We are living in an era of incredible, unprecedented change. Global competition, evolving gender roles, technological advances, and heightened security concerns have created a new economy and impacted almost every aspect of how we live and work. As a result, geographic isolation from the support of the traditional extended family, expectations for working harder and longer with fewer resources, and a constant juggling of home and work responsibilities have become the norm. These pressures often turn our homes and workplaces into conflict breeding grounds. Seeing a need, I was asked to write a how-to conflict management guide for professional women. That book is my just released The Professional Woman’s Guide To Conflict Management.
While the book was not specifically written for professional mediators, most of its content is relevant to the work we do but not typical of the information generally presented during a mediation training program. So Clare Fowler (in case you don’t know her, she is Jim Melamed’s co-pilot) suggested that I highlight some of the book’s themes for Mediate.com’s professional audience. That assignment took on a life of its own as I explored which nuggets of conflict management savvy professional mediators did not already know.
Oh, wait. Before we begin we need some consensus on what conflict is. In the book I define conflict as “the by-product of inconsistent or incompatible perceptions and expectations regarding what is, what could be, or what should be.” As I see it, frequently, even the hint of inconsistent or incompatible expectations unconsciously translates to mean that the person on the other side is somehow being dismissive or disrespectful. This sense of being dismissed, discounted, disrespected, or devalued, is present in almost every human conflict. The “dis” is frequently covered up by anger or monetary claims. However, when we are able to uncover and define it, we are also able to point to a conflict’s true origin. This process of understanding and clarifying is often the first step in moving beyond the legal and/or emotional explosion that has distracted everyone involved.
#1. Defining differences: What a mediator needs to know about root-cause analysis. Some issues can be resolved, some issues cannot. Un-resolvability, however, does not mean that you have hit a brick wall or sunk into quick sand. In fact, I find that much of the time, even if an issue is un-resolvable, when it is clearly defined the parties involved are still able to move on and bypass miscommunications, he said/she said, and other ambiguous details.
Earlier in this article I explained that I believe that under every human conflict someone feels dismissed, discounted, disrespected, disenfranchised, or otherwise “dissed.” This sense of being devalued or unappreciated feeds a victim-perpetrator myth that people in conflict easily latch onto. When we are able to define the “dis,” the emotional charge quickly dissipates. The next piece of the conflict management puzzle often involves defining differences.
Each of us has personal biases, prejudices, and styles that are the product of our individual natures, personal experiences, and backgrounds. Our preferences grow out of the cultures we identify with, the interaction and communication styles we are naturally comfortable with, our values, and our visions for the future. When we clarify these differences it’s often easy to see that there is no right or wrong and that the differences can co-exist. However, one way these differences do frequently clash (and feed the sense of “dissed”/devalued/unappreciated) is with our appreciation styles.
In his book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, Gary Chapman says that there are five styles people use to convey and receive love. The styles are (1) words of affirmation, (2) acts of service, (3) receiving gifts, (4) quality time, and (5) physical touch. (For our purposes it makes sense to convert the concept of love to appreciation. Ultimately, they are one and the same.)
Most of us will have a natural preference for one or two of Chapman’s styles and not really connect to the others. Understanding these styles and how they are expressed in all of our interactions (not only romantic relationships) can further help you make sense of any given conflict. In the end, when people are using different appreciation styles their messages can easily become lost in translation and either (or both) of them can come across as dismissive. On the other hand, when it becomes clear that they are speaking different appreciation languages it is amazing how fast people can reframe and move beyond what once seemed insurmountable.
#2. Calming the reptile brain and opening the door for logic and reason: What a mediator needs to know about the fight or flight survival response. When Mary expects one thing, and John expects something else, each of them may quickly come to assume that their individual needs may not be met. When this happens, instinctively, their fight-or-flight survival responses snap on. The part of their brains called the reptilian brain becomes activated. As they kick into high emotional gear, their limbic systems start producing adrenaline and other powerful hormones. The reptilian brain and the limbic system, two parts of the lower brain, are stronger and more automatic than the cerebral cortex, the thinking (or reasoning) part of the human brain. As the limbic system rushes hormones through their bodies, Mary and John intuitively move into defense mode. A desire for blood, vengeance, or validation may be evoked. On the other hand, one (or both) of them may want to rush to hide under the bed. Either way, physical symptoms, such as a rapid increase in heart rate and blood pressure, excessive or shallow breathing, sweating, and trembling may become evident. Until they can bring their physiological symptoms under control their abilities to negotiate, reason, and empathize are reduced.
