This is supposed to be a short wrap-up of a workshop, designed to increase the awareness we have of conflict, what leads to it, some useful techniques, plus interesting reading suggestions.
What is conflict?
Let’s start by asking this simple question – what really is conflict? The best start and resolution – no one really knows. Recognising opposing interests or beliefs, change in relationships, clash of these. Ask a million people, get the exact same number of answers. Even in the Wikipedia article on [conflict] we read “is conflict a situation or a behaviour”. When you think about it, you could come to the conclusion (I hope) that conflict usually starts with you and your own perception.
Why is it so?
Your brain on emotion
Our human brains are amazing devices. Close to 90 billion neurones, connecting miraculously in a number of way, to create for each one of us a unique web of signals. They have evolved over millions of years, through ancient times, when we had to look for food and avoid dangerous for our lives situation, to nowadays, where have… well, not only that.
The problem is (of course I generalise a lot by writing that) a small almond-shape part of our brain – the amygdala. It’s always on the lookout for potential threats, making sure that certain systems of our bodies are switched on or off. During times of threat – the first part to get turned off: our higher cortexes. That’s right, the parts of our brain, which are responsible for logical decisions, thinking, anything which makes us “smart”. By doing so it makes sure that we have enough energy supply to our lower cortexes and body systems, responsible for the “fight or flight” mode. Of course, when there is a threat – we need to either flee or fight.
Now, nowadays situations, in which we have to really fight for our lives – not happening that often. This small almond, though, is still activated by our own thoughts – anger, fear, hate, disgust, frustration. This essentially means that when you’re angry, more often than not you become “brainless”. You turn into an irrational human being.
Levels of communication
Let’s leave aside body language for now. When we communicate with each other verbally – we always communicate on two levels. One of them is super obvious – the content level. It’s entirely factual. The second one is like the underwater part of an iceberg. It’s huge! Let’s simplify it by calling it relationship level. It contains your own knowledge for the other person, your emotions towards/for the other person, your own interest in a situation.
This can be perceived in different ways from the other person, depending on how well they figure the relationship part of the message. After all, there’s still this amygdala there, always on the look for threats and aggressions.
How do we make sure that we understand everything there is a communication to us?
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen R. Covey
How many times have we been in a situation where the other person talks, but all there is in our head – well, we’re ahead of time, we are formulating our response. After all – everyone is trying to push their own agenda, so why really listen to the other side.
Practice has shown that just by being there for the other person, leaving our own agenda suspended for a minute, making sure we really understand the other, is already a key to establishing a common ground. Just by asking ourselves “What is important to him/her?” and trying to understand that – we are setting us on the way to finding a solution in conflict.
But how do I know I’ve really understood everything?
What does a mirror do? Well, it reflects. It does not judge, it does not give advice. The best technique for validating your listening from above – mirroring.
You hear your opponent, now you want to get back to them and tell them “Yes, I understand what is important to you”. Repeat, in your own words, what you think they are saying or feeling. Remember – don’t be a parrot, be a mirror!
Useful mirroring beginnings:
“So for you it’s important to…”
“In your opinion…”
“What I understood is…”
“I see, you…”
Once you get to a “YES” or “EXACTLY” – bingo! You’ve (maybe) pacified at least a little bit any irrationality or anger in the other person’s head. They feel understood. They don’t perceive you as a threat anymore. And with that comes one important benefit – they (again maybe) can be debated with.
One important addition – reiterate the mirroring as needed, but don’t overdo it. If you try to mirror 3-5 times and you haven’t gotten to a “yes” – time to be open and clarify what the other person really means by asking them.
You can safely object and debate with a person in a conflict by combining everything that you’ve read above in a nice conversation skeleton:
- Listening – “What is important to the other person?”
- Mirroring – Getting to the “Yes/Exactly”
- Describe what’s possible
- Describe what’s not possible – try to be as neutral in the situation, as possible
- Finish with an open-ended question
The last one, “Finish with an open-ended question” could be puzzling, but it’s really very clear. By giving the other party an opportunity to respond with more than “Yes/No” to our proposal/objection, we are communicating on a relationship level “I care about your opinion”. Going with “What do you think?” versus “Does that sound right?” has a huge impact. One more grounding opportunity, opportunity to be more emphatic with our communication.
Here it is, the very generic wrap-up promised. It’s not really a panacea, but it’s a very good start for conversation management, also helper for our own awareness of our own personal triggers.
Short list of nice reads on the topic (personal favourites):
The 7 habits of highly effective people
Three is enough, for a start, I guess (they all have Amazon affiliate links, connected to my account. Thanks!)