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Psychologist and philosopher William James said, "Whenever two people meet there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other sees him, and each man as he really is." This makes for a crowded negotiation table. When handling conflict, the issue at hand is only part of the issue.

It's like having a party; when conflict comes, it doesn't come alone. It comes with our upbringing; it comes with our values; it comes with our experiences; it comes with its own set of circumstances. There are various factors that influence how we handle conflict and being able to look at these factors within yourself can be incredibly helpful.

Let's take a look at the factors that influence our handling of conflict:
  • Power.
  • Temperament.
  • Culture.
  • Context.
  • Relationship.
  • Values.
  • Experiences.
  • Upbringing.

The perspective you have on the problem comes from who you are as well as the relationship you have with the other party. For instance, if your relationship is largely positive, you're typically more amenable to a friendly resolution. If your relationship is poor, you or the other party is likely to interpret everything negatively. It definitely impacts the way you communicate, whether positive or negative.

You can't change your upbringing; you can't un-experience experiences; you can't change your temperament or your culture or your values. What you can do, however, is be aware. "This is how I'm coming across." "My upbringing is influencing my handling of this conflict." "My values are at odds with the other party's."

For example, in my first year of practicing law, I thought I had a decent relationship with our Senior Partner; I certainly respected him, and I still call him up for advice from time to time. Now, it's important to note at this point in the story that my upbringing involved lots of questioning: when someone said, "This is how we should do it," I'd say, "That's interesting but what about this problem that comes up?" This was encouraged and led to good discussions within my family and also when I studied philosophy at University.

So, at work every time we had a discussion about the nuts and bolts of a legal case, our Senior Partner would give his opinion on what should be done and I would say, "If we do that, it might cause this problem."

I was trying to anticipate problems; I was being helpful. Or that's what I thought I was doing.

As it turns out, not everyone likes their directives questioned! He thought I was disrespecting him and his authority.

I can't necessarily change this about myself, and I think it's a positive trait in many circumstances. I can be aware that this is not always viewed the same way by others. I can be aware that their upbringing, experiences, values, etc., may lead them to view this in a different light. And hopefully, the other party can have the same awareness on his/her part. If not, that's OK, too. Knowing yourself - all three of you -- is a crucial part of the conflict resolution process.

There is a legend that the Greek Philosopher once carved the following words into a stone at the Temple in Delphi: "Know Thy Self".

Maybe it should have been: "Know Thy Selves".

Contributed by John Curtis, Attorney and Conflict Coach


Larry Hart

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