The power of "If" in Conflict Resolution




“Somewhere between right and wrong there is a garden. I will meet you there.” (The poet Rumi)I recently came across this beautiful quotation and it started me thinking about conflict – be it between colleagues, family members or service provider and customer. Intellectually, we all know that there are three versions of the truth in every human interaction: “your version”, “my version” and the truth, but being able to move from mine to yours is the hardest thing for us mere mortals to do. Human beings are roughly 70% water and the rest a complex mix of emotions and triggers. Frankly, it’s a miracle we ever do anything ‘rational’ and grown up! However, it is in the space between your truth and my truth that we can find resolution. Not necessarily the “truth- so- help- me- God”, but sufficient truth and understanding that we can calm down and move forward.Justice is not always what we are seeking in resolution. The middle ground is a fluid place that may mean he moves 20% and she moves 80%, but if it is a move that both parties can live with, then it is a workable compromise. Anger, hurt feelings, wounded pride and disappointment are often what gets in the way. Feeling ‘unheard’ is a key trigger to defensive or aggressive behaviour which escalates the conflict.Looking back over a personal conflict with the benefit of hindsight - and a glass of wine - it does not take much introspection to identify those moments when ‘if’ becomes a valuable tool. If I had taken a deep breath, or if I had bothered to clarify, or if I had tried to understand the emotion behind the words…‘If’ is a very small word with such big possibilities. By walking parties through the history of the conflict, with the emphasis not so much on what he/she/they did but rather on why, then we can help people see the conflict touch points and how they escalated. It opens the discussion to the possibility of ‘if’. If I had done/not done X, might things have gone differently? It allows people to realise the power of choice. Despite the anger or hurt or disappointment we may be feeling, we have a choice over our actions.A recent interaction in which I’m ashamed to say, I was the angry and unreasonable customer, is a case in point. While I was bang out of order in losing my temper, there were many occasions when the service provider could have diffused things simply by trying to listen to me and showing some effort to problem solve. In a customer service situation, it is for the service provider to ‘be the grown-up’ and to make every effort to show that the customer’s feelings and concerns are relevant. That simple technique can turn an angry customer into someone willing to co-own the problem – and more importantly, the solution.In team or colleague conflict there is no obvious onus on any one party to take the lead, but I have found that asking each party to think through the consequences of not resolving the issue, is often sufficient for one to make that first, small move to using the magic word ‘if’.I am not saying that there is a rose garden at the end of every conflict, but the effort to ‘meet you there’ may well be worth the painful journey. Rather ask ‘if’ than ‘if only’… Conflict in the workplace is natural and unavoidable.  How we handle the conflict and whether or not we are prepared to learn from it seperates high performing, customer-focused teams from those who are resentful and disengaged.

Author: Janet Askew


Janet Askew

Janet is a trainer, coach, speaker and writer who is passionate about promoting women in business and SMME development. In addition to her consulting work, she is a director of Essentially Natural and serves on the board of the Wot-If? Trust.



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