Martial artists know it, mediators know it and kids in the play ground know it. The best way to get out a of a loggerhead is – to let go. There is an exercise in Aikido where one person tries to get out of the wrist-hold of another. As one person struggles, the other grips tighter and the conflict becomes more intense, and so on… However, as soon as the one caught in the grip relaxes, the other relaxes their effort and the first person is often free to get out.
As mediators, we know this is the place we would like our parties to get to. Unfortunately, the more protracted the conflict, the less likely the person is to let go. This is true both in personal relationship conflicts, like divorce, through to state warfare.
From future-focused and problem-solving models of mediation through to more facilitative approaches, mediators often encourage those in the conflict to loosen their grip on the destructive cycle of conflict. Simply giving people space, listening and giving them a chance to reflect can work wonders – we know this.
However, I am also interested in is what keeps people in a confrontational mode. We know its fear. We know that when in conflict, the last thing we want to do is give in. However, behind this “knowledge” is an attitude that the conflict is bad and we should get rid of it. Yet if we really want to support people in conflict (and not conflict with them) it is also valuable to look at what is compelling about the conflict? The Loggerhead? The fight?
And I am not just talking about “the pay-off”; that is, the psychological gains and familiarities of conflict. I am interested in exploring what the good intention is behind the conflict. This means adopting both an attitude of positive regard as well as a sincere curiosity.
Trouble is, I don’t always do this. Sometimes, I find it tempting to take a higher ground when working with people in conflict, often subconsciously, something along the lines of:
“Oh poor them, this must be really difficult and I am not surprised they can’t see another way out, but if only I support them and give them enough space, maybe they to will be able to see a better way.”
Implying at least, that they are not in the best state they could be and even, that I have a better way for them, even if I don’t dare say it. Problem is I still might be thinking it!
To counter this, means finding out from them what they get out of the conflict:
What are the hopes behind it and what is it that leads them to make the choices they currently are making?
These choices could include: to ignore, attack or continuing to offer placations.
At the very heart, I believe that a stalemated conflict is at least some kind of connection or communication with the other. That it is the something that goes on which keeps them linked. Often it is to do with space and boundaries, but that’s not all of it – people can live next door to each other and have no interaction and feel very satisfied with that.
At least in conflict, people are acknowledged. They feel they matter and that they affect one another. In a persistent conflict, there is a desire to reach out to the other, even though it may appear violent and destructive at first. Behind it is a desire for meeting, understanding and connection.