In 2005, when I was in my early 50’s and weary of the full time craft show life, I decided to study mediation at Woodbury College. With no mediation experience or knowledge, I failed to appreciate the irony when I told Admissions Director Kathleen Moore (now a dear friend) that I hated conflict while I simultaneously professed my enthusiasm for enrolling. Mediators, it turns out, work in the heart of conflict. My remark convinced Kathleen that I was not going to apply.
But I did, earning an M.S. in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies in 2007. I loved the program and the “magic” of mediation. Indeed, I’ve never really left. Even before I graduated, I began working for the program — now owned by Champlain College — as a coach for new mediation students. Several times a year, I head to campus to support fledgling mediators as they practice their new tools in emotional role play after emotional role play. It’s an exhausting but satisfying gig, and I’m grateful for it. I also created Home Share Now‘s position of staff mediator, and have been a conflict coach and conflict skills workshop facilitator.
And, I still dislike conflict. It makes me sick to my stomach, and I want to avoid it. It’s just that now I know that avoiding conflict is rarely the best choice. So when I’m in the midst of an upsetting situation, I grit my teeth and plunge in. In those moments, I am decidedly unhappy. Ugh. I just hope that facing the hurt and anger with skill, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness — toward the other person and toward myself — will ultimately lead to greater understanding, healthier relationships, and more happiness.
Since conflict is inevitable in relationships, and strong relationships rank in the top five of almost any happiness list, learning how to engage in productive conflict is a key happiness strategy. Poorly managed conflict can undermine or destroy relationships; conflict done well strengthens relationships.
I remember the “aha” moment when this truth struck home.
It was during a break from a probing class on Interpersonal Conflict, taught by the redoubtable Tammy Lenski, author of The Conflict Zen blog. As I recall, Tammy had just pegged me as a conflict avoider, one of five universal conflict styles*. Headed toward the bathroom, I thought, “I do NOT avoid all conflict. I always engage in conflict with Bob!” And then I thought, and who, out of everyone I know, do I have the best relationship with? Hands-down, with my husband Bob, with whom I am very happy.
Hmmm. Coincidence? Of course not.
Apparently, conflict actually — ultimately — makes us happy.
Of course, that’s conflict done well — and that isn’t an easy standard, even for conflict professionals. We humans are complex, messy, and obliviously self-serving — especially when we’re pissed off.
The good news is, no one needs a master’s degree to get a lot better working through arguments, differences of opinion, hurt, etc. Once again, Bob is “Exhibit A” for me; he learned with and from me as I earned my degree, and his own conflict skills have improved significantly.
Over and over in my happiness research, the tremendous value of mindfulness rises to the surface. Conflict is no exception. You have to be mindful as you ask, what is really going on here? What did I do? Why? What do I want? Why? Ditto for the other person. Because the answers can be painful, compassion also comes in quite handy.
One way to make it easier to answer these questions is, to use mediator jargon, figure out what each person’s positions and interests are. Once you know what each person really wants, you’ll have a much better shot at coming up with a solution that leaves everyone at least moderately satisfied.
I’ll illustrate by sharing a situation when I was not exactly at my best. Bob had done the grocery shopping, and, as per request, had bought me shampoo. But it was, sin of sins, the wrong shampoo!! I love the scent of vanilla, and through the years had told him repeatedly to please get the vanilla shampoo. He hadn’t done so, and I got mad. I made some ungrateful and ungracious remarks, and he got mad, too. We retreated to our corners, both of us steaming.
Since life in my house is much happier when we are not angry at each other, and, I had this shiny new mediator degree in my back pocket, I sat in my corner and tried to figure out why we were so upset. “You bought the wrong shampoo!” was a positional accusation. I needed to understand why it mattered so much — then I would know what my interest was in this conflict. I realized that I did not feel heard, or validated, by my husband. In other words, my feelings were hurt.
I also knew my own behavior left something to be desired (as one friend put it, “my halo had slipped”). Acknowledging our own contribution to conflict is another helpful tool in working together toward a solution.
So I went back to Bob, and asked him to please work with me on understanding what had happened. After he reluctantly agreed, I apologized for my reaction and my hurtful words. He knew all about positions and interests, so I told him what I thought my interests were and asked him what he thought. He then told me that when he realized the store was out of vanilla shampoo, he had tried hard to figure out what other scent was mostly likely to please me. He thought it was better to get the best possible shampoo, rather than no shampoo at all. Naturally, my pissiness at seeing his choice had stung.
From that point on, we could not only work through this incident but even learn from it: I now buy all my own shampoo. Conflict successfully resolved!
Okay, a little marital spat about incorrectly scented shampoo is of no great importance — on the surface. But in this incident, as in most incidences, the real important concerns (interests) were below the surface (position).
Positions and interests were also on my mind this morning while I took care of my three-month-old grandbaby. When she cries — well, that’s positional. The reasons she cries — hey, that’s her only way of expressing her interests. Hungry, bored, tired … When I correctly understand her interest and respond accordingly, one of the things that’s happening is a deepening of the relationship between us — and that makes me immeasurably happy.
Paradoxically, using positions and interests in conflict situations is both elegantly simple and frustratingly challenging. In addition to mindfulness and compassion, it can take persistence, courage, hope, and lots of open-hearted questioning and listening. You may even have to be the grown-up in the situation, which is challenging in and of itself when you feel wronged. But hang in there. You might just end up happier.
* The other styles are competing, accommodating, compromising, and problem-solving. I’ll discuss these and various other helpful conflict tools, in later posts.