When you can't let conflict drop



You hear often about the pain of being in conflict. But what about the pain of giving up conflict?

I recall a discussion I was involved in with some community mediator colleagues about a neighbour case one of them was mediating. It involved a lady, let’s call her Jane and her middle aged son, Jason, who were complaining about the young family next door. Whilst Jason was prepared to mediate, Jane wasn’t. My colleague tried to get to the bottom of her reluctance but couldn’t. Jane was not able to give a reason other than next door were the source of all her problems and she wouldn’t talk to them.

We were discussing the case to learn from it, in particular were there additional strategies that could have been used to overcome her reluctance? For us, it didn’t seem to make sense that you wouldn’t try to resolve something that is causing you so much pain. Of course we will never know why Jane wouldn’t try to mediate, and quite possibly she didn’t know herself. That was her decision to make and no-one can judge her for that. 

Jane had told our colleague she was experiencing a whole range of problems in her life. At the root of the issues according to Jane was the dispute with next door – her neighbours had become the reason for all the difficulties she was facing.

So when my colleague suggests that through mediation we can help remove this conflict, what he is hoping is that Jane sees a better life without the conflict. But her refusal suggests she doesn’t see a better life. We speculated that perhaps what Jane hears is ‘we can take away the reason you are giving for why you are feeling so bad’. What does that leave? It leaves Jane facing the possibility that there are other reasons for why she is not happy. And without next door to pin things on she will need to look elsewhere, and even consider how she herself could behave differently. 

Perhaps the pain of giving up the conflict was too much for Jane. The conflict was a comfort blanket, her protection against facing up to some uncomfortable truths. Perversely conflict with next door could even have given Jane a sense of righteousness and security – no wonder she couldn’t agree to the mediator helping to take the conflict away.

Of course this is all speculation, we can’t make assumptions about one particular person but it is a possible explanation. And for me it did seem to chime with other situations I’ve come across. I often see workplace cases where conflict has arisen because people have struck out against others to avoid facing potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves. An example might be some situations where a manager faces a bullying accusation after they try to raise an underperformance issue with an employee.

It is a natural response to want to blame, to defend and to find an excuse when we feel attacked. It is a natural response because as humans we are hard wired for self-preservation so in itself it is not a bad response. What we do need to do though is make sure we have perspective. That means stopping to reflect and consider if there is another view that also has merit. We need to question the automatic assumptions that we have made and try to see where the other person is coming from. Doing so will turn a defensive, aggressive response into an exploratory, problem solving approach.

Fortunately in the neighbour case Jason was more open to resolving the dispute. My colleague mediated the case with just him and the family and cleared up a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Jason was a lot happier – and we all hoped that despite not participating, Jane was too.