Listening When You Disagree
There would be a major leap towards peace if we all got better at listening to people whom we disagree with. As I’ve written here before, conflict arises from differences that make us uncomfortable. And there’s a large spectrum of ‘comfort’!
On one side would be completely comfortable where you feel safe and secure. Usually this is in warm, familiar environments and/or with highly familiar people. The other end of the comfort spectrum would basically be fight, flight, or freeze – major fear reactions. Note that ‘fight’, something usually connected with anger, actually arises from fear. This is an excellent piece of writing on how scared we can be about differences and change; so scared that we sometimes act cruelly and violently towards others in deeply unconscious ways.
So when was the last time you talked with someone you really disagreed with? How did that go? Was it a back-and-forth dialogue? Or more of a debate? And what was the emotional climate like?
There is a reason why people tend to hang out with others who are like-minded. It’s way easier and it just feels better!
Being a vegetarian in a group of hunters or a union activist amongst hard-core capitalists might bring up feelings of righteousness, defensiveness, or even aggression. Those feelings don’t usual make us feel very relaxed, willing to open up, or curious. But these last qualities are precisely what are required to make love not war where there is an us-and-them perception.
Open minded is being able to listen to those who think differently than us. In certain situations it can feel like the other is WRONG in the biggest way, even in a highly dangerous way. It can come down to having the impulse to kill or being terrified they might kill us.
If you ever try to convince someone of your view remember that by doing so you will only further entrench their view. Every time you say ‘but…’ to them, you are being adversarial and argumentative, so that’s the attitude you will get back. It takes a lot of courage to shift our fear of differences to curiosity about differences.
And the number one mistake people make? When letting others air ideas that we have feelings about, we confuse listening to the idea with agreeing with the idea. Listening to opposing views doesn’t have to mean you agree with opposing views! By asking questions that start with ‘what’ and ‘how’ and being genuinely curious about the person who holds the opinion that differs from yours, you will be demonstrating that you are open minded and thoughtful. Validate how the person feels and thinks, and then offer something like, “in my experience…” or “one way I look at it is…” Then you will be actively building the pieces of peace.
Lessons From Improv for Conflict Resolution
For the past 10 months I’ve been part of an improvisational acting group. I really love improv theatre and I have some friends who are professional improvisers in the city. It’s a bit of a throwback because I started out in the acting field after high school, and I even did some professional improv ever so briefly over 20 years ago.
Last weekend was our big performance after learning and practicing for almost a year. What fun we had! It was 90 minutes of improv comedy games using input from the audience. I am super proud of myself for committing to this process and really working hard at developing my skills and stretching my comfort zone.
But improv is more than entertainment; it’s a philosophy. The principles of improv are well aligned with many types of personal growth work, with mindfulness practices, with some business advice, and even with conflict resolution skills. Here are some highlights of the improv philosophy, as discovered during my recent escapades:
- I am not in control. I may have ideas about what the scene is about or where it’s going, but so do the other actors on stage. With no script showing the way it’s a bit like pointing your skis down the mountain and waiting to see what happens. I’m kidding myself if I think I’m the one running this show. When I’m negotiating with someone it’s the same thing; I’m involved in a collaboration. I can’t make someone agree with me or do what I want just because that’s how I think things should go.
- Life is continual making it up as we go along. I can turn the scene in a new direction almost anytime I want, perhaps by introducing new information, announcing the existence of another character, or just walking off stage. I have this power in my life too even though I might forget. This could be scary or liberating, depending on my perspective. Resolving conflicts can be equally creative and equally seat-of-my-pants. Because if something isn’t working between two people and must be changed, a real solution will be something brand new that hasn’t been tried before.
- Accept offers (say yes). When the audience tells us the scene is located in a barber shop, we accept this. When my scene partner directs me to sit in a chair and says, “Do you want the usual?” I accept that he is the barber and I am the customer and we build a scene using this premise. It would be nonsensical for me to reply, “No, I’m here to read the meter.” This is known as blocking, which basically means putting up obstacles to your scene partner. In conflict resolution saying yes is all about coming to the table, being ready to dialogue, and showing that you are serious about moving forward. You don’t have to agree to offers or demands, but you do need to say yes to the process.
- Risk looking foolish. Are you one of those people who only dances after you’ve had a few drinks? Improv isn’t for you then. And neither is collaborative conflict resolution.