This physiological fight-or-flight response may have served our prehistoric ancestors as they ran from wild animals or fought with neighboring tribes. But, it does not serve our modern day clients, who have lost their sense of safety, and are reacting to perceived threats in primordial ways. I believe that much of the magic of mediation happens when the mediator is able to calm the parties’ reptile brains and turn on their cerebral cortexes, opening the door for logic and reason.
In the book I discuss four ways to calm the reptile brain and manage the symptoms of the fight or flight response.
#3. Women, men, and conflict behaviour: What a mediator needs to know about gender differences. Girls frequently engage in one-on-one play, avoiding the team sports that teach boys to play with their enemies, and against their friends. Influenced by a combination of adaptive biological survival mechanisms and social influences, these childhood gender differences generally continue throughout the lifespan.
While social norms, culture, and individual differences regulate aggressive behavior, research has shown that males are more likely than females to use physical and verbal aggression when faced with conflict. On the other hand, females are more likely to use indirect aggression such as gossip, rumor-spreading, and undermining by enlisting the cooperation of a third party.
Recent research at UCLA has found another interesting difference between men and women and how they respond to threat. As I discussed above, the fight-or-flight response is a physiological response, with bodily symptoms. However, it is also a behavioral response. The behaviors (fighting or fleeing) can be observed in humans and other animals when there is a perceived threat. The UCLA researchers found that females (human and other animals) also exhibit another behavioral response to threat. This evolutionary adaptation has been termed “tend and befriend.” Tending is about nurturing and protecting. Befriending is about connecting to a social group in order to reduce risk and manage stressful conditions. Considering the limits of female physical strength (fight) and the challenges of running with small children (flight) it makes sense that females have had to adapt and find more fitting ways to deal with threat. You can find the published study at http://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu.
Certainly all men are not alike. And, all women are not alike. However, during the last decade, MRIs and other brain-imaging tools have allowed neuroscience researchers to identify structural and functional differences between male and female brains. Many of these differences, which explain why women operate differently from men, start in the womb. When mediating it may be helpful to remember that men, who are typically left-brain dominant, are more task-oriented than women and as such they may have trouble picking up on emotional cues unless they are clearly verbalized.
#4. “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin. What a mediator needs to know about Conscious Conflict Ownership. Our conflicts – both the internal and the external – are our best teachers. Few of us grow, change, or learn in the absence of conflict. However, it’s easy to miss a conflict’s key lesson and get distracted into its details.
Conscious awarenessis about accessing information at a deeper level. This information brings a sense of connectedness as well as an inner knowing that allows us to see beyond our blind spots. Today, the concept of conscious awareness is being embraced as a powerful tool for transcending unconscious patterns. Even people that would have previously dismissed the idea as flaky are now open to becoming acquainted with what is going on at deeper levels.
Conscious Conflict Ownership is my term for the conscious awareness that enables you to look at your conflicts through a wider lens and see how your decisions and actions interact with other factors and forces. It is about seeing the previously unseen, and recognizing how your thoughts, feelings, and actions impact others. Conscious Conflict Ownership enables you to see your own conflicts from different perspectives, grasp the lessons these conflicts can provide, and incorporate those lessons into your life. When you are able to look at the dynamics of the conflicts you face and see how you created or co-created the situation your Conscious Conflict Ownership is functioning like a mirror serving a dancer – it reflects your position and movement, provides feedback, and allows you to adjust.
Conscious Conflict Ownership is about self-reflection, insight, and a bigger picture. It involves your ability to reflect on your own behavior in order to assess your real or perceived contribution to a conflict. When you are able to look at an existing conflict, see your contribution to it, and change your position, attitude, actions, or reactions, this is Conscious Conflict Ownership.
In the book I discuss the four main components of Conscious Conflict Ownership:
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