The Secret to Resolving Conflict

Posted on | March 18, 2010 | No Comments

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In a recent article entitled “Playing the Blame Game,” Ralfee Finn wrote that “…opposites can also be seen as complements, especially when we are willing to synthesize what separates and divides through understanding and reconciliation.” This is a wonderful notion and one to which I subscribe.

I see many conflicts created when people frame a problem as a matter of irreconcilable opposites. These same people, assisted by skillful exploration, are able to shift their perspectives to see the differences merely as tensions to be managed. Shifting our perspectives from opposites to complements is a powerful way to resolve differences and unite for common good.

Here’s an example. I was recently called into a situation in which a group of lawyers were claiming that they were being overly and unduly managed. They wanted freedom and autonomy, claiming that their professional reputations were at stake. They did not want their superiors to have the ability to overrule their decisions. The supervisors saw these lawyers as renegades who were not sensitive to how the decisions they were making affected the organization as a whole. They wanted final review rights on all work.

These two groups had created a strong “us-them” culture with autonomy and accountability seen as irreconcilable differences. When we examined the two perspectives, however, they were able to reframe the dilemma as a tension between independence and interdependence. They realized that each side had the same objectives. The supervisors realized that they had to give the lawyers some freedom and autonomy but also build in accountability mechanisms to ensure the organization’s ultimate success.

Once the two groups saw the problem as a tension to be managed and not a set of opposites with no bridge, they were able to move into finding mechanisms that would satisfy each group.

Another wonderful example is a mediation I did in a racially charged situation. When I administered the Myers-Briggs indicator, the parties at first saw they were “opposites” on most of the scales. Then I shifted them to look at the differences as a continuum of strengths. Each aspect had its benefits, and using both temperaments made them stronger. Once they embraced the notion that this was not an either-or choice but a “we can have both,” they were able to begin respecting the others’ attributes and use them not as wedges, but as supports.

The next time you find yourself looking at a situation and seeing it as a collision of opposites, look for:

1. The underlying unifying goal. What does each party want??
2. Play out the opposites until you see the other side of it. For example: too much autonomy leads to…, too little autonomy leads to…; too much control leads to…, too little control leads to…. The extreme of the poles is usually what is scaring one of the parties.
3. Play out the upside of each pole. What is the benefit of each pole?
4. Then ask “how do we get the benefits and manage the downsides?” This is the shift to seeing the opposites as a tension to be managed, not a choice between one or the other.
5. Finally, ask “what do we need to do to get the best of both?”


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