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Ask The Expert : What can you do when one party will not engage in conflict resolution?

Question
Conflict resolution depends on all parties involved volunteering to take part. Do you have any advice on what to do when one party will not engage?

Answer
This is a very interesting question and for me speaks to the heart of an equally important question “What do we mean by conflict resolution?”  Answering this question impacts on how we think and ultimately the choices we have when conflict is present.

We can draw a simple continuum representing ways to resolve conflict, from forceful intervention up one end (Iraq anyone?) to people working with equal control towards deep understanding (often characteristic of conflict transformation processes – South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission?) at the other.  Somewhere in the middle we find adjudication, arbitration and negotiation.  The difference between the last three and transformation can be illustrated thus: in adjudication, arbitration or negotiation you start at 1 and I start at 10 and we might settle at 5.  In transformation the possible end ‘settlements’ are neither discernable nor a priority at the outset.  Instead the focus is on the process, so you start at 1, I start at 10 and we settle on a banana! One that we create together and we all own.

So what do you do if one party won’t engage?

Someone who sees conflict as ‘human nature’ and that ‘bad’ people need controlling might find a way to threaten them with disciplinary action if they don’t ‘volunteer’!  [When the ‘human nature’ source of conflict has come up in the various parts of the world I have worked I usually reply ‘whose human nature, yours?’ to which the answer is invariably ‘No!’  So I am yet to find the person responsible for all the conflict humans experience.]

Someone believing in the ‘human side of the workplace’ (and most modern, humanistic-minded managers, negotiators and mediators would fall into this category) would value talking to the parties and finding out what’s happening and why, before trying to find solutions to problems in order to gain involvement.

So how would a conflict transformation approach differ?  In my experience a core value we all have is to be truly heard, often by a certain individual.  By truly heard I mean for another to really ‘get’ how things are for us – without putting their advice, judgement or evaluation in the way.  This process is real empathy.  Once it is present not only can strategies be found to honestly address the needs of the reluctant individual, but also, without fail, their own relationship with the situation changes.  Into what?  We don’t know till it happens – hence the banana!  Sound unusual and unlikely?  Yes, that’s what the team in Beirut said as I trained them to work with Iraqi refugees.  ‘Just listen with empathy?  They’ll want money and blankets!’  Six months later their reports of the changes they had seen in the women they had originally found reluctant in their refugee accommodation were remarkable.  The refugees said having someone to really hear them had truly made a difference.

So what of the workplace?  A raft of management thinking from Maslow to Emotional Intelligence supports the notion that people are motivated to meet their needs, such as acknowledgement, control and safety.  Helping people meet their needs, through empathy, is much more likely to stimulate their buy-in.  I have lost count of the number of times parties entering mediation have initially said to me ‘I just want it sorted!  There’s no way I want to speak to them!’  only to find that having their needs heard by me has given the safety and listening they needed to go forwards.

And another thought – having empathy for the other party also shifts their view too.  If you can let go of being attached to the outcome remarkable things always happen. Bananas!

This article’s expert was Andy Mason.

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