Turning Conflict into Opportunity

Conflict can be positive. That’s not how we usually think about it because it doesn’t feel good to be in conflict. Being in conflict makes people feel angry and fearful. So, how can conflict be positive? By offering the opportunity for a better outcome if the conflict can be approached and resolved in a constructive way.

People come to mediation because they are in conflict and looking for guidance to resolve the conflict without going to court. As a mediator, I am able to remain hopeful that a resolution is possible by reminding myself, and the parties, that the conflict presents an opportunity.

My approach to helping people resolve conflict constructively is based on a model called the “Understanding-based Model” developed by Jack Himmelstein and Gary Friedman. In this approach, we find the opportunity for resolution when we look underneath the problem – by asking each party why they hold the position that they hold. This often leads to parties to having a deeper understanding of both their own needs and the other person’s needs. And it can clear up misunderstandings, and open the way to creative solutions.

As an example, in a divorce mediation, when one person says they must sell the house immediately, and the other says they should retain the house until the children go to college, this seems like an impossible impasse. Either one person gets their way, or the other person gets their way, or they compromise in a way that leaves both people feeling they didn’t get what they wanted. It seems the only way through the conflict is to try and convince the other person that you are right and they are wrong.

If, instead, we ask WHY they hold those positions, we find out interesting information. For example, maybe one person wants the house sold because he or she wants to have their share of the equity available to buy another house so that the children can have comparable homes with each parent. Maybe the other person wants to keep the house because they want to keep the children in the school district, or near their friends, to minimize the instability of divorce.

With this information, we can try to find a solution that satisfies both. For example, maybe there are other assets that the person who wants the equity can have; or maybe they can take out a home equity loan to provide that person with some funds. Or maybe there are other homes in the neighborhood that will satisfy the person who wants that sort of stability for the kids.

One benefit of this approach is that the parties do not have to prove to each other (or the mediator) that they are right and the other person is wrong. They both a valid positions, and they can find a solution that satisfies both of their goals.

* If you would like to read more about the Understanding-Based model we suggest reading Challenging Conflict: Mediation Through Understanding by Jack Himmelstein and Gary Friedman, and A Guide to Divorce Mediation: How to Reach a Fair, Legal Settlement at a Fraction of the Cost and Inside Out: How Conflict Professionals Can Use Self-Reflection To Help Their Clients by Gary Friedman.

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