Diving Into Conflict Resolution: How To Do It Well

If I am in a conflict and introducing this method to people unfamiliar with it an explanation is needed, a kind of sales pitch that could go like this: “There are three ways we could solve the problem we are having with each other.”

One way is for me to come up with a solution and then try to impose it on you whether you like it or not. A second way would be for you to try to impose a solution on me. Either way, someone gets imposed upon. Or, a third way might be that I could say ‘well, I don’t want to make a big deal out of this’ and hope the problem would just go away.’

I can’t really make you like my ideas any more than you can make me like yours and I don’t think the problem is going to go away if we just ignore it. I want to try something new, something that will let us both win. Are you interested in hearing about it?”

If the answer is yes you can go on to step one.

Step One: Define the problem in terms of unmet needs. This is a dramatic departure from the way most people deal with conflict. As I said before people typically view potential outcomes in win/lose, zero-sum terms, it’s either this or that. For example, suppose our conflict is about the car. I need it to attend an evening class but you need the car to get to a business meeting. Either I get the car or you do, right? Many, if not most people think this way, in terms of competing solutions — Either/Or, Win/Lose, Who’s the boss.

Actually, neither of us needs the car. The car is a solution. It can meet needs. I need to get to class, right? And you need to attend a meeting. When seen in that light there are perhaps 15 or 20 ways those needs can be met. In some of them the car could be left at home.

In the 1950’s a young psychologist, Abraham Maslow, instead of studying pathology, became interested in how people become healthy and productive so he studied successful people like Ruth Benedict, Albert Schweitzer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and others who seemed to live life to its fullest. He discovered that they were alike in many ways.

First of all, they didn’t have to worry about personal survival or a sense of continuation. They had a number of friends and loving, supportive relationships. In addition, they had worthwhile, life affirming careers as well as frequent “peak experiences”, achievements that transcended ordinary awareness.

What Maslow learned from all this was that his subjects all had the same needs. Not only that, so does everyone else. He organized the needs into a hierarchy with survival (food, clothing, air, shelter, etc.) as primary, followed by the need for security, knowledge that one would continue beyond the immediacy of simple survival. He proposed that when these two lowest level needs are met the need for relationships and belonging emerges into consciousness.

He called these social, familial needs. When people develop good relationships, can give and receive love, are able to work and play in groups a fourth set of needs emerges into awareness. These are the needs we all have to make a difference, to contribute, to define ourselves through our achievements.

Finally, at the top of his pyramid is what he called self-actualization, the drive to fully develop one’s abilities, achieve ambitions, become the unique person one is, etc. Maslow was interested in people’s experiences when their needs were not met, when they were deprived. For example, the most common experience of people deprived at the lowest, survival level, is fear. When deprived at level two, security, people experience anxiety, and so on.

The reason I include this needs hierarchy is as an aid to sorting out needs from wants and solutions. For example, we don’t need apple pie … but we do need food. We don’t need Porsches but we do need transportation. Maslow’s construct can help us focus more on what’s underneath wants and solutions.

A lot of “strange” behaviors are actually attempts to meet some need. I recall a young woman, an electronic firm executive who, toward the end of one of our courses for business leaders, told about a problemproblem conflict needs competing win lose she had with her husband who had suddenly become unusually quiet and withdrawn, something she resented and was puzzled about. She decided to confront this unusual behavior and picked a time when she thought nothing would interfere. She began by describing his recent actions and how upset she was about them:

“I was sure Michael was either having an affair or was bent out of shape because I was now making more money than he was. I was so sure I was right that I didn’t hear him at all until he said I was like an absentee landlord, never around anymore. ‘Your new job may pay better but it’s keeping you occupied even when you are home’ was the way Michael put it. That was all it took. The rest of the process was easy. We both wanted more time together so we found some. As Michael said, ‘we’ve got the same amount of time as everyone else. It’s just a matter of what we want to do with it.’ And after the affair scare what a relief it was that all he wanted was more time with me.”

Most of us aren’t bad people, just needy and in our attempts to meet our needs we may behave in odd, even self-defeating ways. Keep Maslow’s deprivation experiences in mind. They may tell you where to look for clues to a person’s unmet needs.
Some conflicts are “standups” and can be dealt with on the run, so to speak. Others take more time and are more complex. Hint: If there are several people involved I recommend having a whiteboard, chart pad, note paper or some visual device with which to record ideas so that everyone can see them.

If you can determine what the unmet needs are, more than half the battle is won. For instance, in the conflict between the financially successful couple the woman reported that defining her husband’s unmet needs took more than half of the total time. “And at the end” she reported “I could give up sulking and thinking he was such a rotten SOB just when we had things going our way”.

The second step, once needs are determined, is to brainstorm, to generate as many solutions as possible. With groups it’s helpful to set a time limit. If it’s just you and a friend or partner you probably don’t need such limits. The key to successful brainstorming is to avoid evaluating. Probably nothing inhibits creativity like evaluation and it’s creativity you want in this step.

Step Three: Now is the time to evaluate. Sometimes someone will come up with what’s referred to as an “elegant solution”. The moment it appears everyone says, “Yeah that’s it. That’s the answer!” Or, something to that effect. But generally there is no elegant solution, something immediately seen as meeting everyone’s needs. So you take the solutions generated at step two and evaluate them. If you’re working with a group, a family or work group for instance, and anyone objects to a solution throw it out. When you have gone through the list of potential solutions, discarded the one’s not liked and you have one or more left, you’re ready for step four.

Step Four: Deciding. Don’t vote! Voting produces winners (the majority) and losers (the minority) and you know what losers will do; undermine the whole process. See if there’s a solution that people are willing to try. They don’t have to be wildly enthusiastic about an idea in order for it to meet their needs; it’s enough that they be willing to try it. If everyone is willing you’ve reached consensus. If none of the solutions are acceptable you’ll have to go back to either step one to redefine the problem or to step two to generate some new solutions.

Step Five: Planning, implementing, contracting. Determine who does what by when. In essence, this is a contract and can be treated as such. It can be put in written form and signed with copies to everyone involved. Obviously, the solutions to simple one-on-one conflicts don’t require formal contracts but it is still important to be clear about who is going to do what by when.

Step Six: Re-evaluating, checking up. Sometimes it is obvious that whatever solution was implemented worked and no formal evaluation is needed. But, with more complicated family or workgroup conflicts, it’s a good idea to set a time for checking up to see if everyone’s needs have been met. If not, the group hasn’t failed, the solution has. Don’t throw out the people. Throw out the inadequate solution and try another or start over.

It is critical to our physical and mental health, and the health of our relationships, that people can count on winning. The six-step conflict resolution process guarantees that no one will lose. And it’s simple, it’s generic, that is, applies to all conflicts, and in the end, takes much less time and a lot less energy than directive processes do because endless enforcement isn’t required.

People have asked me why the six-step process hasn’t been more widely used. The main reason is that the method depends on accurate listening and I-language and, as I said earlier, worldwide the quality of listening is dreadful. And I-language is almost unheard of as a way to talk about upsets and unmet needs. Lacking these tools, the six-step process is pretty much a lost cause … for which we pay an enormous price, not just in dollars, although that’s almost beyond comprehending. So I encourage you to equip yourselves with great leadership training skills that will ensure a successful conflict resolution process for all.

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