- Make bold choices. On stage we like to portray the height of action and intensity of emotions because improv should be engaging to both the audience and the players. I also like my life to be super interesting. Simply choosing to negotiate or mediate is often a bold choice, and truly showing up for conflict resolution is bold because of the emotional intensity and possibility of radical change. If you’re brave enough to consider radical change you will be rewarded with an interesting life.
- Learn to be comfortable in the unknown. Because that’s all there is, right? Last time I checked the future was undetermined.
- Accept mistakes. Given points #2 and #6, there’s going to be a lot of them so get used to it.
Assumptions and Misunderstandings
This post is another recent personal conflict resolution anecdote. It illustrates how assumptions and misunderstandings are often at the core of conflict, and also how jumping into ‘taking something personally’ can escalate conflict.
I live in a small-ish apartment building. My teenage son lives with me more than half the time. No children live in the building full time, and almost all the tenants are single adults over 40. The Boy and I like occasional loud music, spontaneous dance parties, roughhousing, and laughing, but nobody has ever complained about these habits in the 4 years we have lived here. However the stairwells are not up to code and stairway and hallway noises sound like they’re in your living room.
The Boy and I are consistently on guard not to disturb the retired woman who lives below us. She has told me that she doesn’t care if we make noise during the day, so we oblige and stay out of her way. About three months ago the landlord, who also lives in the building, told me that I needed to remind my son to be quiet on the stairs. I assumed this was for the benefit of my downstairs neighbour and I gave The Boy the reminder. A few weeks ago the landlord and I were texting regarding other matters and he asked me again to remind my son to be quiet on the stairs. I thought this was a little weird because he IS quiet on the stairs and we are very conscious of our neighbours, so I just ignored it.
This was my first mistake.
The other day I was at home with The Boy who was packing some things to go to his dad’s. He took off and I was about to start making supper when there was a knock at my door. I called out, “who is it?” thinking maybe The Boy forgot something or it was a friend of his. No reply. I looked through the peephole and there was my landlord. Usually when I say, “who is it” and it’s him he says his name. But not this time.
When I opened the door his face exhibited such an angry expression he didn’t even look like the same person. I said hello and he said, “I have had it with your son running up and down the stairs.” He spoke in a highly controlled manner, obviously working hard to keep his emotions from leaking. I asked him to clarify what he meant by “had it” as my mind sped furiously to put together what he could be so upset about. Something was amiss because when The Boy left a few minutes ago he didn’t even take these stairs –
Oh crap! There’s another set of stairs in this building and they are right beside this man’s apartment! Suddenly I realized that the issue was noise on the OTHER set of stairs. How could I have been so obtuse? The back stairs are closest to The Boy’s other home, so he often goes that route back and forth to his dad’s. But since I rarely take those stairs it seems I forgot all about them.
The intensity in my landlord’s voice was ramping up so I asked him if this was some kind of eviction notice. He denied that and said, “but I FEEL like evicting you!” He told me that either I had lied to him when I said I had talked to my son about the stair noise or else my son was being noisy on purpose. I knew both of these claims were wrong but now was not the time for us to engage in an oops-I-made-a-mistake conversation; when human minds are flooded with emotion our capacity to use rational parts of the brain is severely diminished.
Having decided that this man was having too many feelings to discuss my lack of insight about the floor plan of the building, I was calm and curious during our short exchange but did not pursue any discussion. (It’s when folks are in this highly aroused anger state that big fights happen). Immediately after he had gone I began composing an apology in my head. Here is the email I sent him later that evening:
I’m writing to apologize for a big assumption I made. This assumption created a misunderstanding, which led you to my door this evening to report about N. running up & down the stairs.
I assumed since the very first time you told me about N’s stair noise that you were referring to the stairs at the front door by my apartment. I am really, really sorry that I never even thought about the stairs on your side of the building. Total blind spot for me! I finally realized what was going on this evening when you came to speak to me, but as it dawned on me precisely what the issue was, I was not able to articulate this because I felt so bad about having upset you.
Like I said to you earlier, I have talked to N. many times about the stairs and how noisy they are, and I have seen him be quite quiet on this side of the building. We hear everyone else come and go so we know how sound travels around here. Unfortunately, I was only working with half of the picture and this has been hard on you.
