Oct 212007

This is about finding the root cause of arguments or disagreements. In this way, this is a little like a problem-solving heuristic. This is not about how to actually conduct yourself in an argument, how to “win” an argument or what have you.

In general, two or more reasonable people feel strong emotion about their positions because of an unseen disagreement. This is my first assertion, in general, once reasonable parties in a conflict understand the true cause of their disagreement, they can begin to make peace with it and/or work towards a negotiation, compromise or win/win situation.

My second assertion is that arguments are never about the things that provoked the argument.Â

Arguments are about emotions. Always. You don’t have an argument or fight without emotion, there’d be no reason to if no one’s feelings were hurt. So, both parties’ emotions in mind. And understanding is the real key to resolving conflicts, or just about everything in human communication. The principle in action is understanding.

I don’t think I need to repeat what I’ve found in most every communication book I’ve ever read, such as not finger-pointing, trying to be civil, taking a break, etc. By the way, taking a break may be really hard in the middle of a fight, because your adrenaline’s pumping and you wanna keep going, but do it. Another good tip to remember is that you should feel comfortable with AND should be able to sincerely appreciate the other person in the middle of a fight. A simple, “I know we’re having a disagreement right now, but I still care about you a lot” can do wonders.

The “heuristic” is that arguments are about differences in one or more of these three things, in order of easiest to trouble-shoot to hardest:

1. Interpretation of events. You think he wasn’t paying attention to you on the phone but his cat just died. You interpreted the event as saying, “You’re not worthy of attention.” or something along those lines and he was actually totally numb. This is the sort of thing where you get really, really mad thinking about something but then the person comes by and tells you it was an honest mistake, or purely circumstantial. I’m sure you’ve been there. If you find no help at this level, stop talking about events or “you always do that”. Don’t dig up events from the past that are similar to the current ones, except to examine them for the following things. Go to the next step totally.

2. Differing values and differing interpretations of how those values are expressed. Say, my highest value might be comfort–both yours and mine–while yours is absolute truth. So, I would feel ok telling you a little inconsequential white lie while you might feel betrayed.

Sometimes its not values, but what those values means to you. You say I don’t listen to you, while I think I do. After this back-and-forth, I realize that for you, “listening” means to be totally engaged in the conversation and empathetic, while for me it is hearing the words, understanding them and being able to respond to them, but not necessarily with any sort of emotion. So, I might not be very empathetic, but I can tell you verbatim the last few sentences you said to me.

3. Different mental models. This one is harder to trouble shoot, because you have so many of these mental models. Interestingly, in the past two steps, you’ve been troubleshooting mental models already (ie. of the event or of values) and now you’re moving to different ones. This can require a bit of creativity, but some good questions to ask are:

  • “What different assumptions about our relationship are they making than I am?” I may think that in our relationship as a coworker, its totally appropriate for me to call you at home, while you may not. This question can be rephrased and perhaps answered better this way, too: “For someone in this sort of a relationship, what should they do?” The someone in this sort of relationship makes it less personal and more objective for yourself to answer. The “should” helps reveal your own values and mental model.
  • “What different assumptions about the current situation do I make?” I may think its totally ok to come to work in chinos while you may think that I should dress up a little bit and that gets into an argument. Kinda stupid, I know, but that’s ok.
  • “In general, what mental models apply here? Is it about how a relationship should be, a person should be or something else?”

Hope this helps. I had to make use of this model recently and I found it handy, so I thought I’d share it with you. This is a problem-solving model, rather than a general communication one. Have fun!

Further reading is suggested in the Recommended Books page, at the bottom.

  One Response to “Resolving Conflicts”

  1. […] very important place where this model is helpful is in resolving conflict in relationships. Usually, if everybody involved in the conflict is getting emotional, […]

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