When I teach conflict resolution skills for individuals to use in their everyday lives, one of the most fundamental—and difficult—principles I teach is not to take the approach of our legal system. What does that mean? It means that when we are having a disagreement with someone, our tendency is to “make our case.” We have a list of reasons we are right and the other person is wrong. We compile evidence. We convince ourselves that we just need to present this evidence to the other person and they will see the error of their ways. They will get that they are wrong.
This does not work.
Nonetheless it is the approach most of us use. So what should we do instead? What actually works? Listening to the other person. Unfortunately, listening is hard. We will hear things that upset us. We will want to interrupt. To correct misinterpretations and misimpressions. To bring up our evidence. But we can’t do that. Listening that works means that we have to listen in order to understand the other person. We have to actually try to get what they are saying, why they think what they do and what they are feeling.
That last part is important. We are not always the rational decision-makers the legal system would have us believe. Conflict is emotional. That’s a major reason “making our case” doesn’t work. I mediate “adult family” conflict, where adult siblings are fighting over things like whether mom should be in a nursing home or why dad cut someone out of his will. It doesn’t take much for longstanding emotional conflict to appear.
That makes listening difficult. And it makes resolving conflict on your own difficult. Even when you’ve taken a conflict resolution class, the other person probably hasn’t, which means they’re not handling the conflict in a way that makes it any easier to resolve. A mediator can make it a lot easier for everyone to listen and for everyone to be heard. And integrative mediation is particularly good at this. A mental health professional has the expertise to help work through the emotional aspects of conflict while a lawyer or financial professional can keep everyone on track to resolve the practical issues.
Whether you are trying to resolve conflict on your own or working with integrative mediators, remember that you will get a lot further with listening than you will with making your case.