Sunday, January 13, 2013

Conflict Management The Prophetic Way Part 4

My previous three posts on the modes, sources, and objects of conflict provide a framework for managing conflicts. The challenge is to put them to action, especially with difficult people. What if the conflicting party has chosen an aggressive, non-cooperative path - someone who is intent on humiliating you, and has become very emotional?

You may have observed that the title of this series is ‘Conflict Management’, not ‘Conflict Resolution’. The title was chosen intentionally, because I don’t think that all conflicts can be resolved, especially with stubborn, violent, arrogant, or fearful people. In conflicts with such people, the mode of avoidance or accommodation may minimize damage, but it can be emotionally distressing when these people are close relatives such as a parent, child, or spouse. Moreover, if the conflict is occurring in a public setting, avoidance or accommodation can spell humiliation.

Another problem with constantly avoiding or accommodating is that people will try to push the limits to see how far you’ll go in avoiding or accommodating. First he will yell at you, and if you tolerate that, then he will insult you, and if you tolerate that, then he will beat you...

I do believe, however, that most conflicts can be resolved, even with difficult people. At least, conflicts can be managed to mitigate its negative impact and consequences. One fundamental way this mitigation can be achieved is through managing the emotional level during a conflict.

In a conflict, emotions are aroused, and once they exceed a certain threshold level, emotions take over a person, and their rationality and logic shut down. With people in this state, engaging in dialogue and debate is meaningless. But the trick is not to let emotions escalate past that threshold level in the first place.

When the emotional thermostat starts to rise, the way to keep it below boiling point is to empathize - to show empathy. Empathy refers to the ability to an understanding of what the other person thinks and feels. In other words, when you empathize, you demonstrate your recognition of a person’s position and concerns, and a person’s emotions.

The first step to empathy is active listening - to search for the conflicting party’s positions, concerns, and emotions through their words, non-verbal cues, tone, behaviour etc. Active listening can be challenging because people have become habituated to not actively listen, lest they accept and embrace the conflicting party’s position. For such people, listening is an act of critiquing the other person's position, rather than a mechanism for deriving empathy.

The second step is to acknowledge the conflicting party’s content and emotion. Acknowledgement doesn’t imply agreement or acceptance. It conveys understanding - understanding of three matters:
  • That they feel strongly
  • What they feel strongly about
  • Why they feel strongly about it
By acknowledging another person’s content and emotions, you acknowledge the person. You show that he/she matters to you. You give him/her the gift of your attention. You show the person that he/she has been heard. And if your acknowledgement explains his/her content and emotions better than he/she can express it him/herself, you build his/her confidence in you.

The fruit of acknowledgement is that it helps diffuse the emotion, the person feels obligated to reciprocate, and you prepare the ground to present your own case, your own feelings.

Empathizing is not easy. It requires control of one’s own emotions and guarding one’s emotions from being influenced by another’s emotional state. It requires that one not be presumptuous or judgemental. Sometimes it requires that a person apologize for any wrong done despite the other person’s aggressive, inappropriate behaviour.

Here are some key phrases to express acknowledgement:
  • So you are proposing... well that’s one option. Another option that I propose ...”
  • I understand that on the one hand, you... one the other hand, I ….”
  • You see things as … I see it differently ...”
  • I apologize for ... my concern is ...”
  • I can see that you feel ... and I understand that. My feeling is that...”
Once you have expressed empathy, the path has been made clear to communicate your own position, concerns, feelings.

Some guidelines for communicating your view are the following:

  • Shift the:
    • discussion from positions to concerns
    • attitude from judgement to curiosity
    • focus from fixing the blame to fixing the problem
    • response from defending to proving understanding and then asserting one’s own position and concerns
  • Be solution oriented rather than merely explanation oriented. Explanation oriented thoughts sound like:

    • It’s not my fault
    • They should change
  • Solution oriented thoughts sound like:
    • How am I contributing to this situation?
    • How can I help solve/manage the problem?
    • How can I bring out the best in the other person?
  • Your response should:
    • Clarify your feelings
    • Express your concerns
    • Be firm but respectful
    • Present your view after referring to their view 
In his Seven Habits, Stephen Covey summarized everything I have mentioned in six words - “Seek to understand, then be understood.”

But what if the opposing person is just so hard-headed that having a dialogue with him/her is next to impossible, or dialoguing with him/her will just make things worse? I’m sure we’ve interacted with such people. I’ve asked around about this, and here’s what I’ve come up with. A person usually doesn’t want to dialogue with you because he/she doesn’t value your position, because he/she doesn’t hold you in any esteem. So rather than tackling the conflict at hand, you have to step away from it and change his/her paradigm about you. And the way to do that, is through responding to his/her ill attitude with beautiful behaviour, character, and actions. Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate.” [41:34]

It took me a while to deeply appreciate this prescription. It’s quite difficult to be good in the presence of evil, but we have an example to look up to...

Abu Hurayra related that a bedouin came asking for something from the Prophet . He  gave the man something and said, "Have I been good to you?" The bedouin said, "No, you have not and you have not done well." The Muslims became angry and went for him. The Prophet  ﷺ indicated that they should hold off. Then the Prophet  got up and went into his house. Then the Prophet  sent for him and added something to his gift and said, "Have I been good to you?"The bedouin replied, " Yes, may Allah repay you well in family and tribe." The Prophet ﷺ said, "You said what you said and that angered my Companions. If you like, say what you said in my presence in their presence so as to remove what they harbour in their breasts against you." He said, "Yes." He came back later and the Prophet ﷺ said, "This bedouin said what he said and then we gave him more. He claims that he is content. Isn't that so?" He said, "Yes, may Allah repay you well in your family and tribe." The Prophet ﷺ said, "The example of this man and me is like a man who has a she-camel who bolts from him. People chase it and they only make it shy away more. The owner calls to them to stay clear of him and his she-camel, saying, 'I am more compassionate and better to it than you.' He goes in front of it and takes some clods of dirt and drives it back until it comes and kneels. He saddles and mounts it. If I had given you your heads when the man said what he said, you would have killed him and he would have entered the Fire."(Al-Bazzar)

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