I’ve been a dispute resolution professional for nearly 25 years and, well, business is booming this year. Palpable tension is on the rise, within family gatherings, workplaces and communities. People are feeling burned-out by the polarization. Most of us are guilty of avoiding people who don't agree with us, just to minimize the stress and discomfort associated with conflict. How can we turn this around?
It's possible to improve the way we communicate, listen and understand one another. I see it happen daily in my work.
One client recently described my work as “communication engineering.” I help organizations become more productive by improving the way individuals interact. I also focus on healing the damages caused by conflict. I blend skills I’ve picked up as a mediator, ombuds, investigator and researcher. I customize strategies to each group’s unique needs and complexities.
At some point, I cut to the chase, “What do you really want out of this?” The consensus is elegantly simple: people want peace.
People long for stress-free daily interactions they’d always taken for granted.
So, what the heck is stopping them?
One of my favorite books, Difficult Conversations, outlines underlying themes present in conflicts. For better recall, I’ve renamed the three Fs.
What really happened? We don’t always have the right facts (or they don’t). With respect to politics, I have been guilty of falling for click-bates that lead to a rabbit-hole of misinformation and disappointment. Catchy headlines attract readers by appealing to emotions, blurring lines between news and sales. (Maybe that’s what prompted you to open this article?) Polarization intensifies when what we believe to be true is challenged.
Personal beliefs are deeply, well, personal. Not only do beliefs shape self-identity, but our brains process them as facts. I see this all the time in mediation. Even when facts are indisputable but unpleasant, people adjust narratives to defend their beliefs. These distortions wind up making them feel worse. They become defensive, hurt and angry. Negative responses derail the communication and rational decision-making.
The impact a conflict has on each person determines the level of balance or imbalance each one perceives he or she has. Anyone who’s felt disadvantaged in a negotiation, is aware of irrational fears, stress and poor judgement that can get in the way of constructive dialogue and action.
When helping people work through conflicts, as a mediator, my role is to connect with each person’s perspective. Instead of being neutral, I am multipartial. As they unpack their diverse perspectives, I am listening for the underlying issues that divide their understanding of what happened. Once each side’s respective experience becomes apparent to me, I then relay the information, in the most respectful and gentle manner possible, so each side can hear.
Then something incredible usually happens. One party accepts the reality of their dilemma: they cannot change the other person’s mind, any more than they are willing to change. It only takes one person to realize that it costs nothing to let the other person cling to beliefs, no matter how absurd they may seem. When this occurs, it is empowering and liberating for both parties. It’s like a valve opens and tension is immediately released.
This moment of transformation is surreal.
Despite years of practice, I am still in awe every time clients reach this point. I let them experience the power of the transition in silence. (Honestly, I’m often left speechless and occasionally trying to hold back my own emotions.)
Although that moment of agreement feels like magic, the reality is, most mediated cases resolve. I would have given up many years ago, otherwise.
I am fortunate to have a career that helps people resolve differences. As polarization increases, I feel compelled to make the tools and secrets of the trade more accessible, such as this blog and a free workbook to encourage respectful disagreements.
What is your biggest challenge in the face of conflicts? Drop me a line and let me know.