Resolving Conflict by Alan Sharland
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.
however conflict isn’t immediately resolved and we notice the destructive responses to conflict that are then associated with conflict
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.”
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
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:
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
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
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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Resolving Conflict by Alan Sharland