Comment: Very few people like conflict — however it is a major underlying feature of relationship. For trust to build, conflict needs resolution.
MacQuarrie Email Program #27 — Conflict and Resolving Difficulties
The task for this email is to explore how you handle difficulties. Please reflect on the following:
The resolution of difficulties is a major need in the management of cooperative conflict, and also a major need in any long-term relationship (see the next email). Conflict is always part of relationship — it is simply ‘difference in a closed space (a relationship).”
Two acronyms are especially useful: SOLVE and ACT!
- S: state the difficulty, and recognize that the description is incomplete. If you could describe the difficulty appropriately, it would likely be resolved already.
- O: outline the ‘solutions’ attempted. They aid in clarifying the nature of the difficulty. They indicate what does not work.
- L: list alternatives (brainstorm). People do it often in business, but seldom in personal issues. Sometimes, unusual approaches are most effective (using play and wonder).
- V: visualize the consequences (more accurate: associate into the difficulty, and explore).
- E: evaluate the results, and re-cycle as needed. The future is not predictable; you can only make your best guess, based on homework and truth-testing. If your choice did not generate a desirable outcome, simply choose a new direction.
In my therapy practice, clients would often come to me with what they considered as difficult decisions (e.g., a job change), indicating that they had studied the alternatives, and could not decide on the best option. They did not know what to do, and needed to make a decision within a few days. I would simply tell them to pick locations around the room, assigning a specific location to each of the choices. At each location in turn, they were to associate into the given option, and live it as if they were six months beyond the decision; no words or descriptions need be spoken. They felt it in their body. Then they would stand in the middle, and sway in the various directions. Invariably they knew which direction felt best! A 5-minute process — a simple resolution. All that I had done was to guide them in truth-testing the options (Email #22).
ACT! (When you find yourself in a deep hole with a shovel in your hand, put the shovel down!) The following is a modification of the Serenity Prayer:
- A: Accept what will not change (i.e., the third limb). It may change, but it is not in your power to accomplish this reliably.
- C: Change what will (these are your personal options of Email #26).
- T: Treat yourself well. Forgive yourself — self-criticism is only useful for about 10 minutes. (Again, the first thing in such a deep hole is to put the shovel down!)
- ! Get out of the hole! Only then explore how you ended in the hole in the first place.
Recall that only about 30% of difficulties are solvable; the remainder are resolvable. You may not have noticed, but I am here being very precise in language — describing difficulties, not problems. Difficulties are of two kinds: 1) solvable, or 2) painful but not solvable, e.g., death, illness, et cetera). Get on with it — solve them, or accept the limitations.
Technically speaking, problems occur when we insist on solving these latter difficulties (those not solvable, only resolvable), thereby generating further pain in the process (a major example of which is attempting to “fix” the third limb of emotional triangles). [If you want to explore further, find the book Change (1974) by Watzlawick; I learned how to play from this book!]
As such, when I encounter a difficulty, I seek to determine very quickly as to whether or not there is a solution (30% — generally some kind of logical solution). I learned a great deal from Plato here — he described difficulties as logical, ethical, or emotional. But we do some very strange maneuvers with these ideas:
- Logical: there is a logical mechanism to be corrected. E.g., my toaster is broken. Logically I could take it apart, analyse the fault within the circuit, replace the parts, and have my toaster back in working order. In our culture, we regard this as too expensive.
- Ethical: there is an agreed-upon set of rules as to how we respond. E.g., my toaster is broken; I bought it two months ago, and the store issued a warranty of three months. I take it back to the store, and the store gives me a new toaster (and the old is ‘garbage’).
- Emotional: there is no agreed-upon set of rules, only pain-pleasure principles. E.g., my toaster failed at day 90, the warranty expires at day 91, but I’m busy. I don’t get it back to the store until day 92, and tell them it failed at day 90. They would be fully within their rights to refuse to give me a new toaster, but also know that they might lose many customers when I complain about how ‘unfair’ they are! So, I get a new toaster!
Ultimately, resolution of difficulties with others comes down to genuine interest. Thereupon, the management of one’s own energy is a private affair, whereas the seeking of resolution is public between the individuals concerned. All this requires time, intention, focus and flexibility (you can have a TIFF about the issues.
As mentioned in the previous email, keeping your word is essential. Actions speak louder than words, and if you are unable to do what you say you will do, re-negotiate another resolution with the parties concerned — otherwise trust will be compromised. No trust — no resolution!
Next most important is to decide concerning what you can agree before you explore what you disagree about — this exploration of agreement is the relationship, the umbrella under which the conflict can be safely explored. Here, positives are very important. Express lots of appreciations, ideally five positives for every negative.
Third, negotiate needs, not positions. Positions are stances that come out of needs. Notice the difference between “People should not smoke in the house” (a position) compared to “I have asthma — second-hand smoke really aggravates me. I need a smoke-free environment.” (a need). Positions often generates resistance and conflict; needs usually leads to compassion and understanding.
Finally, make appointments (spontaneous discussions of difficulties are fraught with pain). Especially important is that sudden start-ups generate anxiety and resistance — always give warning of intentions. This is especially so with questions — sudden questions both surprize and generate anxiety; it is always best to state your intention prior to asking a question. E.g., “I’m curious. I don’t understand why you did that.” Notice the difference from “I don’t understand why …,” especially if the voice tone is misinterpreted.
Even more destructive is sudden start-up of criticism! Give warning and time for processing.
Coming next: Relationships and Intimacy