I am absolutely certain that N. was not *trying* to be noisy on your side of the building. I have explained all this to him and I take full responsibility for my accidental oversight. Please know that this was purely unintentional.
I have no control over my landlord’s reaction to this message. I hope he understands and can appreciate my honest mistake and my sincere desire for harmonious relations. I am grateful that awareness of my own shortcomings helps to make me more tolerant of the shortcomings of others.
The Basics of Conflict Resolution
I know a couple engaged to be married. We’ll call them Jane and John. The date has been chosen and the dress has been purchased. They live together in an apartment in the downtown of a small city, close to where they both work. They love riding their bikes to their offices and walking to the grocery store. But John sees their mid-town life as temporary and dreams of owning a home away from the city core where he can have a yard and children playing in it one day. Jane doesn’t want a house or a house-sized mortgage. She would rather spend her savings on travel and education and her time on making memories instead of mowing lawns. Here we have a classic example of inter-personal conflict.
What Conflict Is
As I’ve written before, conflict is just a word that means differences are bumping up against each other. These two may have completely opposite cooking styles but if that’s more of a complementary fusion no conflict exists. However this difference is one that prickles; John and Jane’s differing ideas about homes do NOT make them feel as if they are part of a dynamic medley. It’s closer to a tug of war. This is usually your first clue about a conflict: the way you feel. You might notice physical sensations that resemble a stress response like an increased heart rate or headache. Or maybe you notice you are angry or self-righteous or you’re interrupting the other person or your voice is getting louder. These are all signs of defensiveness; a natural response to feeling threatened.
TO RE-CAP: some differences between people are interesting to us and we feel curious and some differences between people are scary and we feel threatened. The interesting kind of difference is attraction; the scary kind of difference is conflict.
Identifying the Issue
In conflict resolution ‘issue’ is the term for the thing to be discussed. It’s the topic of conversation. It’s most productive when naming the issue to name the thing that a decision has to be made about. This must also be a topic that works for both people, so it has to be neutral.
For example, John might suggest the issue to address is ‘saving for a house’ or ‘moving to a house’ or ‘getting a mortgage’. Do you think Jane wants to have a conversation about any of those topics? Probably not. Immediately if John is trying to pull Jane into a negotiation about any of these issues she could be on the defensive. On the other hand, all those ideas John has for a discussion are framed as topics that they could make decisions about so that part is good. It wouldn’t be useful for John to propose an issue like ‘housing in our city’ or ‘houses vs. apartments’. Even though it might seem that these topics would be less offensive to Jane, they aren’t actually ‘issues’ because they could talk for a week about these two topics but not get anywhere.
If Jane was to decide the issue, she might similarly propose they negotiate the issue of ‘staying where we are’ or ‘buying a condo’, but to truly design a conversation that will allow both parties to participate we want a neutral issue. For these two people that could simply mean they negotiate about ‘where to live’. This is a topic they need to make a decision about, they are capable of making a decision about, and it is relevant and important to both of them equally.
When two people (or more sometimes) need and/or want to make a decision about something it can be called a negotiation. Negotiations can be long and complex but they can also be as short as this:
A: Where should we go for dinner tonight?
B: I don’t know. Why don’t you choose.
A: Okay then. How about Sushi Express?
B: Works for me!
Whenever Jane and John have conversations about where to live they are negotiating. It might be a string of conversations that take place over many weeks or months. If the conversations become increasingly emotional and tense (turn into arguments) AND they don’t seem to be getting closer to making any decisions, they are probably getting stuck in the conflict. For John and Jane the closer they get to their wedding the more stress they are likely to experience, and the issue of ‘where to live’ could loom larger and darker over their relationship.
Following are some hypothetical scenarios. Jane and John may agree they currently have different points of view, but that they will remain at their downtown apartment for their first year of marriage while researching options and seeing how things go for them as newlyweds. Or if one of them is uncomfortable with this lack of direction that person may push to resume negotiations soon after the honeymoon once the stress of the ceremony, etc. are behind them. Perhaps to either Jane or John it seems like if they can’t decide on where to live then they are getting ahead of themselves by planning a wedding. The worst case scenario would probably involve one of them giving the other one an ultimatum about how the decision has to be made right away.
If the negotiations deteriorate into blaming and screaming I would say their chances of resolving the conflict are desperately low (not to mention their chances of a happy marriage).
