We live in a blame culture. When things go wrong we protect our identity (our egos) by finding somebody, or something, to blame. This allows us to ignore our own role, and to avoid considering whether we might be (at least) partly responsible for difficult positions we find ourselves in.
It suits our egos to make somebody else pay for what has gone wrong. This leads to a lot of finger-pointing and self-righteous behaviour, but not a lot of meaningful dialogue or analysis as to what exactly occurred. When we then try to ‘engage’ with the other party we find that our blame game and self-righteousness prevents us from having a good conversation. Why is this?
Typically we listen and respond autobiographically. That is, we don’t actually “hear” the other party. Instead we make assumptions and judgements about what the other party says and does that are coloured by our own experiences, conditioning, subjective view of the dispute and our desire to blame others. We also respond autobiographically, based on our view of the world. Since the life experiences of the parties are different, they are unlikely to agree. That is hardly surprising – the parties have not heard each other, but have simply reacted to the message that they subjectively extracted from what the other party did and said.
We talk past each other or at each other, and then feel angry because the other side has not listened or understood us. This feeds back into our egoic justification for having blamed them in the first place. So the conversation goes around in circles, and nowhere useful.
If the parties are subjectively engaged in a dispute their chances of having a balanced and considered conversation are significantly reduced. They stop engaging with the relevant subject matter in a calm and balanced way, and instead focus on what they perceive to be an attack on their views, their identity and themselves personally. When the parties are in that space then the problem becomes a hostile dispute between the personalities involved, with the pertinent issues of the dispute taking a backseat. An already difficult conversation is made worse by self-righteousness, subjective perception of ‘the facts’ and a desire not to be blamed for what has occurred.
This is not the backdrop for a great conversation, but it is the typical backdrop for a mediation. How do the parties work their way through the mess they have created? In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, Penguin, 2010) the authors explain that every difficult conversation is made up of three separate conversations: what happened, feelings and identity.
The What Happened conversation
Arguing about who is to blame prevents the parties from finding out what actually happened. Instead, the parties need to be curious and ask open questions and engage with each other in order to learn what the other party’s intentions were. Once you know that, you can share your own version of the story. Instead of choosing which story is right and which is wrong (because most disputes are not right/wrong) the parties should be encouraged to embrace both stories and to understand where any miscommunication or misunderstanding has come from.
The feelings conversation
While we would all love to ignore the underlying emotions in a dispute and focus exclusively on objectively solving problems, that is not realistic. When left unaddressed, negative emotions deepen the conflict by blocking our ability to listen. Instead, parties that are trying to have a better conversation need to acknowledge the range of complex feelings the parties have so as to best promote mutual understanding.
The identity conversation
Conflict shakes our sense of identity to the core, causing us to question our competence and worth. When in conflict we need to explore which of our hot (subjective) buttons are being pressed. Fear of rejection or a sense of inadequacy (yes – even in commercial disputes) are both examples. The parties need to look beyond black-and-white identities and to consider the impact conflict has on self-image (both the self-image of the parties in conflict and the self-image of the individual egos involved). The parties need to understand that everyone makes mistakes, and acknowledge their own contributions to the problem. That will allow the relationship to strengthen.
Paul Sills email@example.com is an Auckland barrister specialising in commercial and civil litigation. He is also an experienced mediator. This is the second of three articles on how to have better conversations – at the heart of good dispute resolution. Read part 1 and part 3.