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Peace in Everyday RelationshipsResolving Conflicts in Your Personal and Work Life
By SHEILA ALSON GAYLE BURNETT
Hunter House Inc., PublishersCopyright © 2003 Sheila Alson and Gayle Burnett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneResolving Conflict Peacefully Is a Choice
Gerald and Susan are getting a divorce. They have been referred by a family-counseling agency to Sheila, a trained mediator. As their mediator, Sheila will act as an impartial party to guide them through the dangerous waters of blame and anger, helping them to hear and better understand one another.
At this point, the list of mutual atrocities between Susan and Gerald is so long that every time they try to explain why they can no longer be together they have another painful story to tell. The latest story goes like this: she says he humiliated her in front of her friends by ridiculing her about the dinner she made, and he always does that. He says she bought a new dress for herself when they didn't even have enough money to meet their bills this month, and she's never careful about money. She says he'll spend money on taking a cab instead of the subway, while she has to drag two children and a stroller on the bus every morning to child care. He says she deliberately cooks food that he has trouble digesting just to show off for her friends. She says he didn't lift a finger to help cook the meal. He says she didn't even consult with him about whether he wanted to spend an evening with those people. And the accusations go on and on and on.
Susan and Gerald are not bad people. They are caught in a cycle of conflict, and they are very unhappy. One conflict leads to another, and soon they are hurling insults at each other. To take a break from insults, sometimes they just stay away from each other. There are weeks at a time when their conversations consist solely of "Please pass the salt," "Can you pick up the kids from day care today?" and other necessities.
The only way they see out of the situation is to get a divorce, but they have two children to whom they are both committed. And even after the divorce, it's likely that they will spend the rest of their lives playing out this cycle with each other over the children. Maybe it will be over money or custody or visitation or who gets to have the kids on Thanksgiving.
How did they get to this point with each other? Wasn't there a time when being together was the right choice? Why is everything so difficult?
Conflict that feels intractable is just as common in the workplace as it is in the home. Melanie has been working at the same job for over twelve years and has received the requisite increases in pay, but she feels that her hard work is continually overlooked and underrewarded. She is still working in a little cubicle that affords her no privacy, no space, and no amenities. A small office has been vacant on the floor for months, and she is the most senior person in her job classification. She requested the office months ago, but has gotten no response from her boss, Ray. Her boss is okay, but Melanie feels he doesn't go to bat for her. He thinks only of his own career.
There is no way Melanie can leave the job. She's put in a lot of time and has built up a good pension. She has a family to support. But it no longer makes sense to her to work as hard as she does. She's thinking she might as well just put in the minimum every day and go home.
Actually, Ray, Melanie's boss, has been going to bat for her for months within the department's management team. He's trying to get her not only the office but a promotion as well. He's taking a lot of heat for it. The promotion and the vacant office have become political footballs on the management team.
The primary opposition to Melanie's promotion is coming from Becky, who wants to hold up promotions until the department has standardized its promotion criteria. Becky feels that standardized criteria are important in order to combat favoritism, the "old boy" network that has existed in the company from time immemorial.
This is a complex web of conflict. If the people involved can't find their way out of it, resentments will fester, blame will be passed around, work will suffer, and the productivity of the department will decrease.
John prefers the heat on high; Melissa likes to keep the room cooler. Carol wants to do the dishes later, and her dad wants them cleaned up now. Walter wants to get out of the family gathering his mother planned, but his mother keeps insisting that he come. Mark's tailor wants to keep his jacket for a week for alterations, but Mark needs it back by Friday. One of Nancy's friends likes to call her long distance after 11:00 P.M., and Nancy likes to sleep.
Conflict Is Everywhere
To be human is to engage in conflict. Whether it occurs at home, at work, or in our social lives, conflict is here to stay. Acknowledging this reality leaves us with a choice: We can effectively handle conflict or not. When we choose to effectively handle conflict we are opening ourselves up to many possibilities. We may discover that we lacked some of the information we needed, that our assumptions were incorrect, or that we were focusing on the past instead of the present. Or we may find that we were absolutely right in our understanding of the situation and of the other person-but that's a less likely outcome.
