Impact of Conflict on Our Lives

The NEW Approach

I am thankful to the Freethinkers Forum for inviting me to talk about a subject which concerns us all.  Conflict is an inescapable fact of life and in this conversation we will explores how its negative impact can be minimized.

I don’t want to make today’s presentation purely an academic homily where we engage in a some nice intellectual discourse that dissolves in thin air without making any difference in how we think, feel or act.  Instead I want to talk about practical ways of dealing with conflict.  

We all know the importance of relationships in our daily lives; how we deal with people, how we interact with them, and how we respond to their reasonable and sometimes idiosyncratic demands on us.  In order to meet these relational challenges we constantly make choices for our own behavior when confronted with situations that we find disconcerting or conflicting with the way we think, feel and behave.

To address these questions, first we need to define conflict and understand its nature.  Conflict is an expression of opposing interests.  It emerges when different positions, opinions, assumptions and views clash and are perceived as a threat to the needs, interests, finances or more seriously, to life and security of those involved.  Whenever   two people wish to act in mutually inconsistent ways, their desire to do so causes conflict. 

Conflict exists in all kinds of situations. It is something we experience every day in our domestic, business, workplace and community relationships. 

Sometimes even when we are not dealing with other people, we may face conflict within ourselves, although that is not the subject of today’s discussion.   

All conflict is not bad or for that matter conflict is not all bad.  Despite the negative connotation, it can be good and creative.   Conflict can be a very positive force giving life the friction and traction that is needed in order for it to keep going. Conflicts give us opportunities to transform an apparently negative situation into a positive learning experience.

We can’t elude conflict.  Given that it is unavoidable, we have to ask, “is there anything we can do about it?”  The answer is yes, of course we can, and we must, starting with making choices that are right for us.  We can deal with conflict in a way so the resolution process is not experienced as entirely negative but can actually heal us instead of wounding us. 

I strongly believe that a discussion on any topic involving human behavior should relevant and applicable for participants.  Rather than discussing abstractions and platitudes. I want this presentation to have some practical purpose in helping us make the most of a variety of relationships in our lives.

Now what can be more relevant than an actual conflict we are faced with?  I want to invite you to participate in an exercise.  This should be fairly easy.  What you need to do is to think of an actual, real life conflict that is currently going on and has at least one other person involved in it. 

The purpose of this exercise is to apply the conflict resolution methodology we will talk about today to prevent the conflict from escalating to begin with.  And if it does escalate into full fledged confrontation, we should know how to minimize its negative consequences for us.

Once you have thought about a real life conflict, this can be used as a reference point during this discourse.  You can test the techniques at each step for relevance to your conflict.

Are we ready? 

As you are deliberating on your conflict you can start by reflecting on how your own attitudes, prejudices and personality may be   responsible for it.

Conflict by its very nature is an emotionally charged phenomenon.  Some of you may be getting angry just thinking about that mean spirited person in your conflict who has “purposely” caused so much anguish in your life.  Chances are your opponent may be going through the same feelings about you. In anger and frustration we tend to lose perspective on what exactly caused it as well as what is within our control and what is beyond it.  In a highly emotional state we relinquish the wisdom and good judgment that is required to safeguard our best interests.

Often when we are indecisive about our next step, it helps to have access to some objective methodology that can guide us through various phases of conflict resolution process. 

While there are many excellent techniques to help us resolve our conflicts, what I want to share with you today is the approach that I found most useful during my 18 years of conflict resolution in the public sector.  This approach is transferable and not limited to just the work place.  It can be equally effective in family, community, business and personal contexts.

I call this the NEW approach.  N-E-W is actually an acronym.  Here I like to add a caveat: I am not claiming that this approach will bring about a desired outcome one hundred percent of the time.  Nothing can.  Nevertheless, the NEW approach dusts off confusion which hinders you from clearly seeing what serves your best interest.  You can then take steps that may give you, if not the desired, at least the best of all available resolution options. 

