15-08 Story 1: Changing the Conversation – Dealing with Conflict

 

Conflict is part of life, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. We talk to two experts on conflict about how to make disagreements with a spouse or other family member, or with colleagues at work a positive and productive learning experience.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Dana Caspersen, mediator, teacher and author of, “Changing the Conversation: The 17 principles of conflict resolution.” Dr. Judith Wright, author, coach, corporate consultant and founder of the Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, where she also teaches.

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Conflict Resolution

Gary Price: The one thing that can ruin even the most romantic evening or productive business meeting is conflict. It happens all the time, even to the most committed spouses and long-time business partners. Long, festering disagreements can break up a marriage and a company, but it doesn’t have to. Dana Caspersen is a conflict mediator and coach, and an expert in conflict resolution. She’s also author of the book, “Changing the Conversation: The 17 principles of conflict resolution.” She says conflict is the same across the board, no matter if it happens in the bedroom or the boardroom…

Dana Caspersen: And conflict can be a place of possibilities because it can be a place where we find out what matters to people. Depending on how we approach it, we can bring important topics to light, we can find ways to create a ground from which we can talk about them together, and then come to these solutions that make sense because they have to do with what people care about on a more basic level. So in all of these conflicts – in personal, work, community, nation – essentially what happens is that people’s strategies come into conflict. But underneath that are underlying needs and interests that can essentially could be met in a lot of different ways.

Gary Price: Learning productive ways to resolve conflicts is beneficial, though it can be uncomfortable for all the parties involved. Emotions can run high, and this can be off-putting for individuals who don’t like confrontation. Caspersen says that if you tell someone in a conflict to “quit being hysterical,” and they keep those emotions to themselves, you could be losing some valuable information that could help in the resolution…

Dana Caspersen: The emotions themselves are part of the way that we think, they’re part of our intelligence, so we need to be able to let them do their work, which is to give us a signal that something else is important to us. We feel angry because we care about this; we feel frightened because this is important to us. And to be able to acknowledge an emotion in a way that doesn’t either suppress it or escalate it. So, for example, saying the difference between saying, “Will you just calm down, you know you’re acting like a 3-year-old,” or saying, “It sounds like you’re furious about this, what’s most important to you?” So maybe emotions help us get to what really matters in the situation.

Gary Price: Dr. Judith Wright agrees. She’s an author, corporate consultant, and founder of Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, where she also teaches. She says that in an intimate relationship, it’s okay to be emotional and get things off your chest, but be careful of how you say it…

Judith Wright: But emotions are part of fighting, so your anger, your fear, your hurt, your sadness, your joy – all those feelings need to be shared, and fighting is one of the ways that those things come out. So having your emotions as part of it is important. But also one of the things that can be really destructive isn’t so much what you say, if you say it with contempt, or disgust or distain, that real dismissing way that’s one of the things that can be pretty dangerous in a relationship. That can cause a lot of damage or scar tissue in a relationship. So it’s more about you know, “I’m hurt by this, I’m angry about that,” and having some venom isn’t so terrible if you can really keep somewhat responsible, and if you’re not, clean it up pretty quickly.

Gary Price: Wright adds that stewing about a problem and holding it in will only make things worse…

Judith Wright: You can get a little distance sometimes so maybe you can say it a little more responsibly, but we have to express ourselves. Not expressing, not fighting, not talking, creates a lot of distance. And oftentimes we get resentments that build up, there’s a coldness, there’s a distance. I mean, maybe a couple’s not fighting, but it could be that they’re giving each other the silent treatment, which is just as damaging as being able to say things out loud with some emotional tone to it.

Gary Price: Listening carefully to the other person is also crucial. Caspersen says that interrupting them to get your own point across shifts the focus of the meeting on to you, and makes them feel like you don’t care about their opinion…

Dana Caspersen: And one thing that is most important to people in conflict is to know that they’ve been heard. That you’re listening to them and that you’re hearing what they care about whether or not you agree with it. And the other thing is that in conflict people are often expressing themselves in ways that make it very difficult to hear them, to hear what’s important to them. And so one of the basic practices of this book, is to get used to asking yourself the question is, “What would this sound like if it was said without attack?” So translating what people are saying, temporarily ignoring the attack, and really focusing our attention in what they care about, what the important information is that’s going to help us move toward solution.

Gary Price: Often, at work and at home, an individual who is upset with a situation will bend the ears of their co-workers and friends. Caspersen says this strategy is unproductive and doesn’t get to the root of the problem or its resolution…

Dana Caspersen: Figure out what the real problem is, and then opposed to ranting about it to other people or approaching it in a passive-aggressive way, or complaining about the person to others, that you go to the person, you bring up the real issue at hand, and have the direct conversation that’s going to have the most effect. Because a lot of times conflicts become more escalated when we drag other people into them that actually are not involved in the conflict itself.

