Conflict and New Understanding

Conflict happens: Whether you're young or old, working or going to school; home with the kids or out playing tennis. And, as with almost everything else, there are good ways of resolving the conflicts that arise and ways that are not so good.

Let's take a few everyday situations: Marsha and her husband, Len, are going out to dinner and the movies. He wants to go to the new Russian restaurant. She's on a diet and expresses a preference for the diner where she can eat as little or as much as she wants without the temptation of overeating. In this family, Len is the one who usually says "Well, okay, we'll go wherever you want," so he is quick to agree. When it comes to the choice of a movie, they again express interest in different movies. Len wants the new R rated movie; Marsha wants a movie that she missed several years ago and is going the rounds again. This time, too, he's the one who says okay.

This almost seems like conflict resolution without any conflict since Len is so immediately willing to yield. Of course, Len tends to resolve any issue by not letting it matter too much to him. But is resolving potential conflict before it arises by yielding to the other person such a good idea? What are Len's feelings about always doing what everyone else wants? Does he even let himself know that it sometimes matters to him? These, of course, are questions that only Len can answer but the likelihood is that sometimes he might like to go to that Russian restaurant or the R-rated movie. In the office, too, he might not really want to be the one who works late or comes in early or the one who takes an armload of work home to do on the week-end. Without needing to gain any earth shattering insights, it's possible for Len to learn something about the art of negotiation. For instance, he might say to his wife "I understand how you feel about going to the diner and that's all right with me but I'd really like to go to this movie rather than that one." Or he might say to his colleague "You know, I worked late three nights last week. How about you staying tonight?"

Conflict resolution at this level is relatively simple. You only need to give your wishes or needs some importance in the scheme of things and point out to the other person that compromises are possible. Most people are more than willing to do what seems so obviously fair.

Other types of conflict and the need for conflict resolution may not be so easy to deal with. Mark and Sylvia have two pre-teen-age children who were brought up to believe that when a conflict arose between their parents and themselves they could resolve it by simply doing as they pleased. Downright disobedience was how they dealt with every conflict between themselves and their parents. If their mother told them it was bed time, they ended up going to sleep when they wanted to -- often after a major shouting match. If she told them not to eat cookies before dinner, they would make such a commotion that they ended up eating the cookies and not the dinner. Other admonitions were similarly ignored or fought till their parents called it quits.

But one day Mark and Sylvia awakened to the fact that the struggle between their children and themselves had turned into a nightmare battle which they always lost. They had lived with a topsy-turvy situation for years. Now, the proper balance between parents and children would have to be restored. This meant, essentially, that they would have to learn about conflict resolution that would allow them to resolve some of the parent-child conflicts their way rather than the way their eight and ten year old children wanted them resolved. The first issue was for them to decide what was most important to them -- whether it was having their children get to bed on time, eat at the dinner table instead of on the run, stop fighting, etc. The second step was to stop being so bullied by their children. Then, approaching one issue at a time, they were able to tell their children what they expected and have a suitable series of rewards and punishments to reinforce their new demands. When they regained control in the battle between the generations, a second kind of conflict resolution needed to be examined: there are issues and decisions that children should be encouraged to make for themselves or that can be negotiated between children and parents.

Just one example: Mark and Sylvia wanted their children to go with them every Sunday to one relative or another or maybe just to dinner. Neither child particularly wanted to spend every Sunday this way. They talked about this issue with their children and negotiated a solution that suited the whole family. If the children had something else they really wanted to do and could make suitable arrangements, they were allowed to stay home. Otherwise, they went along. Little by little, resolution of this kind of conflict began to fall into place too.

Much of conflict resolution both at work and within the family comes with knowing what you want and being able to express it in a clear and fair-minded way. Even when dealing with your children, clarity about what is and is not appropriate, about what they can reasonably expect in the way of independence and what seems unsafe or ill-advised and a willingness to work toward shared goals will go a large way toward conflict resolution.