In all our years of schooling, most of us never learn one vital lesson: conflict resolution. Too often, when we face a conflict, we fall into a polarizing false dilemma, seeing the situation as either/or—my demands or yours, all or nothing, win or lose. Conflict becomes combat. Digging in our heels and arguing back and forth, we can end up with one of three options: absolute victory, defeat, or compromise.
But conflict needn’t become combat. There is a better way. International conflict resolution facilitator Dudley Weeks has found that conflict can lead to creative partnerships, revealing new possibilities where both parties benefit.
“In the United States,” says Weeks, conditioned by “the profit motive,” we all too often “use an adversarial, competitive pattern.” We reduce a relationship to that one conflict when we could see the dispute as only a small part of a much larger relationship. (Dudley Weeks, personal communication; Dreher, 1996, pp. 187-188).
Weeks describes his approach in his book, The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution (1992). Here are five important principles: 1) cultivating a working partnership, 2) identifying your needs, 3) discovering what the other person needs, 4) looking for shared needs, and 5) finding stepping stones.
1. Cultivate a partnership. Treat the other person(s) with respect. Say you’d like to work together to resolve this conflict, then find a mutually acceptable time and place to meet.
Choose a neutral place where you will both feel comfortable and a time when neither of you feels rushed. Don’t schedule your meeting an hour before you have to catch a train or meet in your office which might intimidate the other person.
2. Identify your needs. Before your meeting, take what psychologist Ryan Niemiec calls a “mindful pause” (Niemiec, 2018). Spend some quiet time by yourself, focusing on your breathing, decompressing, getting centered (Goleman, 2005). Then ask yourself what you need in this situation—not what you want, not your ego demands, but what you really need.
3. Discover what the other person needs. When you meet with that person, take time to really listen in the respectful way modeled by Carl Rogers (1961). Ask the person what he or she needs. Listen respectfully to the response.
4. Look for shared needs. This is where you build bridges to start working together. Respecting one another’s needs, begin looking for common ground. Do any of your needs overlap? Can you look at the situation more deeply, asking what underlying needs you share?
While working in South Africa in 1986, Dudley asked Afrikaners and black South Africans what kind of South Africa they wanted their children to grow up in. Both groups said they wanted peace and a viable economy. When the two groups recognized their shared needs, they saw they could begin working together.
In this country, while working in a troubled inner-city community marred by crime and hostile factions, Dudley held a meeting with representatives of the business leaders, families, and even leaders of teenaged gangs. He asked everyone to write down what they thought their community needed. At first these people felt that they had no needs in common but when they found they had quite a few—including a community center and a health clinic—they began seeing each other with fresh eyes.
5. Find stepping stones. The next step in the process is discovering stepping stones, small actions that you can take together to begin working toward the solution. In the inner-city neighborhood, Dudley asked the people about one small step they could take. They agreed on streetlights—the families and business leaders thought they would make the streets safer, and so did the gang leaders whose members had been getting hurt in fights on dark streets. So together they signed a petition, presented it to the city council, and celebrated when the streetlights were installed. Three years later, they had built a health clinic, a community center, and a more harmonious community.
These principles apply not only to groups but to personal relationships. When my friend Genevieve went back to school to get her ministerial degree, with all-day Saturday classes, she and her husband, Lyle, needed a new plan to respect her needs as well as their shared needs for Saturday dinner. At first, Lyle took her out to dinner. But then the conflict brought out Lyle’s latent creativity. He decided to surprise Gen by cooking dinner on Saturday. Semi-retired from his real estate business, he had time to leaf through her cookbooks, going from grilled steaks to experimenting with French cooking and even baking bread. Their conflict partnership uncovered new possibilities as Gen enjoyed her classes and Lyle found a new passion, becoming a gourmet cook.
What about you? The next time you find yourself in a conflict, try building a bridge, using respect, listening, then finding common ground, and stepping stones to explore all the creative possibilities you and your partner can discover together.
Dreher, D. E. (1996).The Tao of personal leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam.
Niemiec, R. M. (2018).Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Boston, MA: Hogrefe Publishing.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Weeks, D. (1992). The eight essential steps to conflict resolution. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy Tarcher.