I’m currently engaged in a conflict resolution process. The situation at hand occurred between entities of two of the world’s largest companies and has a multi-million-dollar risk in case of failure. Much is at stake. But despite the gravity of the situation, the parties almost decided to not meet at the table because of one simple little detail that seemed too unimportant to matter at the time: the name the process was given. Conflict resolution.
Neither side wants the conflict to be “resolved”. They don’t want to step down from the perspectives they have. They have important reasons for the viewpoints they defend, and although both are willing to learn to understand the other side, neither of them feels like the conflict shouldn’t exist. The word “resolution” to them automatically sounded like “compromise”. And neither of them felt that a compromise would actually do the job.
I can’t blame them. They are right. I believe we need to rewrite our understanding of conflict resolution to a concept that incorporates unleveraged potential and the opening of new possibilities, like conflict transformation or transcendence. And we need to redefine our relationship with conflict in general. Conflict is normal, and it’s needed. It’s a motor for human change. It shows passions, convictions, and points out where we all need to learn and grow beyond what currently is.
Conflict is not a bad thing. It’s the way we go about it that keeps us stuck.
In approaching conflict with the goal to transform it, I love John Paul Lederach’s three lenses approach in his Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Often times, when working through conflict, we get hung up in the mountains and valleys, or the challenges and failures, of the conflict’s landscape. We look at the immediate presenting problems that are screaming in our face and raise our pulse and agitation, instead of looking at the entirety of the conflict itself and trying to understand what might be the underlying causes. Lederach suggests looking at conflict from three different perspectives: Content, context, and relationship structure.
Let’s briefly look at this in the context of a simple conflict, like the question of who takes the garbage out. There is an obvious presenting problem, which is the full and unattended bag of garbage in the kitchen. On the surface, we might feel we are fighting about that. What we are often not realizing is the context and underlying patterns of the conflict, which are what we are actually negotiating—the nature and quality of our relationships, our expectations of each other, our narratives about who we are, what is ours to do, and what is others’ to do in our subjective interpretation of reality.
If we fail to look at that deeper level and uncover the unconscious ways they color our perspective, we will fail. We might “resolve” the conflict on the surface short-term. One loses, one wins, and we move on. Or we negotiate a compromise. But the underlying roles and narrative dynamics will bubble up again to a next peak over the dishes, the laundry, or something else. The conflict, although with a different presenting problem, is the same. We need to address content, context, and structure of the relationship if we want to set ourselves up for mutual transformation – both of the conflict and of ourselves.
Narratives are a powerful part of our identities, and we bring them into every relationship. It is hard to see and understand the stories that are at work in us and that we live out in our relationships, no matter if we are in conflict or not. These stories keep us safe. They help us make sense of the world, and they provide us with a sense of validity and, in many instances, make us feel more respectable or loveable. They give us an “I” and a mission. And over time, we have embedded them so deeply into our understanding and perception of reality—in our understanding of who we are claiming to be—that we are unable to see what we’re acting out and the damage that can come from a fixed worldview that is unique to our filters.
Narrative work is one of the most powerful coaching tools I have encountered, and I credit much of my learning to James Flaherty’s contributions at New Ventures West. The beauty is in the encounter in this work, because of one simple truth: You can’t read the label on the pill box when you’re inside of it. You can’t see your reflection without a mirror to help you. You need someone else to help you see. And as a result, you transform through the interaction with another.
I believe that transcending our narratives is the most powerful enabler of positively engaged conflict. It allows us to focus on the essence of what the conflict is showing us that needs to change and transform. It can prevent unnecessary emotional pain and suffering in our lives and workplaces. And it can lead us to fulfill a richer and more meaningful life.
In case of our client, we completely renamed the engagement to allow everyone to take a step back from the peaks of the conflict and focus on the landscape. That’s what we need to keep doing because we do need healthy friction to progress. We need to learn where attention and transformation is needed because things are at odds. And we need to address it in a way that keeps us moving, not stuck.
Credit to (and inspiration from) John Paul Lederach’s Little Book of Conflict Transformation, and James Flaherty’s transformational work around narratives and integral coaching at New Ventures West