Habitual Responses to Conflict
In the last episode, I presented the concept of a False Self. I argued that all conflict was the result of two or more False Selves clashing when they sought to satisfy their desires. These clusters of false-self traits operate with a degree of autonomy. They often seem to be out of our control. They remind us of Saint Paul’s warning in his letter to the Romans — when he writes:
“For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now, if I do what I do not want it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” Romans 7:15
It does not take much of a stretch to understand that Paul was talking about what we have called the false self. The manner in which this false self takes over our responses accounts for the habitual way we respond to conflict.
When our desires are opposed by the desires of another person — we often respond in a stimulus-response manner. Think about it for a moment. Have you ever noticed you react the same way, over and over, when you are challenged? When someone opposes your exercise of free will you repeat old habits. Do you ever find yourself wondering — why am I acting in this way?
Two researchers, Thomas and Killmann, noted this repetitive pattern. They developed a test that measures typical responses to conflict. While I’m not a big fan of such tests, this one proves to be valuable as a conversation starter. The results often jumpstart our reflection on how we manage conflict.
The habitual responses measured can be laid out on a graph. On the vertical axis we chart our desire to satisfy our interests. The vertical axis thus represents self-interest. On the horizontal axis we chart the desire to satisfy the other person’s interests. We chart interest in pleasing the other.
In all conflicts and negotiations we balance self-interest with concern for the other person. That balance may change from relationship to relationship, and from situation to situation. Typically, out of habit and due to the false self, we tend to be more concerned with making ourselves happy. We tend to favor self-satisfaction.
Let’s take a look at the common responses: Where the two axes intersect we have avoidance. With avoidance we have the least amount of effort engaged in satisfying our interests AND the least amount of effort spent in satisfying the other person. With avoidance we just want to get away from conflict, even if that means our interests remain unsatisfied. Avoidance delivers little or no satisfaction to the parties.
You may know people who tend to avoid conflict. At the first sign of opposition they cut bait and take off.
As we move away from avoidance along the horizontal axis, we seek, more and more, to satisfy the other person. We set our needs aside and accommodate the other. Accommodation — satisfying and serving our fellow man — is very Christian. So accommodation can be a very good response. However, over time, when people totally ignore their own satisfaction, resentment builds. This is especially true when accommodation is a habitual function of a false self.
Now we turn to the vertical axis. As we ascend this axis, we start from zero concern for self-interest and then move steadily up to a compulsion to satisfy our own interests. Even if it means we ignore the interests of others. Our habitual response to opposition becomes competition. We compete with others to achieve our satisfaction.
When a false self takes control, we compete vigorously or even ruthlessly. This occurs even when we do not have a strong need. A false self drives the need to win. Greed and lust for power surface. The false self becomes not only unpleasant but a danger to others.
Now visualize moving half way along each axis — half way up the vertical axis that represents self-interest, and half way along the horizontal axis representing concern for the other. This results in a point in the middle of the graph that represents compromise. Each party’s interests are partially satisfied and partially disappointed.
You may know somebody who is habitually stuck in compromise — whenever conflict arises they are anxious to “cut the pie in half.” They are willing to accommodate, as long as they are not forced to abandon all their interests.
Many people mistakenly believe compromise is the goal of mediation. But it is not. Compromise does not necessarily result in the best outcome. It does not always result in the greatest mutual benefit.
You may recall the example in Episode Seven. The girls had one orange between them. Their mother cut that orange in half — in an effort to find a compromise. However, the daughters would have benefited more if their mother had spent time exploring their interests. They would have realized greater benefit if their mother had taught them to collaborate in a search for the greatest satisfaction.
Collaboration can be found at the top right hand of the chart. It represents the greatest self- satisfaction AND the greatest concern for the satisfaction of the other party. When parties enter into collaboration they attempt to maximize mutual benefit. You’ll most likely not find collaboration as a habitual response. It is not a typical false-self response. Collaboration takes work and attention and compassion. It is the response to conflict that mediators strive to bring about.
If you are part of a parish council or other such group, consider ordering Thomas & Killmann’s instrument. Take the test and share the results with one another. This can lead to a delightful dialogue about how you might best work together. For more on this topic, including where to order the test, see Chapter Three of Taming the Wolf: Peace through Faith.
This may be a good time to reflect on past conflicts. Were there times when you were acting in the role of a false self? Did you respond in a stimulus-response manner? Would you have benefited more from a collaborative approach?
I hope these concepts prove valuable as you go forth as a peacemaker. Until next time, may God bless you and bring you peace.