Let me briefly explain how this NEW approach works. The first letter of this acronym N stands for Necessary.  I’d like you to go to the file in your mind for reference and ask yourself this question: In the given situation, is the proposed action absolutely necessary?  Necessary to a point where you pretty well have no other choice?  Like mortgage or bill payments, compliance with the law, performance at work or visit to the dentist.  

Once you have determined that the action is absolutely necessary, take a deep breath and relax because what perhaps appeared to be something negative may really have a positive outcome.  As you have no option, you can divert your energies from debating what action to take to actually taking that action. 

If you know something is necessary, don’t even bother debating its pros and cons.  You know you have got to do it.  Since it is unavoidable, it makes no sense to bang your head against the wall.  You may as well save yourself all the trouble and do willingly what you know you will have to do anyway.  There lies little value in raising your blood pressure just because you are angry at something that you can not change without paying a price beyond all proportion.  It is quite a different matter if you are prepared to pay that hefty price.   

The second letter in the NEW philosophy is E for Enjoyment.  Even if your proposed action is not necessary, but you do get joy, pleasure, happiness and gratification from it, by all means do it. 

The enjoyment relates to your very personal concept of quality of life and you may not want to sacrifice it out of a sense of obligation alone.   Others may find your subjective view frivolous, but for you it is non-negotiable as it makes a statement of who you are and what is important for you. 

The last component of the NEW approach is W which stands for Worthy.  This simply means that sometimes a proposed action is neither necessary, nor enjoyable, so you ask yourself: should you still do it?  The answer is “Yes”.  But only if you are convinced that it is worth the effort and for a cause that you consider worthy regardless of what anyone else thinks.   Other people’s opinion does not matter in this case.   Helping HIV patients, for example, may not be necessary or enjoyable, but it certainly is a worthy cause and you have every right to insist on the choice you have made for yourself. It is reason enough that you believe in its worth and no one has a right to deny you your choice.

Ideally in any situation, including in a conflict, when you are trying to determine what stand you should take, all three components, N-E-W, should be present.  But suppose the action you decide is not necessary but is still enjoyable and worthy, well, go ahead, do it.  If instead of two, the proposed action has only one component, you may still want to do it. 

However, if the step you are planning to take has none of the three attributes - necessary, enjoyable, or worthy- then don’t waste time, effort or energy on it.  Don’t even go there.  Walk away from it.  It is the worst outcome when all three components are missing.  You don’t have to agree to it.  Don’t sell yourself short.  Instead, focus on alternatives to the proposed action. 

Consider some alternative resolution options if the conflict has forced itself upon you and having applied the NEW litmus test you feel you have no choice but to confront the conflict.  Then what do you do? 

Well, go back to your mental filing cabinet and acknowledge that there is a conflict that needs resolution.  As the conflict is now a reality, which of the following options ca you apply to arrive at an outcome that serves your interests?

Here are a few options you could consider for dealing with your conflict: 

1. Do nothing:  This option may give you some time in the false hope that the conflict will go away but the reality is that it will continue to simmer and may later explode with a ferocity you had not expected. 

2. Deal directly with the conflicting party.  By directly engaging with your opponent, you can go to the source of the core issue. They might have done what they did in ignorance and talking may help clear the misunderstandings.  While dealing with them directly, try to understand their motives, values and beliefs.  Invite them to try "switching places” with you so both understand how each of you might have inflicted anguish on the other.   

This option has the potential to backfire.  Your adversary could become more stubbornly entrenched in their positions and become confrontational or even violent.  

3.  Formal avenues:  You could also consider using formal avenues like filing a law suit, approaching the police or initiating formal complaints processes available in different tribunals and governing bodies.   These avenues could give you a clear decision but it could as easily go against you.  Even if you win you would have a resentful conflicting party who would want to get back at you at the first available opportunity. 

4. Conciliation/Mediation:  It is possible that you may conclude that none of the above three options work for you.  In that event you could consider involving someone who is trusted by both parties with no vested interest in the eventual outcome. 

