It’s happened to many of us:
We have a conflict; we’ve tried to resolve it; we’ve confronted the other party; we’ve talked to friends; we’ve pleaded our case before a judge or jury, but no one listens to our side of the story. No one sees things the way we do.
Perhaps the whole world is insensitive. Perhaps no one cares. Perhaps, but often there is another reason our story is ignored or misinterpreted: we’re simply not telling it right.
Learning Basic Conflict Resolution Skills
That may seem counterintuitive. Of course we know how to tell our story. It’s our story; we lived it. If only living through an experience meant we know how to communicate that experience. Unfortunately it doesn’t, and being able to communicate our experience is vital to the conflict resolution process. Part of preparing for mediation is to learn how to tell our story in a way that will get our point across.
So what’s the problem with the way we tell our stories?
Well, too often we frame our story as a hero’s journey. We play the role of the hero. Naturally, the other party is the villain.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that narrative. We are, after all, the protagonist in our own drama. Unfortunately, if we want someone other than ourselves to understand our story, we may need to present events in a different light. After all, our listeners may not see us as the heroes of our imagination.
And therein lies the crux of the problem.
Too often, in order to maintain our narrative of heroism (or victimhood), we attribute horrible intentions to the other party. “They did this and that because they’re inconsiderate, crafty, spiteful, evil, etc., etc.” In the world of conflict resolution, this is called false attribution error. We do not actually know the other party’s inner motives, so we attribute motives to them. We creatively draft an inner story for them. In the face of a mystery, an unknown, we fill in the blanks with our own interpretation.
Perhaps it’s only natural, but it’s hardly productive.
Unfortunately, the other party is probably doing the same: attributing false motives or evil intentions to our every word and action. This desire to attribute motives to someone else not only lies at the heart of many conflicts, but also distorts how we view those conflicts. And it often makes it impossible to resolve. As long as we’re convinced the other party is out get us, we see no sense in patching things up.
Now, perhaps the other party is out to get us. Evil does exist. People can be malicious. Of course, if we are dealing with true evil an appropriate response is merited. But too often we don’t know. And that’s just the point: we don’t know. The assumption that the other party is out to get us is usually not all that helpful. It certainly doesn’t help us tell our story in a meaningful way.
So how should we tell our story?
Well, to start with, we should try to recount events without attributing motive to the other person. There’s nothing wrong with explaining our point of view, as long as “our point of view” isn’t simply a euphemism for blaming and shaming another. If we can tell the story without casting the other party in the role of villain, then we’ve made a huge leap forward.
This approach may be difficult at first. Perhaps it may even seem insincere, since we do indeed see the other party as a villain, but if we’re serious about resolving conflict, the blame and shame game need to go out the window. Remember the golden rule: if we don’t want the other party to attribute false motives to us, it is best to extend the same courtesy to them.