#194  from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 1          January 1996

Moving Beyond Blame in Resolving Conflicts
by Jeffrey A. Kottler, Ph.D.

Dr. 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).

Every time I close my eyes, I see before me a scene in which I stand helpless, mute, unable to express myself.  I think of several things I could have said, brilliant responses that would have moved my adversary to tears, speechlessness, or better yet, recognition that I am right and he is wrong.

In 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 like me?”

My 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…”  Indignation.  Rage.  Shame.  Frustration.  Fear.  Tension. Uncertainty.  Blame.  No wonder I can’t sleep.

Even Experts Lose Control

I 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.

A Process for Resolving Conflict

There’s 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.

Before 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:

1.  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.

2.  Describe the nature of the conflict from all perspectives.  Until a 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.

3.  Understand the behavior of your adversary.  Empathy is part of the picture; that is, imagining what the other person is experiencing, why he or she may be defensive or hostile or uncooperative.  The 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.

4.  Identify historical issues that may be involved in the struggle.  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 fights.

5.  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.

6.  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.

7.  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.

8.  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.

9.  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.

Following 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 do.

Looking Inward Rather than Outward

I 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.

I 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.

Unlike 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:

1.  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 encounters.

Recognizing 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.

2.  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.

3.  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.”

4.  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.

5.  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.

6.  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.

Most 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.

Conflict 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 relationships.  The 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.

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