Relating to Conflict - part 3

Posted: Category: Conflict and Mediation

 Nigel Singer

Positions, interests and needs

Understanding positions, interests and needs are the fundamental requirement to dealing with any conflict situation.

  • A position is the behaviour that appears on the surface, it is known and visible.
  • An interest is what we actually want, it is often unknown and invisible.
  • Needs are our fundamental requirements (like safety and belonging) that drive our interests.

A position is a stance that we take in a difficult situation that we presume will get us what we want.  Positions are often ‘unexamined’; they are a loud and direct reaction to a given stimulus.

‘Just go to your room’

‘I want him sacked’

‘Why do you never wash the dishes?’

‘How dare you say that to me?’

‘You’re a complete incompetent’

Shouting at another driver due to road rage

These are all examples of positional statements, they are what comes out of our mouths when we are frustrated, angry, had enough or can’t take any more.  At one level, they are our attempt to get us what we want.  They often contain lots of emotion, sometimes clearly expressed sometimes hidden within the statement.

These statements are often heard by others as if they are coming out of the mouth of a persecutor, although when we say them we are usually feeling like the victim of someone else’s persecution.

They are the tip of an iceberg and in order to work effectively with conflict we need to explore the interests that lie under the surface.

Let’s use road rage as an example:

I’m driving happily along and someone turns out of a minor road in front of me causing me to slam on the brakes to avoid driving into them.

I then swear loudly, flash my lights, beep my horn and drive very close to them.  All of these are positional reactions to the situation.

As the driver, what happened to me when the car pulled out?

I was shocked and possibly scared, I reacted by braking quickly and then the rest of my reaction got channelled into aggressive behaviour.  What is seen by the other driver is my aggression not my fear.

What did I want? 

Generally, I want other road users to drive safely so that my life doesn’t get threatened.  In this example, my interest is that other road users drive with care and my need is that my own safety is maintained.

What’s the likely consequence of my positional behaviour.  The driver who pulled out may be embarrassed or even humiliated by having driven poorly, my aggression may spark their aggression back to me and at its worst, both cars stop and the drivers get out and start fighting.

The underlying need for both people is their safety and they are now fighting in the middle of the road – this is often the consequence of conflicts that remain at a positional level, it may not be a physical fight but it is often some form of fight.

Let’s look at another example

I was talking with a medical advocate – a woman who works with people who are upset or angry at the way that they or someone close to them, have been treated by the medical services.

It was in the middle of a mediation training course and I asked the group if they had any examples of using the position and interest concept since I had last seen them.

She said that a client had come to her, very angry about how her husband had been treated by the ambulance service.  He was ill and dying, the ambulance service took a long time to get to him and he died before they arrived. She was blaming the ambulance service and full of emotion – this was her position.  The advocate acknowledged her emotion and started asking her client what it was she wanted.  During a long conversation what emerged was that the client had always promised her husband that she would make sure he died at home.  On this day as he had become increasingly ill she ended up calling the ambulance and telling him that this is what she had done.  He died before they arrived but she felt awful because this was the last conversation she had with him and she felt that she had broken her word to him.

The advocate helped her to talk about this and then pointed her toward some help for her distress.

For me it is a stark and powerful story of someone feeling really bad and needing to blame someone else, the ambulance service.  By recognising that something was driving the bad feeling, the advocate was able to get at the interest and the needs (feeling guilty and needing recognition). The outcome hopefully will be much more beneficial for the client than a potential pursuit of the ambulance service for financial compensation or an apology, neither of which would have directly addressed the interests or needs – and in fact may have left them entirely unspoken.

 Nigel Singer

Changing my mind about conflict My last post finished with the suggestion that we should change our mind about conflict and I want to start to explore what this means.

‘Changing my mind’ is a phrase I have stolen from my partner, who wanted to reclaim it from its usual negative connotation and meaning and instead, use it as a way of making a deliberate and positive choice.

So, what I am suggesting is that when we are in conflict and viewing it as ‘bad’, it may help us if we can change our mind and see it in a different light.

Let me take a couple of examples to explore......

You are a parent and your young child is having a tantrum in the middle of a supermarket.

