Friday, December 14, 2012

Conflict Management, The Prophetic Way Part 3

In the previous two posts on conflict management, I presented the five modes of approaching conflict, and the six sources of conflict. In this post, I'll be discussing the two objects of conflict: positions and concerns. By distinguishing between the two, and shifting the object of conflict from positions to concerns, management of conflict and negotiation can become more likely.  

Positions are the 'what' of a conflict - a proposed solution, demand, belief, stance.  

Concerns are the 'why' beneath the 'what' - the needs, fears, interests, aspirations, perceptions.  

For example, a position would be 'I worship idols.' The counter position would be, 'There is only one God worthy of worship.'   

The underlying concern for the former position would be:   
·        Honouring the religion of one's forefathers  
·        Financial setback  
·        Loss of status / position  
·        Undue hardship   

The underlying concern for the latter would be:  
·        Liability in the court of God  
·        Success in every way in this world and the next  
·        Fulfilling the purpose of our existence, which is to know God  

When the object of the conflict is a position, people react aggressively and/or defensively to maintain their position, because no one likes to believe that his/her position is incorrect, irrational, or inconsistent. Consequently, position-based conflicts can get heated, hard feelings can linger, and resolutions are less likely to occur. Moreover, in defending their position, the conflicting parties may incorrectly assume each other's underlying concernsthus widening and deepening the conflict 

On the other hand, people can be open to negotiate the concerns underlying their positions. And when concerns are recognized and addressed, changing positions becomes a possibility. This is the essence of concern-based conflict. This is why the Prophet   would assure leaders, whether they were the nobles from the Quraysh, or the kings of Persia and Rome, that by becoming Muslim, they could keep their wealth, empire, and position in this world, and have salvation in the hereafter. He was addressing the leaders' concerns for the worldly implications of becoming Muslim, not their position of following another religion. Unfortunately, arrogance, stubbornness, and external pressures prevented most leaders from embracing Islam.  

Therefore, the key to conflict management is to make the object of the conflict concerns rather than positions.  

Let's take a simpler example of a conflict to illustrate. Suppose that Zaid and Sara are shopping for a sofa set. They have been searching for a while but haven't found anything. When they go to Ahmad's Furniture Store, Sara finds a sofa that she says she likes, but Zaid doesn't like it. Their discussion over the sofa turns into an argument - Sara tells Zaid that he's stalling, doesn't have proper taste, and that his parents never taught him anything about home décor; Zaid says that she's being impatient, doesn't see anything special about the sofa, and that she has to leave the final decision up to him. Ding ding ding! In this corner of the ring, we have... 

This conflict is essentially a position-based conflict, and consequently, Zaid and Sara don't live happily ever after - yet. Let us dissect Zaid and Sara's arguments and unearth what their concerns may be. 

Sara's concerns may be that she feels embarrassed when guests visit their home and she has no place to seat them. She may also feel the sofa searching is taking away from her other responsibilities. She may also have an interest in purchasing a trendy sofa set - not the bland & bulky sofa set that her in-laws have.  

Zaid may be concerned about cost. He may also be concerned about the maintenance of the sofa - a microfibre sofa may be difficult to clean, and his older brother's kids have a record of being careless with food. Finally, he may be concerned that his position of authority, being the husband, is not being respected. 

Take 2: 

When they go to Ahmad's Furniture Store, Sara finds a sofa that she says she likes, but Zaid doesn't like it. So Zaid asks Sara, "What do you like about it?"  

"I like the look of the sofa  - it's the type that I've seen in the 'home' magazines,She says. 

"But we saw a similar sofa in Amr's furniture for less - and to be honest, I'm concerned about how durable this fabric will be. You know, with all of bhai's kids..." 

"Well, we can put a cover on it. Anyway, I know we saw this sofa at Amr's furniture, but I'm concerned about how long this is taking, and about this back and forth. I think we should choose a sofa and move on, it's taking too much of our time, and our guests have no place to sit," Sara replies. 

"Yeah, I thought bhai would come over less without the sofas, but obviously that's not deterring him... I guess he can't resist your cooking," Zaid chuckles. 

The tension in Sara's face melts into a smileand then she says, "I know my cooking is good. Ok, so what are we waiting for?" 

"I say we go back to Amr's furniture store, tell him to add some stain guard, and bargain the price down some more. I don't want to pay what Ahmed's store is charging. 

"Alright, but let's head there now." 

There are a few points to take away from this fictitious incident. Rather than attacking Sara, Zaid focussed on Sara's interest in the sofa - her concern for style. That then allowed Zaid to express his own concern. Sara was able to partially address his concern about the sofa's durability, and conceded to Zaid's concern over price, while Zaid respected Sara's concern over time consumption. 

This incident also illustrates the different types of concerns one may have: 

Substantive concerns are some tangible outcome, such as income, a degree, time with family, a flight ticket, etc. Sara's substantive concern was time and style. Zaid's substantive concern was price and durability. 

Procedural concerns relate to the process of the conflict, such as a fair trial, simple steps, respectful conduct, etc. For example, Zaid's procedural concern may to ensure that they explore all possible options before choosing a sofa. 

Psychological concerns relate to the preservation of one's reputation and need for respect, such as the portrayal of being a loving husband, being smart, being hardworking, not feeling tricked, not feeling bullied or disrespected, etc. These concerns relate to the three destructive sources of conflict (history, personality, values). For example, Zaid'psychological concern may be respect for his leadership role in the family. 

Procedural concerns and psychological concerns can normally be accommodated without any risk or harm (other than, perhaps, a damaged ego). Procedures can be adapted to accommodate all parties, and psychological concerns can be addressed through showing recognition, choosing appropriate words, changing tone, making clarifications, etc. Substantive concerns, however, which are of a tangible nature, can be more difficult to accommodate, and often a compromise must be negotiated. Sara had to compromise her desire to purchase the sofa before her, while Zaid had to compromise his desire to shop around some more. One method for strengthening one's negotiating power over a substantive concern is through addressing the conflicting party's procedural or psychological concerns. 

Zaid and Sara's conflict also shows that a position can have multiple, interrelated concerns. Often, during negotiations, one has to distinguish between concerns that can be compromised with those that cannot.

An effective concern-based conflict requires one to listen carefully at what the underlying concerns are. But if the concerns are not apparent, there is an easy way to bring them to the surface - ask! Ask the opposing party, 'what is your underlying concern?' In fact, even if one thinks they know what the other party's concerns are, it is best to confirm them. So common is the following remark (or the like of it) during family conflicts: "You just don't understand me!" i.e., "You don't understand my concerns!" 

My next post will discuss the role of emotion in conflict - and how to manage it, inshaAllah. 

Oh yeah - Sara and Zaid did get a nice sofa with stainguard at a discounted price, and did live happily ever after :)

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