from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 1
Beyond Blame in Resolving Conflicts
Kottler is professor of counseling and educational psychology at
the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the author of 20 books on psychology and education.
This article is adapted from Beyond
Blame: A New Way of Resolving Conflicts in Relationships (Jossey-Bass,
San Francisco, 1994).
my dreams I can say these things but I sure cannot seem to
mobilize such persuasive arguments during the repeated conflicts I
find myself in. “Why
must he treat me this way?”
I just can’t get any sleep.
“Why will he not be more reasonable, more cooperative, more
breathing slows. I
finally find a comfortable position.
The demons are buried in the sand and I’m floating away.
Suddenly, my eyes pop open once again.
“Now wait a minute,” I remind myself as if I had a
choice in the matter. “Did
he really mean it when he said…?”
“Next time he does that I’m going to…”
No wonder I can’t sleep.
Experts Lose Control
am an expert in human relationships.
I resolve disputes for a living.
I mediate conflicts, patch up hostilities between the
spouses, business partners, siblings, parents and children.
I’m a therapist, a trainer and supervisor of therapists.
I have even written a dozen books on how to do therapy.
So it’s with particular reluctance that I admit to you
the extent to which I have allowed myself to become deeply
troubled about a few relationships in my life that have caused me
great anguish and frustration. Furthermore, I can’t think of a time in my life when this
hasn’t been the case.
Process for Resolving Conflict
certainly not a scarcity of advice and guidance available to you
about how to deal with relationships in conflict.
Some of the experts will tell you to learn negotiation
skills, or the art of confrontation, or how to get others to do
your bidding, or even to follow the strategies of waging war.
There are literally hundreds of plans that you might
consult as a blueprint for neutralizing hostile actions.
I realized that the key to working through interpersonal conflict
is as much an internal rather than external process, I integrated
what experts in the field of conflict resolution consider to be
most crucial. Such a
generic program would include several sequential steps, all sound
advice if your goal is to focus exclusively on changing other
people’s behavior. Of
course, there are limits to concentrating your attention on what
others are doing, even on what you’re doing, without considering
the underlying patterns of conflict, the meaning of the dispute,
the internal processes going on inside you.
Nevertheless, you’d be told to do such things as:
Create an optimal atmosphere for negotiation.
This includes a setting that is free from distraction and
intrusions, one in which an attitude of cooperation rather than
competition prevails. Both
you and the other person feel safe enough to experiment, flexible
enough to compromise.
Describe the nature of the conflict from all perspectives.
full and complete picture is created of what a dispute is about,
it’s impossible to address grievances. This means eliciting personal points of view from you and the
other person as to how you/he/she experiences what’s happening.
Understand the behavior of your adversary.
is part of the picture; that is, imagining what the other person
is experiencing, why he or she may be defensive or hostile or
other part that’s equally important, is understanding the
context of the person’s behavior. Is this a chronic pattern of obstruction or is it specific
just to interactions with you?
Is this person reacting from fear and stress, or is there
some perverse hidden agenda operating?
Figuring out the other person’s motives and intentions is
crucial to finding a means to resolve the dispute, or at least to
protect yourself from further damage.
Identify historical issues that may be involved in the
People argue not only about what’s going on in the
present, but about what has happened previously.
It's crucial to bring into the open those unresolved
issues, perceived injustices, and underlying feelings of
resentment that linger beneath the surface.
This effort is considered constructive only when the past
is brought in to understand the present rather than to rehash old
Declare needs that aren’t currently being met.
Rather than blaming one another for the trouble, when each
person takes responsibility for articulating his or her own
issues, interests, needs, and feelings, effort is expended to
finding solutions rather than excuses.
Share decision making equally.
Resentment often stems from the belief that other people
are controlling your life and dictating the terms under which you
must function. When you feel that you’re being manipulated or dominated by
someone else, even if you give in to demands, you’ll harbor
continuing resentments that will affect your next interaction. Most of this lingering hostility is diffused when both
participants make an effort to decide together what will be done.
Develop alternatives that will meet stated goals. If you’re operating flexibly, and negotiating from a
position of compassion and strength, you’ll eventually find some
solution’s satisfactory. This
presumes that you’re patient, that you’ve moved beyond finding
fault or assigning blame, and that you’re working together as a
team to develop options acceptable to both of you.
Initiate action designed to meet mutual goals.
Deciding on what you’ll do, and how you’ll do it, are
certainly important. However,
unless you’ve committed yourselves to some plan of action, all
the good intentions in the world are meaningless.
During this stage in the process you’ll each declare what
you’ll do differently in the future and what will happen if you
don’t follow through on your commitment.
Reach a consensus on future actions.
Conflict can be potentially among the most constructive or
destructive of human interactions.