There are many possible reactions and the one I saw today was the parent starting to shout at the child who then got even louder and more distressed.

Changing your mind in this situation is tough because you may be grappling with a sense of embarrassment, feeling very visible and perhaps being judged as a ‘bad’ parent.  The parent will also be running into a bunch of ‘rules’ that exist inside them about how they are meant to behave.  These are the rules that we all have - the ones that define our sense of what is normal.  The issue with these rules is that we often don’t know we have them until they get broken.

To change your mind, you may need to take a breath and internally go ‘my child is upset about something, I wonder what it is?’

This might enable you to stay relaxed and find a way of interacting with your child other than just shouting.  The process of changing your mind is about being able to look at the same situation in a new manner – it requires an effort.

Your boss...

A different example might be that your boss at work, who you usually get on well with, has been abrupt, short and a bit aggressive with you for the last week. You are confused, upset and hurt, you may have started to use the word bullying about their behaviour. Your relationship with them is professional, so you don’t know much about the person aside from how you see them at work.

It will be easy to drop into a very negative place about this type of conflict.  If you are not very assertive you may stay quiet – suffer in silence – and hope it stops.  If it does than that’s great because things get back to normal and you don’t have to worry about it – or do you, might you be a bit more vigilant for this type of behaviour from your boss?

What happens if the behaviour continues?  You may be able to deal with it but it might build up to an outburst from you back at your manager or that you head off to HR and put in a complaint.

So where does changing your mind fit in this picture?

It can kick in at any point but the easiest is when you start to notice the different and uncomfortable behaviour from your boss.

Rather than feeling like the victim of this behaviour – if you can change your mind you create an opportunity to say to yourself ‘something is going on here and I don’t understand what it is’. 

Perhaps you can approach them directly, ‘You seem to be behaving differently over the last few days, are things okay?’

Or ‘I’m noticing your seem a bit distracted, can I help?’ 

The difficulty with these types of approach is that you need a degree of confidence and assertion to be so direct.

If it is difficult for you to be this assertive it may be that you can take a step back from your reaction to their behaviour and start to wonder about what is causing them to behave this way. 

This process may not change their behaviour but it can start to change your reaction to their behaviour.

You don’t have to be a victim, you may be able to become an observer and this might give you some space to think what you want to do.

My key thought is, no matter what the circumstance, can I look differently at this situation? 

Can I (or am I prepared to) make the effort to change my mind?

What is it that I need to do if I want to change my mind?

 Nigel Singer

I want to start writing about conflict, which for many of us is something that is viewed negatively. What is your relationship to conflict, how do you use the word and how does this inform your relationship to the way you deal with it?

Conflict comes in many forms, internal ones (where we are ‘fighting’ ourselves), external ones (where we are ‘fighting’ another person) and societal ones (where we are ‘fighting’ the group or the state).Our primary route into learning about conflict is through the family or adults that we grow up with, the ways in which they behave, the things they do and also the things they don’t do.

Some of us grow up with loud arguments being normal and being safe – where everyone knows it’s okay to express feelings and that being loud is just how we speak when we have something we want to say that we feel strongly about.

Other people will have been in families where loud means dangerous and should be kept away from at all costs.

Many of us will be familiar with conflict being something that is always seen as negative and we will have developed strong avoidance patterns.

Spoken and unspoken emotions will have a large formative effect upon us.

Some of our recollections of childhood will be positive others very negative, these early experiences will have shaped our understanding and our patterns of behaviour around conflict.

Whenever I ask a group to do a word association exercise on the word conflict, the outcome is nearly always negative.  Most of us don’t say things like ‘I’m really looking forward to going to work today; I’ve got some really juicy conflicts to deal with’.  We are much more likely to be thinking in terms of who to blame, getting rid of them or just avoiding the issue at all cost.

I want to introduce the possibility that conflict is creative, dynamic and promotes change.

Conflict is a given, it is going to happen whether we want it to or not, so if we manage to relax into accepting it, we can start to build a more fruitful relationship to it.

As conflict is inevitable, the part I have control over is how I relate to it, so can I take responsibility for this?

Can I change my mind about conflict?