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#19 Finding Common Ground: Negotiating and Resolving Conflicts (Part III)

In Coach’s Corner #17 and #18, we discussed these general principles:

1. Winning at the Expense of Others Is a Poor Solution

2. Look below the Waterline.

3. Building Trust Is Often the Key to Success

Next up:

4.You’re in Charge of Your Emotions, No Matter What the Provocation

An out-of-control reaction increases your provokers’ control over you---and may cause a similar response in them, sending all of you over the edge.

I’m not suggesting you become emotionally dead. Showing your human side---joy, sadness, excitement---can be crucial to sustaining the personal intensity you need when things get tough. And by showing your humanity, you invite others to respond in kind, creating the connections that will help you both reach for common ground. My experience is that the air of “professional detachment” that many lawyers and consultants adopt often prevents this from happening.

It’s letting fly with negative emotions, such as anger and frustration, that creates trouble. From my experience, when negotiations slide into conflicts and people get stuck there, often it’s not because they’re too dumb to figure out solutions, but rather because they can’t or won’t deal with their anger and frustration well enough to work things out. That’s true everywhere, from the Balkans to our own backyards.

Anwar Sadat once said that the Middle East conflict was intractable, but not because of specific points of contention, such as West Bank settlements and Jerusalem. What made it so difficult, he said, was decades of rage. Your situation may not be the West Bank, but the point’s still valid.

What’s Your Experience? Think of conflicts you’ve been in, at home, at school, at work---anywhere. Can you think of any that went on and on because people were stuck in anger and frustration they couldn’t get past?

Dealing with anger and frustration is almost always harder than dealing with the content of the conflict---especially if those emotions are tied to issues buried in the iceberg (Coach’s Corner #3). Not taking the easy way can require a lot of self-control, but there’s a lot to be said for being in charge of yourself instead of letting others jerk you around. And it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that lashing out will just make things worse.

What can you do the next time anger and frustration threaten to send a conflict you’re involved in over the edge?

Try This: Catch yourself. In that split second before you reply with a rash statement or action, remind yourself of what’s at stake. An out-of-control reaction from you increases the provoker’s control over you. It may destroy any chance for an intelligent solution. Is that worth the momentary satisfaction of letting fly with what you feel?

Once you’ve managed that crucial bit of hesitation, do what you have to do to stay cool---count to 10, breathe deeply, fiddle with your keys, pray… Take another look at the situation, this time trying to see it through the other’s eyes; he or she is probably not all wrong. And in any case, it doesn’t help to blame others for goading you into an angry response, no matter how bad their behavior might be.

Key Point: It’s fine to be tough as nails and to fight hard. But it’s not fine if that turns to hate and if your intensity is distorted to anger. It’s not fine if you engender hate and anger in others. Forget this and you undermine your own power, you invite burnout, and you sour your own spirit.

5. Acknowledge Past Wrongs and Hurts

If the conflict has been around long enough to generate wrongs and hurts, it’s important to acknowledge them, to apologize for any role in causing or supporting them, and even to make restitution if that’s called for. Unless the wrongs and hurts are all from one side, this effort needs to be mutual. Don’t hesitate to go first; your example may be the catalyst for others to act.

Acknowledgments and apologies help bring memories of past wrongs and hurts to the surface so that they can be dealt with openly---and forgiven if need be---instead of being left to sabotage negotiations from deep inside the iceberg. Acknowledgments, apologies, and forgiveness demonstrate honesty, convey respect, and open hearts, and because they do, they help build trust. Often they can lend new life to peacemaking efforts that have been stalled by mutual recriminations, whether voiced or silent.

Case Study: The Middle East

In the summer of 2003 I attended a weeklong gathering of Israelis and Palestinians on neutral ground in Switzerland, sponsored by an international conflict-resolution group called Initiatives of Change. The meeting started out angrily and continued that way until both sides agreed to simply let the people on the other side speak of the wrongs and hurts they felt, without interruption.

This unburdening took three days. At the end of that process---and, I think, as a natural consequence of it---representatives from each side apologized for the suffering that had been visited on the other. Instantly a connection was made that had not existed before. It did not create peace in the Middle East; none of those people were senior leaders. But all of them had influence, and the understandings they gained were shared in their respective societies.

What’s Your Experience? Think of a negotiation or conflict you’ve been in---maybe in your own home---where one or both parties apologized for past wrongs or hurts. What impact did that apology have on finding a solution?

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