Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship and in a recent post I shared 3 questions to ask yourself when you find yourself in a conflict situation. I appreciate that life isn’t as linear as a blog post and “3 questions” can come across as overly simplistic. So, based on a personal example, in this post I’d like to share what the questions look like in the real world.
The background and the situation
I work as a conflict mediator for a major EU institution and recently I was asked to travel to an African country. I was asked to mediate between a governmental body on one side and a large group of individuals from a very poor community on the other side. I’d travelled all the way from Luxembourg and when I arrived I called a meeting with all the individuals from this local community. I wanted to find out what was going on, what was the conflict about and learn much more about the history behind this conflict, the peoples’ interests etc. In other words, I wanted to find out Q1. What was actually going on, right in this moment?
It was Tuesday morning, I’d travelled a long way and was quite tired. I was not exactly used to living or even being in such an area like this – slums would be the word many westerners would use, police and army check points with machine guns pointing my way, sitting in a hot taxi, being asked for bribes. Together all of these things were making me nervous. I was definitely on unfamiliar ground and slightly tense … and there was NO-ONE at the meeting. Well, there were two people, but I had expected a hundred plus! My thoughts were “Come on, you were the ones who brought this HUGE conflict to me and my organisation’s attention. You said you wished it solved so we came, and now you are not even here! If this lethargy is typical of the community, how can I be that surprised by the destructive behaviours from the local authorities?!”
I started to get irritated, angry, and I could feel it growing. So I consciously took a deep breath, tried to clear my head and ask myself two questions – Q1 What was going on? and Q2 How did I feel?
Understanding yourself is the basis for resolving conflicts
The first thing that came to my mind was: “If I return to Europe and we have made no progress at all to try to solve this conflict my reputation and possibly my career will be in danger.” In other words, I was experiencing fear. The second thing that went through my mind is “I am quite angry. I spent time coming down here, and you are not even here! What sort of respect, or lack of, is that?”
I felt I had answered the first and the second question but knew something was missing. How did I really feel about it? Well, in this moment I did fear for my personal career AND I thought I felt angry because I felt the locals were disrespecting me and my efforts. I asked myself the question again and tried to look more closely into myself. Angry was how I was acting but when I thought things through more I realised the actual emotion for me, in this situation, was more like disappointment. I wanted to help and had expected more.
BUT, did the above reflections and emotions really give me a picture of what that little ‘meeting conflict’ was about? No, It didn’t!
The role of culture in conflicts
I looked again at what was going on… A meeting had been called. People were late, but then again, it’s Africa! They were running on ‘African time’ and I was running on ‘European time’. So it wasn’t personal nor was it a sign or rejection towards the mediation. We were just from two different cultures, with different expectations when it comes to time and punctuality. As for the risk of my career. Well, that is a systemic risk. It is always there, but it has nothing to do with the punctuality conflict at hand. I had 2 people out of a 100 for a meeting. That was a conflict, because 2 out of a 100 wouldn’t be able to give me a viable and complete picture of the conflict, nor could they be seen as representative of the local community which was required for the mediation to be effective. This conflict was however not at all related to a systemic risk back at home. As for the potential behaviour of the local authorities, that also wasn’t related to the conflict going on at this very moment. This was the norm.
My brain seemed to be working again …
Managing your 3 brains so they work together
Simply put our brain is split in three parts, the Neocortex (the reflective and analytical part and also the newest part), the Limbic System (the emotional part, experienced through our emotions) and the Brainstem (sometimes called the reptilian part which governs flight or flight instincts). By forcing myself to ask and re-ask the 2 questions (What is it actually going on, right in this moment?, and How do you feel in this moment?) I had effectively de-escalated myself. I had helped my struggling brain to work as a whole and not get stuck in the lower brain parts. I could calm myself down so I could engage effectively in the meeting … when it finally started.
By the way people did actually turn up. After one and a half hours!
That just left me with the last question … How was I going to turn the conflict?
For more information
Target Training has been delivering a range of conflict-related training solutions for the last 15 years. This includes “Handling critical conflict situations” and “Managing conflicts in virtual teams” . We also offer individual and team coaching solutions.
About the author
Preben is a professional mediator and conflict manager. He focuses on human interactions, such as management and leadership, intercultural relationships and interpersonal communication. Until recently he was a welcomed part of Target Training and today works for a major European institution. In his private life he enjoys karate, hiking and climbing.