In this option you have a sense of being in control.  You can  contribute to crafting a fair and equitable resolution.  With cooperation and compromise both sides could win.  But pre-requisite for mediation is that adversaries are at least agreeable to give this process a chance either voluntarily or as command performance. 

Let me briefly share with you the process and you can determine if this is what you think will be the best approach for resolving your conflict. 

The mediator first meets with the complainant (let us call the two parties complainant and respondent) and tries to understand the motives for the conflict.  In most cases what is initially stated as the cause of the conflict is not the real or whole reason.  In a trusting, confidential and safe environment, fortified with the feeling of empowerment, the complainant opens up about what truly gave rise to the conflict and what has been their role in it. 

I’d invite you now to refer to your conflict to see what are the underlying reasons for your dispute and also how you have contributed to it.  You are the only one who knows them best. 

The mediator then meets with the other party.  Once both sides have unburdened themselves in private meetings, the more delicate part of the operation begins. 

At this point the mediator brings the conflicting parties together in a joint session.  This is planned with great care and sensitivity.  The mediator takes steps to make the parties feel at ease by establishing ground rules.  These rules are very simple:  Thou shalt not interrupt when the other party is speaking; thou shalt not bad mouth or use foul language; thou shalt not show disrespect etc.  Almost invariably both sides agree to the ground rules. 

The complainant is generally the first to be invited to speak.  This is often a highly emotional narration full of tears and anger.  Once the complainant has finished speaking, the mediator asks the other party to restate what they heard. 

Then the roles are reversed and the respondent is asked to tell his or her side of the story and the complainant restates.

Having listened to and restated each others’ positions at length both parties understand where the other is coming from.  The mediator then invites them to define the real problem based on what they both said and heard.  This is a painstaking exercise.  If two sides can define what they are fighting about, the chances of misperceptions being  clarified are greatly enhanced.  Both sides work as a team during this segment. The problem itself is now the real adversary.

I’d encourage you to try to define the conflict in your mind with maximum clarity.  Are you really clear what the conflict is all about?  Often we ourselves don’t understand the complexity of the conflict and blame the other for not understanding. 

Next, both sides are invited to brain storm in order to generate maximum options to address the conflict.  Options are generated without any regard to their practicality or reasonableness.  These should be numerous enough so the solution must come from one or more of the generated options.

Having exhausted all possible options, the parties are invited to evaluate those they think are realistic and achievable. Based on the agreed suggestions, which come from the parties themselves, an agreement is reached which can be formalized and made binding if necessary, thus hopefully bringing the conflict to a mutually acceptable and beneficial closure.

CONCLUSION:  In the end I would like to add a few short tips to make the conflict resolution process a positive and productive experience which adds value to your life rather than diminishing it.

·        Ensure that you do your.  Resolve conflict with cooperation and agreement, not with hostility or driven by a desire for revenge.

·        Diffuse the situation, don’t infuse it. 

·        Be honest with yourself.   

·        Negotiate from strength.  Magnanimity comes only from self assurance and confidence.   

·        Follow the Golden Rule.  Wish for others what you would wish for yourself.  Be generous. 

·        Be on your own side.  Sometimes we are the biggest obstacle in the way of our own best interests in conflict resolution.   

·        Be ready to walk away. Often the most effective strategy is having the self confidence to walk away from the offer at hand. 

·        Listen with compassion and make allowance that the other side could also be right.  

·        Be firm in the commitment to seek a mutual solution. 

·        Accept what is realistically possible, not your ideal. 

·        Take responsibility for creating and resolving the conflict.   

·        Never underestimate your uniqueness.  What works well in your situation may not work for others. 

In the end the real resolution depends on you alone.   Resolution lies not in the act but in how you view it and react to it. The value is not in external things, but how you face them.  It is in your hands.  

Now In this final phase, one last time, refer to your conflict and choose the best option for yourself because you are the one who will have to live with your choices.  Gook luck and thank you.


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