As much as possible, we need to allow others to be responsible for making their own decisions about how to resolve their conflicts. Of course, we advocate and defend the underprivileged, the aged, and children, but we must err on the side of not resolving rather than seeking to “save the day” for someone who might eventually blame us for the results of our advice, no matter how well-intention-ed.
As a mediator, my role is to remain as neutral as possible about conflict resolution outcomes while remaining an advocate for a healthy conflict resolution process. Regularly, individuals come to me seeking advice about interpersonal communication, legal issues, and general advice. While I am happy to suggest options or possibilities (outside of legal counsel), I must be wary about steering someone one way or another. Ultimately, each individual must be responsible for his or her own decisions.
For example, several months ago, a distraught middle-aged woman named Mary (names have been changed) came to me over a conflict she was experiencing about a casual business arrangement she had with a long-time friend. Communication between the two parties had broken down and her feelings were especially anxious and irritated. Given her agitation with recent contentious texts she had received from her friend, Jim, regarding their business agreement, I suggested that she could block texts on her phone if receiving them was causing her too much stress. Given her lack of technical knowledge and apparent desire to implement my suggestion, I showed her how to block the texts on her I-phone.
At the time, I did not realize how (negatively) influential my intervention with blocking the other party’s texts would be on the upcoming mediation between the two parties in a business arrangement. During the course of the mediation, which I arranged between the two parties, the issue of blocked texts came up as a relevant source of dispute. To my dismay, Mary had actually forgotten about the blocking of texts and insisted that she had never received communication from the other party. To disprove the accusation about his lack of communication with Mary, Jim flipped open his phone and immediately produced copies of the texts he had sent to her on the dates in question. Despite Mary’s forgetfulness of my “helpfulness” with showing her how to block texts, as the mediator, I had to openly admit to both parties that I had showed Mary how to block texts on her phone.
With my admission of communication interference before the actual mediation took place, I noticed a quick level of distrust enter the conversation. My intervention served not only as a wedge of distrust between both parties but tainted the entire mediation because I appeared biased and to be intervening on Mary’s behalf.
Despite later efforts to reconcile, Jim continued to distrust my efforts and referred back frequently to my text blocking intervention. Within days, he even turned from blaming Mary for their communication problems to treating me as the true culprit who interrupted a constructive exchange between the two parties. In the end, I could not overcome the effects of having given advice to one party over another; any help I offered to either party only further complicated and deepened their issues that now revolved more around me rather than the parties themselves.
Like the parties in the mediation, for people in conflict, there is a natural human tendency to want to be right and to avoid responsibility for the conflicts we face. The stories we tell ourselves about why certain conflicts occur center around facts or interpretations that keep us in the position of “good” people. We focus on facts that confirm our goodness or rightness because we like avoiding cognitive dissonance, a state where our beliefs and actions are not in line. (In brief, the theory suggests that with internal conflicts, either our beliefs must change to explain our current behaviors, or our behaviors must change to match our beliefs).
When we experience conflict, we may approach our loved ones or experts hoping to be justified in our “rightness” rather than truly seeking to resolve our conflicts for ourselves. We may also be trying to avoid responsibility for our part in the conflict because usually there is overlapping responsibility, even if unintentional. In the end, we may blame the failure of some kind of suggested solution on the very person we approached for help.
In terms of being the person approached for advice and counsel about a conflict, we often want to help our loved ones solve their problems like a person offering directions to someone lost on the street. Yet, if we give advice—no matter how “expert” we may be—we may later serve as the scapegoats for conflict, which becomes less likely to resolve.
In short, whether you are a conflict expert or a supportive friend or family member, be careful to not take over responsibility for resolving other people’s conflicts. To the best extent possible, listen, reflect, and reframe what you hear in confidence in order for the person with the conflict to best understand what he or she wants to do to resolve the conflict. In putting the responsibility squarely back on the person in conflict’s shoulders, you provide the means for the best conflict resolution result. The party in conflict is really the one that has to live with the consequences of the conflict and its resolution, so make sure that you keep that in mind.
In all of our helping others through difficulties, the greatest help we can offer is encouragement and support for the party in conflict to use all of his or her resources to resolve issues for him or herself. This stance does not reflect stoicism or harshness, but emphasizes the necessity for each of us to take responsibility for the conflicts we encounter in our lives.