Moving Beyond the Need to be Right: Turning Conflict into Collaboration

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November 7, 2013

Over the last 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with individuals, couples, families and businesses on developing and utilizing effective conflict resolution strategies.  I’ve seen hundreds of well-intentioned and good people get stuck in the need to be “right.”  In any kind of conflict, there is by definition, what seems to be at least two competing needs, yours, and the other parties.  That is where people get stuck; if we view conflict as two competing sides, then the only outcome is “win-lose.”  That is the very reason so many conflicts become out of hand, and fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion.  In the traditional model of conflict, there must be one right, and therefore the other is wrong.  Well, who’s going to want to be the wrong one?  So if we can shift our thinking to looking deeper at what our needs really are, we will often see that in many cases, it really may not be two competing needs, but rather both parties have the same goal; to work, live, grow, or love together, but they just can’t see it because they are blinded by thinking they MUST be right.  

So how do we move beyond the “win-lose” model?  It is a matter of self-focus.  When faced with a conflict, one must look beyond the need or desire to be right (or not to be wrong) and ask oneself, “What do I really need in this situation?” I believe that most often, if both, or even one party can do this, then successful resolution will happen. Sometimes this will happen because you will both realize that you are on the same team, wanting the same outcome, but just with different ways of thinking about how to get there.  Once you move from that win-lose stance, and realize you are working toward the same goals, you can let down your guard enough to really hear the other person’s ideas and perspectives, and join  toward the best outcome.  Another thing that can happen is that when you are able to understand what your own needs are well enough to communicate them effectively to the other person, the other person may be able to see that your need in this particular circumstance may be more than their own, and they may be willing to acquiesce.  Now I’m not talking about conflict avoidance, where one person decides to just give in, I’m talking about truly hearing and understanding the other person’s need, and assessing how you want to respond to that.  

I want to take a moment to talk about a very particular kind of conflict, that between parents and children.  How often do we find ourselves in heated arguments with our children over homework, cleaning their room, bedtime routine, or whatever other daily issues may arise?  If your house is anything like mine, the answer is often!  What often happens in these conflicts?  You end up frustrated and angry, your child ends up shut down, and there you are, at a stalemate, with everyone feeling bad.  I want to offer an alternative way of thinking about these conflicts.  On the surface, we think that what is happening is that, once again, our child is procrastinating on homework, or throwing his clothes on the bathroom floor yet again, or any number of other offenses.  We think that our trigger is that they are being oppositional or careless or lazy, and so we get angry.  Conflict ensues.   

Here’s a different way of reflecting on these kinds of situations.  I believe that underlying much parent-child conflict is anxiety and shame.  The anxiety is the parent’s: If my child doesn’t do their homework, clean their room, learn to follow the rules, they will not have a good and productive and successful life.  Yes, we parents really do tend to catastrophize, don’t we?  The shame is the child’s: My parent is angry with me, I should already know how to do this, I am bad.  So let’s shift this model to something productive.  Parents: when you find yourself triggered by something your child is doing or not doing, try to ask yourself, what am I really reacting to here, and is my worry justified?  Then, think about what your child needs to learn from you to do what you want them to.  Do they need you to guide them step by step (for the umpteenth time!) on how to fold their clothes?  Or how to write down their assignments properly in their homework planner? Or how to organize their work into manageable chunks?  Once you have figured out what they need you to teach them, you can help them learn, and you can let them know explicitly that there is no need for shame or upset on their part, that you are not criticizing them, you are wanting to help them lean new skills so they can be more successful at doing the things they have to do.  In that way, you can move win-lose into win-win.  So next time you find yourself triggered into conflict, take a moment to self reflect, ask yourself what your need or worry really is, and find a way to communicate that, and to teach the other what you really need them to know.  Try it – it just might be win-win!