By contrast, when we choose to react to conflict in the same old ways we always have, we risk doing more damage to our relationships by assigning blame and limiting our opportunities to understand other points of view. Most of us engage in conflict with the idea that we are right and we will win. But the complexity of human beings means that there is more gray than black and white.
Conflict may drive us crazy, but it also drives us to creation. Handled well, conflict has the potential to propel us forward, to point the way to a fresh understanding, to help us discover something new in the process of resolution. Sometimes, however, in the midst of our conflicts it is hard to find a way to create anything but regret.
As an inevitable part of life, conflict is neither good nor bad. It is as simple as a disagreement, and since it is impossible to agree with everyone all the time, conflict will always be with us.
Most of the conflicts we encounter are easily dealt with. The strategies we have already developed are perfectly adequate to help us navigate through minor frustrations. We developed these methods through trial and error, from messages about conflict we got as we were growing up, and from hints we picked up along the way. Many of these strategies are connected to the emotions we felt during past conflicts that we either witnessed or experienced. When the emotions arise, our strategies for how to deal with the situation are summoned.
In the face of strong and difficult emotions like anger, rage, despair, frustration, and fear, adrenaline is pumped into our system to make us strong, causing our heart rate to increase. We grow hot. Our face becomes flushed. Blood is pumped out of the digestive system and into the limbs, preparing us to either fight or run away. Our stomach becomes tight. Our neck stiffens. This physiological response has been called the fight-or-flight response. It is an evolutionary survival mechanism that remains imprinted in our brain. Accompanying these signals are mental messages that tell us which strategy to employ so we can successfully attack or escape. We may curse, scream, accuse, ridicule, or devise means of revenge. We may leave the scene, cease talking, create excuses for avoiding the conflict altogether, or physically attack.
Most of us rarely if ever find ourselves in the life-threatening situations from which this physiological response was designed to protect us. Still, the emotions that trigger the response are all too common, and if we had a Richter scale for feelings, we would see that we each have a different tolerance level for the rumblings of our emotions. In some it takes a large dose of anger to trigger the physiological reactions involved in the fight-or-flight response. In others, there is little space between frustration and rage, little time between calm and chaos. But there is a point for all of us when the adrenaline reaction that signals fight or flight is set off. In Chapter 2 we'll take a closer look at the fight-or-flight response and the impact it has on creating resolution.
A Desire for Peace
In spite of our physiologically driven fight-or-flight response, our deepest desire in conflict is to return to peace. This desire for peace is expressed in many ways. Over three hundred prizes for peace are currently awarded worldwide, in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize. A simple search on the Barnes and Noble website using the keywords peace and self-help returns a list of 835 in-print books. A search on the site with only the keyword peace supplies 5,791 current titles. We are a culture literally searching for peace, in our personal lives and in the world at large, and we are not alone. The European University Center for Peace Studies, the Peace Corps, the Millennium World Peace Summit, Australia's World Peace Bell (constructed from coins donated from around the world), the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the inexhaustible list of other symbols, heroes, and institutions large and small that are dedicated to the creation of peace are all proof of our desire for peaceful coexistence.
Yet when we look at our world today, and when we review history, we see a great deal of conflict and violence. War, terrorism, and cynicism threaten us as much today as they ever have. In our day-to-day lives we are confronted with violence in our schools, at work, and, for too many of us, in our homes. So, if there is so much violence taking place so much of the time, who is it that wants peace?
We all do, on some level. But like everything else, the violence we see around us is a result of the way we see the world. When we view the world as hostile and threatening, we will make choices that protect us from those threats. We will strike out with our words or fists, hurting others because or before we ourselves have been hurt. But these confrontations often leave us feeling shaken, even if we "win" the battle. And without a resolution that satisfies the needs of all involved, the war will continue.
Creating peace doesn't mean that we ignore our problems. It doesn't mean that we pretend nothing is going on in order to avoid a battle. In fact, the opposite is true. In order to have peace, we must be open and clear about when our needs are not being met. More than that, and often much more challenging, we must be willing to discover the needs of the others involved in the conflict, and then find solutions that meet those needs. Resolving conflict is a far more complex process than simply overpowering an opponent with words, strategy, or physical prowess.
