The Cure for Conflict
Resolving conflicts in divorce can be painful and frustrating. When you know a conflict is brewing and dealing with it is inevitable, what do you do?
B) Stop breathing?
C) Feel like running away?
D) Enjoy the learning opportunity?
An informal poll reveals that most people would not choose D. The other choices (and you can add your personal favorite) all have one thing in common: some level of dread.
The amazing thing about conflict is it comes in so many shapes and sizes. Conflict is universal across age, race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, income level, profession, and gender differences. It’s the great equalizer because virtually nothing is immune from the possibility of conflict. A marriage, a classroom, household chores, the style of a dress, the workplace, an organization, the neighborhood—the list goes on and on. You would think that because it’s so common, people might get the hang of dealing with it.
Conflict is inevitable. You will encounter it throughout life. Sometimes it means someone (you?) has to decide to step up and improve how a conflict gets resolved, even if you feel you’re right and the other party is wrong. Dealing with conflict in a productive way opens up opportunities and possibilities instead of keeping both parties in the same old unproductive dance.
Yet people still rely on gut reaction. You may have heard about the “flight-or-fight response.” Those were the only choices open to ancient humans. Since then, more options have become available to us in the non-lethal situations that still trigger this biological response.
As a divorce mediator, I’m a “doctor” for the conflict “affliction.” Fortunately, unlike the common cold with remedies that only deal with symptoms, there are many more ways for dealing with conflict that truly heal the situation.
Which type of conflict are you dealing with? There are two types of conflict, and each has a different prescription for healing.
Conflict Situation 1: The Ambush
We have all experienced the Ambush, an attack without warning, that overlays someone else’s agenda on your own. Some examples:
- A teenager is in his room, engrossed in a computer video game. His mother suddenly appears in the doorway and yells “Why didn’t you take the garbage out?”
- You arrive at work, coffee in hand, on time and in a good mood after your early workout. You open the door to the office to find your boss standing unexpectedly in the hall, clearly unhappy. “Did you finish the client’s report, yet?”, he loudly demands to know.
- You get a call from your about-to-be ex-spouse, with whom divorce mediation has actually been going pretty well lately. After you answer with a friendly “hi,” she angrily says, “What were you thinking?!” and proceeds to complain about a small revision you recently suggested concerning your separation agreement.
The Automatic Ambush Response
What was your reaction the last time you were ambushed? Most likely it was a defensive comment or an attempt at explanation. Those are how most people protect themselves, and it generally adds fuel to the attack on both sides. What often follows is a heated or a very frustrating conversation. The Ambush often ends with an action that is not very satisfying to either party and may include mutterings or even threats or ultimatums.
The prescription for healing the Ambush has three “medicines.” If you learn to “take” them regularly when the “symptoms” appear, they will work very well. This procedure is inspired by the safety drill instructions of “Stop, Drop, and Roll” to use immediately if your clothes catch on fire. Most folks can recite this remedy in an instant.
Hopefully you’ll never have to use the fire drill version. Take the time to learn and practice “Stop, Breath, Empathize” so you’re ready the next time a conflict occurs.
Ambush Remedy: The Stop, Drop, and Roll of Conflict Resolution
- The first step is to STOP. Don’t say a word. Control your brain to stop your tongue from uttering those angry and defensive retorts.
- The second step is to BREATHE. I am talking about 4 or 5 seconds that, combined with “Stop,” lets you reset your emotions. This is like breathing in magic. All that you have ever read about how important breathing is to center yourself is true. It works. In this case, I’m not talking about taking deep, long breaths. Just become aware of your breathing, and take a breath to help reduce your own anxiety.
- The third step is to EMPATHIZE. If the first words out of your mouth are sincere and calm, that will do two things immediately: (a) Diffuse the anger of the other person, and (2) encourage the attacker to share more about his/her issue. You will learn more and have even more time to collect your thoughts. Empathizing is about acknowledging how the other person feels, even if you don’t agree with their words or feelings. It’s very important in this step to to listen carefully and identify opportunities to resolve the conflict. Also note you may both agree to step back and address the issue at a later date and time.
This sets the stage for the second type of conflict situation.
Conflict Situation 2: The Planned Encounter
Unlike the “Ambush”, the Planned Encounter always begins with permission. Both parties have to agree that the time and place are right to discuss a conflict. It’s called “planned” because the initiator has the responsibility to:
- Choose what at least looks like a good time and place to start the discussion.
- Prepare the Opening Statement (see below) beforehand.
- Contact the other person and make the initial request. “I’d like to share something with you. Is this a good time to talk?” Be aware that even asking this could be perceived as an “ambush” by the other person. Have patience and use the Stop/Breathe/Empathize process described above to get the discussion on track.
- If the other party says no, it’s not a good time (or place), accept that and ask what would work.
Planned Encounter: The Five Easy Pieces of Conflict Resolution
From this respectful start, the initiator begins.
- Opening Statement: It’s neutral and short. It doesn’t start with blaming phrases such as “you did” or “you always” or “I hate when you.” Hint: Don’t offer a solution.
In the earlier examples, the initiator could start with:
- The mom: “I noticed that the garbage is starting to overflow the can. That is really bothering me.”
- The employee: “Can we revisit what happened when I first walked into work yesterday morning? I was taken by surprise when you asked me about a report that I emailed you before end of the previous day.”
- The husband: “Can we talk more about the miscommunication we had yesterday concerning the vacation paragraph in our draft separation agreement? I would like to make sure I understand your reaction and to know more about what you’re thinking.”
- Listen and Empathize: Let the other person comment. Gather information for understanding. Ask what might be possible for the behavior to change. Hint: Have the first “solution suggestion” come from the person you are addressing.
- Negotiate: Exchange ideas and build on possible solutions and areas of agreement. Ask for clarification or more details about an idea. See if there is any portion that would work for you. Summarize the possibilities. Hint: Avoid words like “but” and “however.” Replace these words with the word “and,” and you’ll notice that you are more accountable for what you are saying.
- Agree: When agreements emerge, be sure to get details and understand the timeframe for implementation. “OK, Mom, I’ll put a sticky note here on my bedroom mirror to remind me to take out the garbage every Thursday after dinner.” Be specific on what will be done, when, and what will the other person do in return. Also determine what happens if the agreement is not kept. Hint: Writing down the points of agreement and action items is a great way to confirm the commitment.
- Follow-Up: Before finishing the discussion, agree to check in with each other see how the agreement is working for both of you. It’s a neutral way to re-discuss what is or isn’t working without building up resentments on either side. This is an essential step that strengthens communication between the parties. Hint: Designate the future check-in time very specifically and meet that commitment.
Dealing Effectively with Conflict Is a Key Life Skill
The key to resolving conflict is to understand that everyone in every conversation wants to feel valued, respected, and heard. Regardless of the age, the relationship, or the resources of the parties, if you keep the dignity of and respect due to the other person in mind, your words and tone will lead you toward resolving the conflict.
If, on the other hand, your intention is to shame or blame or teach or preach when you begin the conversation, your encounter is doomed to failure.
Whether conflict is resolved with or without a mediator, the tools are the same. A mediator is a neutral and skilled professional facilitating the situations described above. The magic of mediation is that the mediator is not invested in the outcome, or the agreement; she/he is helping to navigate the system.
Not every conflict can be resolved. But with the right actions and good intentions, conflicts can be managed and turned into personal growth experiences.
Divorce and Conflict Resolution Resources
- Conflict Resolution Tips for Divorcing Couples
- Tools for Resolving Conflict During and After a Divorce
- Conflict Resolution After Divorce
For more divorce topics covered by BJ Mann: BJ Mann Site Content Index