Why I Work with People in Conflict by Catherine Conner

They weren’t that unusual.  Many couples have learned how to push each other’s buttons, particularly when in conflict, and they were experts.   There had been a lot of tension between them in the beginning, but it had eased considerably and in the last meeting, there seemed to be a new tone in their communication.   Our meeting was to fine-tune the last details of their agreement and I wasn’t expecting their regression to their earlier pattern of anger and hostility.  By the end of the meeting, I was exhausted.

After a short lunch break, I had a meeting on another case with my client, his fiancé and her lawyer to discuss their premarital agreement.  The atmosphere was dramatically different.   We raised questions and brainstormed ideas about possible subject areas of their agreement.  They were happy, generous and attentive.  At various times, one would turn to the other and tell him or her that an idea was not appropriate because it wasn’t fair to him or her.  Together we worked through a few areas in which they had felt stuck in their private discussions.  By the end of the meeting, I was rejuvenated.

On my way home, I started thinking about what it would be like to work all the time with people who were happy, generous and attentive.  I could hear someone asking “wouldn’t that get boring?”  My answer – “I don’t think so.”  I imagined going home every day with the feeling I had after the meeting with the engaged couple.  And sighed.

So why do I choose to work with people in conflict?  Why am I voluntarily spending my days with people who often have very strong and challenging emotions and dynamics and that can leave me exhausted?  I have asked myself that many times before and asked it again.

Since my youth, I have been troubled by humanity’s resort to violence to resolve conflict.  While I can cognitively understand why individuals or groups end up in violent conflict, to my heart it remains an inexplicable mystery.  And a little piece of my heart breaks every time I hear about such violence.  By working with people in conflict and helping them to reach agreements in a different way, I am doing my little part to change the way people approach conflict.  Maybe the next time they are in conflict with someone else, it will be a little different.  Maybe they will talk to someone else about how they worked through conflict with less harm to each other.  I hope that the work I do in working with people in conflict and teaching professionals how to work with people in conflict will ripple out from my little pebble in the pond to larger waves in our world.  And reflecting and reminding myself about this keeps me going on those tough days when I am exhausted and heals my broken heart.

For more about motivation when working with people in conflict, see the June edition of the newsletter of the Center for Understanding in Conflict.