Why is there so much violence in the world if we all crave peace? We believe it is because most people lack the skills needed for achieving peace. Everybody wants it, but most of us don't know how to get it. Many of us keep using the strategies that lead to separation or violence because they are all we know. But as a wise person once said, "If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll just keep getting the same old thing." In other words, old ways of thinking about conflict can't lead to new ways of creating peace.
Our popular television soap operas, reality shows, and talk shows all provide us with glimpses into how most people handle conflict. From the explicit destroy-or-be-destroyed tactics used on reality TV, to the manipulative strategies and mindsets reflected in the soaps, we learn to coerce, cajole, intimidate, lie, build alliances designed to eliminate others, pretend to be who we are not, and engage in a host of other behaviors that work against resolution. All around us, behaviors are portrayed that encourage lingering and escalating conflict, and mindsets are explored that utilize such tactics. But there is little exploration of strategies that heal and bring satisfaction out of conflict.
Popular psychology tells us that we are addicted to drama. It's little wonder we absorb this message when we continue to portray the world around us in such negatively dramatic ways. While the media reflects our addiction to drama, it also feeds and reinforces that addiction. Our children watch us use the strategies portrayed on our favorite television shows, hear us discuss with excitement the losses of others, and learn the same rules we learned for how to handle conflict ineffectively and with little concern for the others involved.
When the Los Angeles riots broke out after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King, Mr. King echoed the heartfelt plea of many Americans: "Can't we all just get along?" The answer is yes. But first we have to learn how.
The first step in learning how to create peace is to understand the cycle of conflict. We need to know how conflict works in order to develop effective strategies for resolving it. The chapter's next section breaks down the component parts of the conflict cycle so that we can take a close look at each one.
The Conflict Cycle
Conflicts progress along a series of steps that can more or less be predicted. These steps include a cause, an incident, a response, and an outcome. Together these steps are referred to as the conflict cycle. Let's examine the conflict cycle as exemplified by a disagreement between Julie and her mother, Rose.
Rose wanted Julie to attend a family gathering. It was scheduled for April 3, and Julie was buried in a mountain of tax paperwork, so she called Rose and said she couldn't go. Her mom said, "You're always so busy. You never seem to have time for family."
Julie said, "Give me a break, Mom. Try not to lay on the guilt too thick. I have to do my taxes. I have no choice."
Rose said, "Hmm."
Julie said, "Hmm."
Rose said, "Okay, fine, but I'll remember this."
Julie said, "Good."
They hung up.
Then a little voice inside Julie said, "You should be good to your mother. She's getting older and you need to spend time with her now." So she made the choice to appease her mother, called her back, and said she would go. But this wasn't a choice made to resolve the conflict; it was a choice made to avoid feeling guilty.
This was just one incident in their continuing cycle of conflict over spending time together. The cause of a conflict is a perceived incompatibility of desires. Rose says she wants Julie to spend more time with her. Julie says she wants and needs to spend the time in other pursuits. There are times when these desires seem incompatible and a conflict ensues.
In the incident above, time was very tight (the cause). It was a scarce commodity. When Rose raised the issue about where Julie would be on Sunday (the incident), conflict ensued because it seemed that Rose's desire for Julie's attendance and Julie's desire to do her taxes were not compatible. Their responses to the conflict were very similar in foundation. Rose guilt-tripped Julie. Julie attacked Rose. Both were hostile fight responses. Julie eventually gave in. The outcome was that Rose got her way this time, and Julie didn't.
However, Julie harbored resentment toward Rose as a result. An outcome to a conflict that doesn't leave both people feeling satisfied generally contributes to causing the next conflict. Thus, conflict recycles. That's exactly what happened in Julie and Rose's case. Julie was present at the gathering, but she definitely wasn't warm and friendly to her mother. Rose picked up on Julie's attitude, and this led to yet another conflict.
Excerpted from Peace in Everyday Relationships by SHEILA ALSON GAYLE BURNETT Copyright © 2003 by Sheila Alson and Gayle Burnett. Excerpted by permission.
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