Gary Price: Wright says that in her own life, she has discussed conflicts with others, but not to complain to them or try to get them on her side…

Judith Wright: Oftentimes you’re just trying to get somebody to back you up and it can cause this kind of drama triangle, you feel ganged up on, whatever. At the same time, sometimes if you can get another person that has some perspective to help you both see things, can be helpful which is why counseling or coaching can be helpful. But what I did in the beginning of our relationship – and I would get so upset with my husband and I didn’t know how to express it – I didn’t want to go just go gossip about him with my girlfriends and get them to agree that, you know, he was a jerk or something, I really wanted to resolve it. So I kind of declared that you know if I’m going to talk to somebody I either have to talk to somebody who also loves my husband, or really has perspective, a professional or something. I would sometimes call his mother or sister, not to just complain about him, but to really try to get a perspective, and I found that had a lot more integrity. I didn’t know what I was doing necessarily in the relationship, and I needed somebody to get perspective, and that was helpful.

Gary Price: Both Caspersen and Wright say that sometimes it’s best to take a time out…but not to let the problem drop if it’s important to you…

Dana Caspersen: Certainly there’s times when it’s not a great moment to try to talk about it, if someone is too upset. And how we approach that can either make it worse or better. So if we say, “I’m not going to talk to you about his because you’re just going to freak out again,” then that’s like we can escalate them, it casts them as being incapable of dialogue. But if instead we would say “Okay, it looks like you’re pretty upset about this, I’m having a hard time talking about this right now. Can we make an arrangement to talk about this in a couple of hours?” something like that. So acknowledge the emotion. We acknowledge the person as capable of doing it as some point. And say, and ask, “Would this be better if we talked about this later?”

Judith Wright: I had to do this in our relationship with my husband. He was much more verbal than I, and he would ask me a lot of questions, and it felt like he was just coming at me and I would get kind of frozen and freeze, and feel like, oh, defensive. We have an arranged signal, okay it’s time for a timeout. I would take a timeout. And what that did, it helped me understand wait a minute, what’s going on with me? Why am I so upset about this? What’s triggering for me? What’s at the heart of this? And I could get to that heart of the fight, and get to my deeper yearning and what this symbolized for me, then I can go back and share more vulnerably with him. Those were some of our most productive fights, because they were more honest they’re more true about what was going on. And that timeout wasn’t just to punish my husband or push him away, it was for me to get clearer on what I was really feeling and what was going on so I could share more truthfully and vulnerably with him.

Gary Price: Speaking of honesty, Wright says that truthfulness is one of the most important elements for both sides to remember in a conflict…

Judith Wright: Express and agree with the truth, always. Tell the truth. If you’re in a conflict and your partner or someone says something that’s true, even if it bugs you, admit it, “Yeah, good point.” “You’re right.” Or even begrudgingly give them the point. “You know, you’re right, and I don’t want to give you that satisfaction, but I have to admit it’s true what you just said.” Getting to the truth can really to start to unlock things. We’re all so hungry to be affirmed in a fight, and if somebody keeps denying the reality of it, it’s kind of crazy-making.

Gary Price: Since conflict is a normal part of life, is it a good idea to create a time and place to regularly get things out in open? To discuss what’s bugging you? Wright says it’s a great idea for confronting those nagging problems head on…

Judith Wright: On the couples that we coach they all do weekly dates, and sometimes that’s for dinner and a movie. But oftentimes they also have a weekly meeting, sometimes part of the date, sometimes it’s Saturday breakfast, however they decide. But they go through several things, like okay what worked for me this week? Or what did I love about how you were with me, and what didn’t I like, and what’s bugging me. And they clear the air. And they also then make a plan for the next week of how they want to be together, what they’re afraid of the next week in their work, or their career or their family, and what they can help each other with. And they use these as empowering kinds of dates together. But always important like, “What’s been bugging me that I haven’t brought up?” and get a time to bring that up. So you can really stay current so these things don’t build and become bigger issues. It’s a really good idea.

Gary Prince: Caspersen addresses this strategy at the end of her book, and thinks it’s a great idea for those couples who plan a regular “date” around it…

Dana Caspersen: Expect and plan for future conflict, which is such a useful event and it sounds like that’s what they’ve done and that’s fantastic. They said we’re likely to have ongoing things, little or big, let’s meet every week and just make sure we get it out of the way. So they’ve already undercut the possibility of festering conflict and they’ve found a way to bring it into the open, to talk about it continually, which is great.

Gary Price: What if a conflict isn’t resolved to your satisfaction? Do you ever just give in? Caspersen says that if a conflict is not resolved to your satisfaction – or at all – let it go for a while…

Dana Caspersen: It depends how important it is to you. So if it’s something that you really care about, and the solution that has been reached is not an effective one, then I would go back and say, “Okay, we talked about this, and I’m finding that the solution we came up with doesn’t really work for me and here’s the reason. This is what I care about, this is how the solution works in relationship to that. Would you be willing to talk again about if we can find a better way to deal with the situation?”

Gary Price: You can read up on Dr. Judith Wright, and her work on her websites, Judith Wright – with a “w”—dot-com, and Wright Living.com. For a workbook on how to resolve conflicts productively at home or at work, pick up Dana Caspersen’s book, “Changing the Conversation,” at stores and online. She also invites listeners to her website at Dana Caspersen.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. I’m Gary Price.

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