Dealing with Conflict: the Problem is the Problem

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Tobias Rodrigues

This is a guest post by Tobias Rodriguez. Tobias runs seminars on Conflict Management and is a leading member of Toastmasters in Barcelona. Follow him on twitter  or check out his blog.

An ancient Greek storyteller, called Aesop, said: An Eagle was soaring through the air when suddenly it heard the whizz of an Arrow, and felt itself wounded to death. Slowly it fluttered down to the earth, with its life-blood pouring out of it. Looking down upon the Arrow with which it had been pierced, it found that the shaft of the Arrow had been feathered with one of its own plumes. “Alas!” it cried, as it died.

Moral of Aesop’s Fable: We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction

The stories we tell ourselves shape our conflicts

The moral of Aesop’s fable is equally true when it comes to conflicts: We often give conflicts the means for our own frustration and breakdown. How? With the stories we tell ourselves about the situation, the other person and especially ourselves. For instance, we often surrender to the impulse of telling ourselves that certain situations will never change, that certain people are hopeless and that we ourselves don’t have what it takes to make it work. This means that, like in Aesop’s fable, we are giving the conflict the power to control us, and thus setting ourselves up for a breakdown. It means, we are preparing ourselves to interact with someone who is hopeless (whether he or she is or not). It means, we are determining that whatever efforts we make, we are intrinsically bond to be a slave to our own inability. With this mindset, the kind of results we can expect is rather obvious!

Voltaire said that common sense is not so common. This is a great example. We know that if we don’t believe in ourselves, there is no chance of achieving our goals. And yet, when we’re dealing with conflicts, the stories we tell ourselves often carry the moral “whatever you do, this is going nowhere.”

Let’s change that! The following are the three stories you can choose to tell yourself when you’re in a conflict. Using these stories, you’ll become empowered to see the conflict in a new light, stop perceiving the other person as fierce enemy, and recognize within yourself the skills and tools to manage the situation.

A conflict is an encounter of apparently incompatible forces

This is my definition of a conflict and I highly recommend it. A definition establishes the meaning of a specified thing. And positive definitions mean positive meanings. Thus, a positive definition of conflict is crucial for effective management. Among other things, this definition does two positive things for you:

  • it frames the conflict in terms of “compatibility / incompatibly,” instead of the more common “right or wrong” and “good or bad.” These latter terms are much more rigid to work with, because they are profoundly imbedded in us, while differing to some extent from person to person.
  • it places the focus on what appears to be (“apparently”), thus making the conflict a joint challenge instead of a rival fight: “Let’s see if these forces are in fact compatible or not.”

“The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem” — Michael White

This is also a fantastic story! Imagining that a person is the problem that needs fixing is a risky business, because to fix the problem you’ll need to change the person, and… good luck with that! (I find that people don’t tend to change that easily.) On the other hand, if we look at the conflict as a third party, as an independent object, as a “thing” with a life of its own, we can focus on understanding what effects the conflict has caused on our lives, and how we feel about that. The end result is that the recurring language of blaming and guilt, accusing and shame, criticizing and defensiveness will disappear! New air will invade our minds and enable new understandings.

Conflicts mean we care

This is perhaps the best story of the three, and the most enigmatic. It’s true that some people sometimes do wrong things for the wrong reasons on purpose. That is sometimes. If you take a good look at a good part of the conflicts you experience, you’ll discover otherwise. We’ll see that for some reason or another, we get into conflicts because we care and because the other party also cares. At some fundamental level, there is interest and concern, which means that we are not insignificant to the other person. On the contrary, conflicts mean you are that important to other person that he or she is willing to struggle with you for some good (think about: you would struggle with someone if they were insignificant to you?). And this is a whole new story, because it lets you acknowledge what you have in common and how much you both value it. A whole new frame for a conversation, I would say…

Just like Aesop’s story has come a long way to positively shape our lives, the positive stories we tell ourselves are the glue that keep our dream of happiness together.

One comment

  1. Luca Gabella · · Reply

    Agree, normally people are part of the solution. But after a while where no light appears at the end of the tunnel, they can also become part of the problem.

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