The Conflict Trap

Allowing conflict to victimize us and others leaves us trapped in its grasp and diminished by it. Challenging Conflict itself has provided us with tools for understanding it and for opening doors for ourselves, our clients, colleagues, and students that likely would not have occurred were it not for the power of that stance. What we have come to understand is that, if unexamined, conflict has a way of readily enveloping us and taking over our lives. When conflict takes over, it creates its own reality. It dictates the terms on which we experience a conflict as well as those on which we try to deal with it. And it often does so in insidious, unseen ways that make us and others hardly recognizable to ourselves, never mind to each other.

Within conflict’s grasp, it seems the only way out is to win through pressure, persuasion, or manipulation. Or dig in your heels and wait the other side out until they come around. And if you become enmeshed in a prolonged stalemate, you can at least feel the satisfaction of righteous victimization. If that doesn’t work, well surely, a third party decider will vindicate you, because indeed there is one right and one wrong, and you are the one who is right.

These are the terms that conflict presents. We don’t accept those terms, not because they don’t capture so much of the reality that we experience, but because they lead to a dead-end or lack of resolution and because they are woefully incomplete. If we accept them as the reality, we are trapped in conflict. We challenge those terms. It doesn’t have to be that way.

You might conclude from this that we mean to eliminate conflict because of the harm that it does. Not at all. That is neither possible nor advised. We believe that the problem is not conflict itself, but the willingness of people to accept conflict’s terms and succumb to its downward spiral. Conflict offers an opportunity  for people to enhance their lives and deepen their understanding of themselves, each other, and the reality that they experience. As you will see, that is an essential part of our definition of mediation for the parties to gain understanding of their conflict and use it to enhance their lives. Not that we recommend choosing conflict. It simply means when conflict enters our lives that we face it and try to find a way to move through it with understanding.

We seek to do that  by making the participants to a dispute aware of how they, both parties and professionals, can become ensnared in what we refer to as a conflict trap. With that awareness, we can use the conflict to bring out the best in ourselves, rather than spiral down to our worst. Seen in this way, conflict can become an invitation to accept the reality of our automatic response to it and move beyond the confines of that response, to rise to the challenge of finding within us the understanding and compassion that liberates us from conflict’s hold.