Our ability to successfully negotiate depends on a lot of factors, but in my mind it almost always comes down to emotional intelligence. How willing are you to question yourself? To be curious about the other person’s point of view? To live in uncertainty? To feel uncomfortable? We don’t all need to be trained in conflict resolution to reach agreements with other people in difficult circumstances.
Negotiation is different for every person in every situation. Each of us has unique (and changing) levels of patience and self-awareness, as well as our own particular hopes, values, fears, beliefs, and concerns we bring into every discussion that has even a hint of emotional charge. If we are willing to explore this inner landscape while communicating openly the process can lead to increased connection with others and greater personal satisfaction.
Let’s say that John and Jane have hit a wall with their negotiations. They are clear that they want to be together for the long haul and they love and respect each other, but they just can’t figure out how to decide on a place to live that will please each of them. This conflict may be driving a wedge into their relationship and so they decide they want to see if someone on the outside of things could give them a hand. They could consult with a mediator or conflict coach.
Mediation is a type of negotiation. It is essentially an assisted negotiation process, or what we in the field call ‘facilitated negotiation’. Since the mediator doesn’t know Jane or John, he or she will have no emotional connection to the issue of where they will live. In this way the mediator can provide a curious and open attitude, something the two parties are unable to do anymore, and initiate conversation about each of their dreams, their desires for their home, and goals for their future.
Mediation doesn’t guarantee that a relationship will be repaired or even that a decision will be reached. It is simply and profoundly a communication tool. Mediation can be applied to all sorts of people in all sorts of conflicts to help broaden the parties’ perspectives and enhance their curiosity and creativity for solving problems.
Not Taking Sides in a Conflict
Every day we avoid some conflicts with our colleagues, spouses, children, and members of the community because it’s just easier that way. But when there is a specific decision that must be made or we have to reach agreement on something, that’s when we enter into negotiation. If negotiation fails, mediation is a useful alternative.
Neutrality is the term that folks in conflict resolution circles use when talking about not taking sides in a conflict. Neutrality is possibly the most important concept when it comes to mediation. When two parties become unable to discuss their issue with each other, they need someone on the outside of their difficulties to facilitate their discussion; someone who can listen equally well to both parties and can be trusted by both parties. Mediation will never work if one of the parties thinks the mediator is taking the other person’s side because mediation is a process that must be mutually agreed upon. If I think the mediator is siding with you, there’s no way that I will agree to participate!
The term ‘objective’ used to get thrown around a lot, as in ‘we need an objective third party to help us resolve this conflict.’ Many people assume objective is synonymous with neutral, but they actually mean very different things. To be objective means to deal with things based on facts and without feeling or partiality. Neutrality, on the other hand, speaks to the skill of simply deciding to not act on one’s bias.
In my mind it is actually impossible for a human to be objective. I think we are built to experience the world subjectively. We run on conscious and unconscious biases of all kinds at all times, we are subject to waves of emotion throughout each day, and our brains are fueled by a chemical and electrical fusion that neuroscientists can barely understand. Although humans can be very good at logic, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we expect even the most skilled negotiators or mediators to be objective.
To be neutral as a mediator I need to first be AWARE of my biases so that I will not be controlled by them. Say for example that I’m working with co-parents who are trying to make decisions about whom their child spends school holidays with. I may have a personal belief, or bias, that Christmas is a really important holiday so it should be shared equally between parents. But what if one or both of these parents don’t have the same belief?
Perhaps the mother claims to not care about spending Christmas with their daughter because she isn’t religious and has no living relatives, and in fact summers at the cottage are a much higher priority. Further, maybe the father would be really pleased to spend every single Christmas with their daughter and would be happy to trade that for the mom getting the same 2 weeks of July every year. If I assert my bias and suggest that they find a way to each spend alternating Christmases with their daughter, I would be completely at cross-purposes with this team who is approaching an agreement. I would be making war not love!
In mediation I am biased towards fairness, and want to see both parties get their interests (what people really want and need, not necessarily what they say they want and need) met. The two parents above may have an interest in sharing holiday time fairly, but it is up to them to define what ‘fairly’ means for their co-parenting family. As a mediator it is not my job to advocate for solutions to their issue of dividing up holiday parenting time, but it is my job to advocate for fairness. Being neutral as a mediator is often like being multi-partial; I can be partial to both parties getting their needs met.