For example, a couple of months ago, I had a professional experience that required me to suspend my disbelief in order to help others engage effectively in the mediation process:
After talking by phone with a disgruntled man who stated that “mediation would be a waste of his time,” I almost agreed with him. He was behaving so stubbornly and in such a patronizing way to me that I had begun to believe him. I almost allowed him to convince me that he could predict the ultimate outcome of the mediation process because of his current mood and behavior. Despite my gravitation toward this client’s negative viewpoint, I hesitated. And, I’m glad I did.
Before succumbing to his pessimism about the mediation process, I chose to discuss the specifics of the conflict case with my colleagues. One colleague, in particular, strongly encouraged me to at least get both parties into the mediation conference room to give the process a chance. So, I set up the mediation and primarily doubted what good it would do.
However, instead of failure, I witnessed a change not only in the most stubborn party but in those who had originally complained. They (and I) were shocked by how pleasantly and humanely they all interacted with each other once everyone was sitting across from each other in the mediation conference room. This doesn’t always happen, but it occurs more often than I had been willing to admit.
What is clear to me now is that I was about to decide both parties’ future for them even when I have an insider view of how effective mediation can be. Rather than judge the man’s ability to resolve conflict effectively by how he behaved during a phone call, I needed to allow him to act for himself within a situation that outlined clear boundaries and rules along with positive opportunities to communicate with the other party in the conflict.
While I have witnessed many different types of interpersonal conflicts and the varied ways people react to being in conflict with others. I believe that there are common tendencies that we need to first identify and, second, push back against in order to effectively work through conflicts.
First, we must identify the main culprits of our thought-processes that prevent us from even attempting to resolve conflicts with others. These tendencies may include:
- Relying mostly upon our past experience to judge current situations and/or future possibilities
- Succumbing to the fundamental attribution error
- Seeking to justify our positions rather than seeking to understand both sides of the conflict
To overcome these tendencies, we must begin by suspending our disbelief about those tendencies. We must actively push back against common patterns that prevent us from healing, reconciling, and renewing our relationships with each other.
What does it mean to suspend judgement with conflict resolution?
When we suspend judgement in resolving conflict, we allow ourselves and others the freedom to act in different ways that we may expect. We may even give the other person the benefit of the doubt: both our doubt about them and maybe even their own doubt about their ability or desire to change.
Pushing back against disbelief to resolve conflict
When we suspend our disbelief in conflict, we actively push back against the three mentioned tendencies that we can easily fall into. In the situation I shared upfront, I needed to push back on trying to define and predict how I thought someone would behave in an unknown situation. I also had to mentally push back against the desire to keep someone in a safe and understood category of “uncooperative” or “stubborn” and move them into a realm that is undefined because I cannot always predict the future.
(1) Relying mostly upon our past experience to judge current situations and/or future possibilities
Naturally, we often use the past to predict the future. The past often does help explain the present, which we then use to forecast probable future conditions. Yet, we are dynamic beings in dynamic environments with the ability to respond and change in marvelous ways.
Given those possibilities for future change, growth, and understanding, there are several other areas of doubt and disbelief worth pushing back against in order to resolve conflict. These include:
- We push back against the belief that people never change.
- We push back against the idea that most conflict resolution is just about beating the other side to help ourselves.
- We push back against the idea that if I win, you must lose, or vice-versa.
- We push back against the idea that there’s only so much of the pie to divide; that desired goods or services are finite.
In short, we push back against the idea that the future will only be a mere repeat of the past. Instead, we use our imagination and sense of determination to see diverse positive possibilities and outcomes.
(2) Succumbing to the fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error is a social psychology theory that suggests that we are susceptible to faulty judgement patterns when considering others’ negative behavior as opposed to our own. We are more likely to attribute another person’s flaw or fault to their character rather than acknowledge the role of circumstance in their actions and behaviors. For example, if someone is late to a meeting, we might judge that person to be lazy or disrespectful.
However, when we consider why we are personally late to the same meeting, the theory suggests that we will look to important circumstantial evidence to justify why we are late. We are much less likely to interpret our actions in terms of character but will tend to present outside factors such as traffic, the kids needing help with homework, or a last-minute call from a client as reasons for being late.
Naturally, each of us enter into, struggle with, and walk away from certain conflicts with ideas about the character of the parties we’re fighting with. First, we create stories to understand how we got into a conflict in the first place, which often focus on the character faults (not circumstances) of the other party. Then, we often try to project how things will play out in the future based on our judgement of the other person’s character. You an see how this can stymie efforts to resolve conflict. If it’s all about their faulty character, we feel powerless in changing someone’s entire personality or way of being.
Often, we begin acting on tendencies outlined in the fundamental attribution error when we are dealing with an emotionally challenging conflict. We may have a hard time imagining anything good about our nemesis.
To curb the effects of the fundamental attribution error, we choose to actively recognize and push back against our tendency to attribute conflicts or faults to the character of the other person. We also need to trust in a productive process, not just in our past experiences with the person(s) we’re in a conflict with.
(3) Seeking to justify our positions rather than seeking to understand both sides of the conflict
To successfully resolve conflict, we must learn to take the perspective of another person rather than just focusing on why we are right. To move past positions, we will likely have to try something new and make ourselves vulnerable in certain respects. Specifically, we might have to push back on old tendencies to merely justify ourselves rather than try to understand the other party’s position:
- We push back against our regular patterns for conflict resolution.
- We push back against the fear of trying something new in order to resolve conflict.
- We recognize that the other person has positive attributes or true logic for their feelings, thoughts, or behaviors
In short, we hope—and suspend doubt and disbelief about—that different processes might produce different results. Most of this change first takes place in our beliefs that we and others can actually change; we do not have to remain stuck in ineffective patterns. If we personally change, the whole conflict interaction can change.
Replacing Doubt with Productive Beliefs
When we don’t believe in something, we don’t act. But, if we have decided to push back against disbelief, we then need to focus on replacing our doubt with trust in effective processes and mindsets that lead to constructive change and greater connection with others.
Once I have suspended my disbelief in the three tendencies, what should I then believe in?
- The power of creativity when individuals in conflict connect and communicate effectively
- Our personal power to change relationships and conflict outcomes
- That we benefit by trying something new
- Through work, sweat, and labor, we get better results than just following instinct or old, unproductive patterns.
- Relying mostly upon our past experience to judge current situations or future possibilities
- Succumbing to the fundamental attribution error
- Seeking to justifying our positions rather than seeking to understand both sides of the conflict
However, despite how widespread some of these habits many be among us, we have the capacity to change our beliefs and the actions that flow from those beliefs. I trust that we are dynamic and, ultimately, creative beings. So, once we identify these discouraging tendencies within ourselves, we can actively push back against them and replace our doubt and disbelief with productive beliefs and participate in effective conflict resolution processes that will be discussed in future articles.