Going Under the Conflict

Einstein is credited with saying that “you cannot resolve a conflict at its own level.” The point for us in Einstein’s words is that when it comes to dealing with conflict, we need not only breadth of understanding but depth as well. That means recognizing that conflict has an inner life and being open to that dimension. Repeatedly, we find that the basis for resolving conflict comes from examining with the parties, as best as we are all willing and able what underlies their dispute.

With this fourth principle, our focus returns to understanding but at a deeper level. A deeper level of understanding can make all the difference and therefore merits a special place in our core principles. The inquiry into what lies beneath takes place in each aspect of the conflict.

First, we work with the parties to understand what underlies the substance of the conflict. As we noted earlier, we help both sides identify what is truly important to each in the dispute—not only what they want but why they want it. In more traditional approaches, understanding is directed more to the surface of the problem—most frequently, how much money one side wants and how much the other is willing to give—as the professionals apply pressure on the parties to move to a compromise solution.

As we seek to deepen the parties’ understanding of what lies under the surface of their conflict in terms of the substance of their conflict, the goal is for the parties to ultimately be able to take each other’s views into account along with their own as the foundation for a solution that is individually suited to all parties. When the pressure is lifted and understanding is expanded and deepened, many mediations result in creative ideas that neither party had considered before the mediation began and that are ultimately more satisfying to each of the participants.

That is so because while conflict can be multi-layered and complex, certain restrictive patterns of behavior and ways in which people experience conflict play out frequently, but their source is usually hidden from view. Just as the roots of a tree hidden below the earth are the powerful life force to what we see above, what lies under the conflict is what gives it shape and force. Conflict is rarely just about money, or who did what to whom. It also has a subjective dimension—the emotions, beliefs, and assumptions of the individuals caught within the conflict. This subjective dimension includes feelings, such as anger and fear, the need to assign blame, and the desire for self-justification. It is also grounded in certain assumptions about the nature of conflict that support the conflict and keep it going, such as the reliance on right and wrong. These are conflict’s terms, and we join together with the parties in challenging those terms.

Beliefs about how conflict should be resolved need to be addressed if people are to move beyond the places where they have become stuck. Typically, these include the belief that the other person, or the other’s position, must change, the need to protect oneself against risk, or the belief that an authority must make the final decision.

What often leaves both sides stuck in the conflict is that the subjective assumptions, attitudes, and feelings on one side are usually matched by similar ones on the other. Anger engenders anger, blame is answered by blame; efforts at self-protection on one side compel a similar reaction by the other in what often becomes ricocheting and escalating reactivity. The subjective dimension underlying conflict is not only at work for the parties, but is also very much present for the mediator and other professionals involved. Appreciating what is going on within us as conflict professionals—our judgments about one or both parties, identification with one or the other, anger or fear, or compassion and empathy—can hold the key to our work with the parties. Our view is that an inescapable and critical relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of conflict needs to be understood to effectively deal with most conflicts. Many approaches to conflict focus on one to the exclusion of the other, leaving out this essential inter-relationship. We believe the challenge is to understand both and their relationship. Put simply, to resolve conflict, it helps to understand it.