Write Out of the Margins!

Conflict Resolution

Conflict is healthy. I consider it a joy to live in a world who people who see things differently, think differently, feel things I don't feel, and act in ways I don't expect. It makes it worth sharing the chocolate with all of you.

Some ways of dealing with conflict, however, are healthier than others. In a world where it is easier and easier for one pissed-off person to end life on Earth, it is essential that we all learn to live, work, and deal with people who disagree with us.

It also makes it easier to keep up with the housekeeping without taking a broom to each other.

While I was in shelter, I noticed that it took only ten percent of the people to set the tone of the shelter. If the core group respected people, talked openly and calmly about problems, always sought solutions that respected the good of everyone — the rest of the shelter followed that model. Some people think it would take far less than this — as little as 1% — to change the tone of our entire country.

It isn't easy. Every one of us grew up in the land that made 'dysfunctional' famous. Few of us learned in home or school or office how to deal openly with differences and resolve them well for everyone concerned. A lot of us come from abusive situations, recently or in childhood.

But all this is true of people in homeless shelters, who, moreover, are all living on the thinnest of margins, in tense survival mode, and short on sleep and food.

If, under those circumstance, homeless people manage a majority of the time to avoid violent conflict, and very often manage to help each other in spite of racial, religious, and other differences, then I don't believe it's impossible for anyone else to learn how.

My personal worksheet for Conflict Resolution workshops

  1. Describe one recent conflict with an individual in your life.
  2. What does this other person think about the conflict?
  3. How would that person describe what you think about the conflict?

Dialogue vs. Polarized Discussion

This is a self-test/checklist I find helpful.

Participants hardly talk to each other before the meeting; what talk there is does not affect the meeting. Participants talk to each other regularly and their talk is an essential part of the full process.
The atmosphere is threatening; attacks and interruptions are expected by participants and are usually permitted by moderators. Facilitators propose, get agreement on and enforce clear ground rules to enhance safety and respectful exchange.
Participants speak as representatives of groups (including religions and ideologies). Participants speak as individuals, from their own unique experience.
Participants speak to their own constituents and, perhaps, to the undecided middle. Participants speak to each other.
Differences within "sides" are denied or minimized. Differences among participants on the same "side" are revealed, as individual and personal foundations of beliefs and values are explored.
Participants express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach, or idea. Participants express uncertainties, as well as deeply held beliefs.
Participants listen in order to refute the other side's data and to expose faulty logic in their arguments. Questions are asked from position of certainty. These questions are often rhetorical challenges or disguised statements. Participants listen to understand and gain insight into the beliefs and concerns of the others. Questions are asked from a position of curiosity.
Everybody knows what's going to be said on both sides; there are no surprises. Statements are predictable and offer little new information. Individual participants have different viewpoints, come up with new ideas in the meeting. New information surfaces.
Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.
Everyone speaks within a framework already taken for granted -- the local culture or customs, the dominant group ideology, whatever. Any solutions have to fit within the assumptions of that framework. Participants feel free to question the framework and "go outside the lines" for a solution. Participants may discover inadequacies in the problem-solving system itself.

Problems with Consensus

Coonsensus means a lot of things. To some people it means, "Let's try for something we can all live with." For some others it means, "Nobody gets out of this room until you all agree with me."

The ideals of consensus are:
  • Everyone's opinion is important.
  • Everyone has special gifts to share.
  • A solution that combines many ideas will be better than a solution based on just one.
  • Somebody else can see your blind side better than you can.
  • If we all feel a part of the decision, we will take more responsibility for implementing it.

You can practice these ideals without having strictly consensus-run meetings.

To make consensus work:
  • Everyone has to be willing for it to work: willing to let someone else be right. About something.
  • Everyone has to be thinking about the subject and do some studying-up on it. A consensus decision about how to build a bridge made between five people who know no engineering whatsoever is pretty useless.
  • Everyone has to be willing to talk, to share their ideas.
  • Everyone has to be willing to live with the decision once made.
  • You have to have time. A consensus meeting takes longer than a majority-vote meeting. I do not recommend trying to deal with emergencies by consensus.

The Most Important Thing

The essential factor in making any relationship work is being willing to let the other guy be right.

Links on Conflict Resolution

Books on Conflict Resolution


Updated December 26, 2002