Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander tells a story about a childhood cello lesson. After three unsuccessful attempts to play a certain passage, he put down his bow in frustration. In response, his elderly teacher leaned over and whispered, “What? You’ve been practicing it for three minutes and you still can’t play it?”
I like to tell this story at the beginning of my course, Interpersonal Conflict, in which participants explore the difficult and fulfilling art of working through conflict. Effective conflict resolution has a long list of things it isn’t: It isn’t quick, certainly. It isn’t formulaic-there is no conflict resolution recipe. It isn’t about fixing the other person’s flaws. It isn’t about avoiding and hoping it will go away. And it isn’t successful without commitment.
Effective conflict resolution is a combination of self-reflection outside the “hot moments” of a dispute, regular practice of a few key basic skill sets, commitment to long-term improvement in the way you engage conflict, and most importantly, a learning frame of mind during a dispute. Instead of approaching conflict as a competition (“how can I win it?”) or as a problem (“how can I solve it?”), you want to approach conflict as a learning opportunity (“what can I learn from it?”).
Engaging in conflict as competition may serve your own egos or your own interests quite well, at least in the short term, but it doesn’t do a lot for the other person. Taking the competitive approach to conflict resolution tends to leave debris in your wake and can diminish your relationships. For the important relationships in your life-those with family, neighbors and co-workers, for instance-winning an argument trades long-term effectiveness for short-term gratification.
A challenge, of course, is that many of us have been raised to engage in conflict with this frame of mind, though it manifests itself differently in each. Some move quickly to verbal combat. Others win by walking away and dismissing the conflict or the other person. The rest are somewhere between the two extremes.
Engaging in conflict as a problem to be solved is also enticing, particularly to those whose identities are closely connected to “being a good problem solver. ” Certainly solving a problem for others or between yourself and others promises to reduce tension and allow you to move on. One challenge of this approach to conflict resolution is that it’s tempting to believe there’s a recipe or formula to follow that will cause the problem to be solved.
And more problematically, in a culture that highly values problem-solving, you may be tempted to move far too quickly into solution mode. One of my favorite quips is that solving the wrong problem leads to the wrong solutions. Moving too quickly into problem-solving carries a very high risk that you solve the wrong problem because you have inadequate understanding of the conflict or the people involved. I see this frequently in my work as a mediator.
Engaging in conflict as a learning opportunity holds great promise. During a dispute, by asking “what can I learn here, ” you open your mind to understanding more of the other’s perspective, allow your ears to do less selective listening, and invite yourself into what is called, in the jargon of my profession, a learning conversation. Outside of a dispute situation, by asking “what can I learn here, ” you open yourself to deeper self-reflection about your own conflict resolution abilities and growing edges.
Copyright © 2003 by Tammy Lenski. All rights reserved.
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Dr. Tammy Lenski is the author of I Can't Say That!, a popular blog read by women all over the world. A professional mediator, conflict management coach and educator, Tammy works personally with women who want to keep their balance in conflict and step up to the conversations that really matter.