Jenny couldn’t believe how right the world felt. She and Danny had made up. Her mother had stopped nagging her. And her teacher had given her an A on her book report. What had happened to make them all change?
It all started with a speaker who had come to talk to the Students for the Environment club. Instead of talking about the ozone layer or acid rain, the speaker talked about the need for opposing groups in the town to come to an agreement on the proposed building of a multistory parking garage next to a downtown park. “The problem won’t be solved until we resolve the conflicts with those who have opinions different from ours,” he told the students, who had been attending city council meetings where there was heated debate on the issue.
Then he talked about what kept people from understanding one another. Jenny couldn’t help but see herself in some of the things he said, and it got her to thinking about the conflicts she’d been having lately. She was angry at Danny for spending so much time with the guys. She was angry at her mother for expecting her to make dinner every Tuesday. And she was angry at her teacher for giving her a C in English.
The speaker said that there is nothing basically wrong with conflict. Most people have disagreements from time to time. “Conflicts, in fact, are a way to grow,” he said. “Every time we face up to a problem and resolve it we grow as individuals. We learn to get along better with other people and to take responsibility for our own actions.”
Then he came to the part that really made Jenny think. He listed some basic assumptions about life that many people hold. Because these assumptions are not reasonable, they can lead people into conflicts.
1. I must have everything my way. That was Jenny. If she didn’t have the last word, she felt others would get in control. So what? Maybe it would be OK to let someone else lead the way for a change.
2. I must be excellent at everything. That was Jenny, too. She thought that if she weren’t perfect she’d be perfectly awful; there was nothing in between. But no one is perfect and no one but Jenny expected her to have all the answers all the time.
3. People must be fair to me. Jenny was big on fairness. If her sister got a new shirt, then Jenny thought she should have one, too. If her friend got an A for a six-page report, then Jenny should, too.
4. I have no control over the way I feel or act. Jenny had no problem with this one. She knew there was a difference between feelings and actions and that she had the power to control her actions. Long ago she learned not to blame anyone else for her behavior. Back in third grade, she had told her teacher. “Tommy made me laugh.” Both she and Tommy had to write 50 sentences.
5. I must be liked by everyone. Jenny didn’t like everyone; why should they all like her? Did she want everyone to like her? Well, maybe. Did she need everyone to like her? Of course not.
The Five Steps
After Jenny thought about what the speaker at the club meeting had said, she was motivated to resolve conflicts with those around her. The speaker had outlined some steps that many experts have agreed upon.
Step 1: Identify the Problem
The first step is to identify the problem. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not. Jenny and her mother had been arguing about making dinner on Tuesdays. Her mom works that night, but Jenny said she’s too busy. The problem wasn’t just who would make dinner. The problem was that things had changed a lot since Jenny’s mom went to work. Jenny missed the way it used to be, when she could count on her mom always being home and having time to take care of everything.
After talking it over with her mom, they agreed Jenny would make dinner on Tuesdays but be able to choose one weeknight when she wouldn’t have any cooking or cleanup chores at all.
Jenny’s conflict with Danny went below the surface, too. She realized that she didn’t want him to be with the guys because she thought his best friend didn’t especially like her. During one silly fight, she admitted this to Danny. He laughed and said his friend thought that Jenny didn’t like him. After laughing about this, the three of them got together for a movie and had a good time, and soon Jenny was feeling much more comfortable about Danny having more time with his friends.
Sometimes the problem needs to be viewed in a new way. That’s called reframing. If you put a new frame on a picture, the picture looks different. If you put a new meaning on a problem, the problem looks different, too. If the child you’re babysitting cheats at a game you could say he’s sore loser. Or you could reframe it with more understanding and say he’s afraid to fail.
Step 2: Look for Solutions
The second step in conflict resolution is to look for possible solutions. Think of lots of them, even if they seem nutty. Good solutions often come from this random brain-storming.
In her conflict about her English grade, Jenny considered boycotting the class, asking her parents to talk with the teacher, redoing the report, accepting the C grade, or talking with her teacher about why she felt she deserved a better grade.
There are some possibilities that are just wishful thinking. Many people hope for some magical rescue–somehow, by someone. They think this might come from their parents, their friends, or people in authority.
Another unrealistic possibility is that if we ignore the problem it will go away. It seldom does, and it often gets worse. Another myth is that it will work to be aggressive–to hurt someone physically, say cruel things, or get revenge. Aside from being unkind, these tactics aren’t effective in the long run.
Step 3: Choose One
Third step: Choose the best solution. What’s good solution? It’s effective and socially acceptable. It solves the problem, does not hurt anyone or interfere with their rights, and satisfies both parties. There should be no winners or losers; both sides should feel as if they have achieved something. That’s called a win-win solution.
Step 4 and 5: Act, Evaluate
The fourth step is to act. Follow through on one of the solutions.
Finally, evaluate how well your approach solved the problem. If it turns out to be ineffective, don’t look on that as a failure. It just means you’ve eliminated one approach and you’re ready to try another. We learn by our mistakes.
At every step, communication is important. Communication doesn’t mean just telling someone what you want. It means listening to what they want. It means listening eye contact and being sensitive to body language. Bob Woolf, author of Friendly Persuasion, says it means not making demands (try suggestions instead) or ultimatums.
Jenny used these guidelines to resolve conflicts at home and at school. The environment club used them in presenting its arguments at the city council meeting. Where can we go from here?