It’s not enough to resolve the particular dispute
that’s ongoing, but to learn from this exchange so that future
interactions will be more caring and helpful.
the steps in this process is certainly good advice.
In fact, this is a great plan…as far as it goes.
However, we don’t often follow such systematic
processes under crisis circumstances unless we’ve been drilled
in it over and over again, practiced it under controlled
supervised conditions, and then receive structured feedback to
improve performance. This
is why soldiers are able to respond effectively when under enemy
attack. That’s why
it took me so long to apply to myself that what I teach others to
Inward Rather than Outward
have learned, after studying the literature on human conflict and
interviewing several thousand people about their experiences
during interpersonal disputes, that the key to resolving conflicts
isn’t found in getting people to treat me differently.
Neither is it changing the way I respond to provocations,
nor removing myself from threatening predicaments.
Most certain of all, I now know that figuring out what is
wrong with others, identifying why they act so different from what
I would prefer, defining the ways they’re responsible for my
suffering, is somewhat interesting but not all that useful.
have discovered that the thread that runs throughout almost all of
my conflicts with others, and perhaps yours as well, is the
tendency to concentrate on the other person’s role in
obstructing my goals. The
focus of most of our internal energy is on trying to place blame
on other people, or things outside of our control, rather than
addressing what we are doing, or could be doing, in order to
resolve disputes and reach our stated objectives.
the system just described that emphasizes trying to change the way
other people act, my focus instead is on what you have the power
to do with your own thinking and reactions.
This involves following several sequential steps that take
place within your own reflective activity:
Identify what sets you off.
If you pay attention, people close to you have been telling
you when you tend to overreact to situations, to exaggerate your
victim role, to respond to situations in obviously self-defeating
ways. There have
been, there are now, and there will continue to be certain kinds
of people and particular situations that set you off in such a way
that you lose control. These
stimuli seem to elicit almost automatic reactions in
you—unfortunately those in which you may exaggerate or distort
what’s happening, and then overreact both in ways you interpret
what’s going on and the means by which you respond during the
the consistent patterns with which you respond to others is
critical before you can hope to understand what’s going on and
then do something about it. Once
you’ve determined what the possible sources of your reactions
are, the hard part is to use this self-knowledge to promote action
rather than inertia. Insight
may be used as easily as an excuse for avoiding action as it may
be employed as an impetus for initiating change.
Explore the causes and origins of the unresolved issues. You act in certain ways because you’ve learned to protect
yourself from future harm based on past traumas. Once you’ve identified when you tend to overreact—who
gets to you or what specific situations you dread at all
costs—you will next want to figure out how this pattern evolved.
Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable with your realization. When you notice yourself engaging in chronically ineffective
behavior, when this pattern has been brought to your attention, it
becomes more difficult for you to continue it oblivious to the
implications and consequences.
Forever after, an annoying whisper will haunt you:
“Look. You’re doing it again.
Blame others all you want, but it’s your choice to
continue this pattern.”
Take responsibility for the problem.
As good as it feels, initially, to blame others for your
disagreements, there’s actually very little you can do to change
other people’s behavior. You
can, however, concentrate on what you can do to alter the
situation, or at least the ways you respond in the future.
Commit yourself to act differently.
This is the hard part.
It’s one thing to muse about how nice it would be if only
things were different; it’s quite another to make a clear
decision that you intend to function differently in the future.
Then again, there are thousands of decisions you have
made—to put more effort into your reports, get a better job, pay
more attention to the newest literature, stop a habit, et
cetera—that you’ve not followed through on or stuck with.
Experiment with alternative strategies.
If understanding your predicament, or choosing to be
different, were all you had to do to resolve unfinished business
or change dysfunctional patterns, we would all have exactly what
we want. Similarly,
deciding to put the past behind us and get on with things is not
only a matter of making up our minds to do so. Definite action is required, strategies that are quite
different from what you’re already doing.
of the time we’re stuck, whether that involves research and
development or conflicted relationships, we persist in doing
things that clearly don’t work.
The primary goal is to identify ineffective strategies, and
most importantly, to try something else instead of what we’re
already comfortable doing. In spite of how obvious this may sound, much of the time
we’re unable or unwilling to give up what’s familiar in lieu
of behaviors that venture into the unknown.
Ironically, such efforts are exactly what we need most in
order to stimulate new ideas and invent new ways of doing
things—whether that involves designing a new product or working
through a problem with a colleague or family member.
is an inevitable part of human interaction.
In fact, in many ways, such disagreements can be quite
constructive in clarifying our thinking, stimulating new ideas,
promoting greater intimacy or regulating distance in
key to dealing with such human conflicts is to stop blaming other
people for acting the ways they do and instead concentrating on
what you’re doing to contribute to the problems, and what you
could do differently in the future.