Archives for Building Skills in Conflict Resolution,

Empowering Questions

Sometimes the question is more important than the answer.  How can we discern what questions to ask?


This is a companion post to my earlier article,  Compassion in Listening

In Compassion in Listening, I wrote about the basic idea that when we listen to others, we are not fully available to hear what they are trying to express unless we clear our minds of our preconceived notions and ideas about what they are going to say.   In other words, we must open our minds to hear what they truly want to express, rather than just listening for what we want to hear.

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Conflict Resolution Web Sites

Here are some web sites in conflict resolution that I personally enjoy reading or find useful   If you think there’s a site that should be added, feel free to let me know by leaving a comment here.

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Compassion in Listening

One of the interesting things that happens when one begins to coach others is that the skill being taught becomes embedded more deeply into one’s own, personal life.  As a conflict resolution professional, one of the main things I do is to coach people on how to listen to one another.  My experience is that really listening, and really hearing, is not easy and it’s not intuitive.  I certainly can’t claim to be a perfect listener.  All I can say is that I’m learning and getting better.

We all know, of course, that listening and hearing are required in order to understand the heart of what the “other” person is trying to communicate about their needs and interests that give rise to a conflict.  But often, in conflict scenarios, the parties are no longer in authentic communication.  Instead, they just talk past each other.  An additional challenge for a mediator, on top of getting the parties to listen to one another, is that it’s often the case that a person who is embroiled in a conflict situation and trying to communicate a general anger or other emotion doesn’t even fully understand his own reasons and needs, himself.  At such times, the mediator must listen twice as much.  Listen first in order to help the parties clarify what they mean and what they want to say.  Then, coach the parties in listening so that each can hear what the other is really trying to express and not just what they expect or want to hear.

Listening is a skill that takes practice, practice, practice!  The good news is that we can get better at it.

What are some tips and tools for listening?

One thing a good “listener” can do is to clean their own glass, to make the lens through which we see and hear things less intrusive.  In other words, when we remove our own preconceived notions, then we become enabled to hear more of what the other person is really trying to say and less of what we are expecting or wanting to hear.  A word to describe the process of removing one’s self (and one’s own responses) is the term “mindfulness”.  When we become mindful of our own biases, tendencies, and prejudices, then we are better able to account for those and to try to filter them out.  What the insightful mediator is doing is removing himself from the frame so that the party may have a clearer image in the mirror of his conflict and his own response to it.

The opposite of mindfulness is when we project a lot of ourselves into a conflict and hear only what relates to our own experience.  How many times have I (or you) listened to someone’s story and immediately knew what they should do?   Or how often have you heard a story and said, “The exact same thing happened to me!”  But, the exact same thing didn’t happen, and if the answer were truly so obvious the speaker would have found it already.  Personal mental responses like these are the mediation equivalent of raising a storm warning flag at a beach.  Friends who are in the position of listening to each other can be on the alert for these responses, too.  When I “know” what my friend ought to do, it means I haven’t removed myself from the story enough to really listen to them fully and presently.  If the answer is too obvious, there would be no conflict.  Since there is some countervailing view, if the answer seems too simple then it’s likely that some aspect of the conflict remains mis-understood.

Another way of knowing when we are putting too much of ourselves into a communication is when we feel tempted to interrupt, even if we only interrupt the person mentally and not physically.  How many times, when a friend is speaking, are you tempted to think ahead in your mind to how you will answer them rather than continuing to listen to them as they speak?  For me, this mental feeling is like having two lanes of traffic.  One lane of traffic in my mind is the stream of thought that is attentive to what my friend is saying, imagining with them what their experience is.  The other lane of traffic in my mind is to be thinking about how I am going to respond to what they’re saying: How does this relate to me, what I can I say about it to give them feedback?  The problem is,that mentally I can really only be in one car at a time.  If I’m already formulating the response to my friend, then I’m not really listening fully to them in the present, here and now.

So, next time your best friend is telling you about a situation and you’re tempted to give advice, think of this column.  Instead of projecting your own idea of “what is true,” or thinking “this happened to me,” and then telling the person what to do or giving them advice, try first to discern the reasons that their situation feels like to them.  Why do they perceive a conflict in the first place, what is that experience like for them?  What values, needs, and interests got them into the situation where they find themselves?

Most likely, there’s more to their situation than can be answered by a simple knee jerk reaction and response.  What our friend needs from us is not advice, but the feedback and mirroring to help them gain insight.  Then, with increased insight, our friend can find the answers from within themselves.  Answers that come from within and are authentic to lived experience are the ones that will be best in the long run.  So, the way to be a better friend is to help our friend develop capacity from within, not by imposing a solution from without.

How to do this?   Ask powerful, open ended questions of our friend, as a means to help uncover some of those underlying complexities, different perspectives, and ways of increasing understanding of the experience which is being communicated.


What’s Your “Plan B”?

I highly recommend the book The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes by William Ury.  (I’ve linked to the paperback edition on Amazon.)  I won’t try to review the whole book right now.  I just want to mention one concept that this book highlights that is crucial to negotiation.  Namely, the importance of having a workable “Plan B”.

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Protected: Breaking Impasse in Negotiations

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Keeping Communication Positive During Conflict

Treat others with kindness and respect:  Even when our feelings are anything but respectful, failure to treat the other side with respect will shut down communication.

Listen to the other person:  Eliminate distractions.  Do not interrupt.  Do not rush.  Give the person opportunity to truly speak what is on their mind and to be heard. With the practice of uninterrupted time, a listener can just listen and the speaker can speak without anxiety about interruptions.  Then, be open to hearing what the person really said:  do not allow preconceived projectons to interfere with listening and hearing what the person really said.  (No, this situation is not just like Minnie Mae’s last year, it is unique!)   The effectiveness and the quality of the communication increases enormously as a result of true listening.

Allow the other person to say nothing, or to pass:   This is a reflection of the principle that mediation must be voluntary and self determined.  Not giving someone the right to pass is a form of peer pressure.

Do not volunteer others to do something they have not already agreed to do:  The extra time and effort it takes to gain true consent (and avoid unwelcome surprises) builds trust, mutual respect, and ensures consensus.

Speak only for yourself and describe only facts:   Use statements that begin with “I” rather than “we”.  Avoid generalizations.  Do not ascribe thoughts or motives to others.  The only way to know what someone thinks or feels is to ask them.  Use of “I” statements also gives us a chance to internally review our own, internal response to the facts.

Speak, but not too often or for too long:  Aim to contribute information that is relevant and not redundant.  Show respect for others by giving them time and attention.

Challenge specific behavior, not the person:   Speak only to specific facts.  Avoid generalizations.

Maintain confidentiality:  Breach of confidentiality destroys trust.  If people fear their secrets and personal issues are going to be disclosed outside the mediation, they won’t feel safe to share their views and fears and ideas and vulnerabilities and mistakes.  Breach of confidentiality results in anger, distrust, and in disillusionment with the mediation process.

Allow yourself and others to make mistakes and to move on from them:  Blame, humiliation, and punishment do not repair or resolve problems.  Instead, these responses put people on the defensive and shut down  communication.  When mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning and positive growth, it is easier for participants to acknowledge that perhaps a mistake has been made and to move forward in more positive ways.

This blog post is based on writings of Alan Sharland that can be found at

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