when we may never reach agreement.

Finally, interspersed throughout my time writing this, I had a listen to Robert Pogue Harrison’s interview with Philip Gourevitch on his radio show Entitled Opinions (you can also subscribe to his show as a podcast and listen that way). They talk about Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide and how unthinkable violence, once committed, is forever a human potentiality that we must learn to accept as possible so as to (hopefully) avoid in the future. I believe that learning these grim histories is a necessary task for reconciliation, and for appreciating the importance and challenging opportunity that day-to-day conflict presents us.