A lot of systems have been devised to help people take control of interpersonal conflict with the aim of facilitating positive, win-win outcomes. But, is there an underlying essence common to successful conflict resolution techniques? Let’s compare six systematized approaches to conflict resolution, looking for commonalities.
Introducing Six Conflict De-escalation Methods
- Nonviolent Communication
- Active Listening
- Conflict Resolution
- Kingian Nonviolence
I-Statements are commonly taught to young children as a positive way to deal with conflicts. They encourage clarity and assertion. There are variations, but the basic format is:
“I feel ______ when (you) ______ and I want ______.” A slightly more sophisticated version includes a reason for the feeling, as in, “I feel ______ when (you) ______ because ______ and I want/would like ______.”
I-Statements are designed to avoid blaming, which is thought to be counter-productive. They are also indicative of a U.S. culture that emphasizes building self-esteem and getting what you want as an individual regardless of the group good.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, takes the basic format of an I-Statement and adds an emphasis on basic human needs. The formula becomes:
“When I see that ______ (an objective observation), I feel ______ because my need for ______ is (or isn’t) being met. Would you be willing to ______?”
With both I-Statements and NVC, it is crucial to follow “I feel” with an actual feeling (sad, happy, etc.) as opposed to the word “that,” as in, “I feel that you are being unfair,” etc. Some see NVC as an almost magical formula for de-escalating conflict and reaching understanding; some recoil at the artificiality of its construct.
Nonviolent Communication also goes a step beyond simple I-Statements in its formula for eliciting the feelings and perhaps unmet needs of the other, as in:
“You sound ______ (feeling). Is it because when I ______, your need for ______ isn’t (is) being met? What would you like me to do?”
The exact construction isn’t critical. What NVC focuses on are four components: observations, feelings, needs and requests, for yourself and for others with whom you may be in conflict.
Active Listening is a set of techniques to help an individual understand another and convey that understanding. It can help to de-escalate emotionally charged conflict. While there are many methods of Active Listening, the basics involve:
- Silencing oneself while listening to the other
- Paying attention to the meaning conveyed by the body language of the speaker
- Intentional body language of the listener to convey interest
- Reflecting back to the speaker to ensure correct understanding
- Asking any needed clarifying questions
It’s an other-centered way to remove one’s own agenda and focus on genuine understanding.
LARA and its variation, CLARA
LARA stands for Listen, Affirm, Respond, Add (information). CLARA adds Calm (yourself) to the recipe. It’s a simple on-the-fly Active Listening method for conflict de-escalation. The Add step moves beyond strict Active Listening to allow a respectful dialogue to occur.
Conflict Resolution is any of a number of techniques designed for people to reach win-win outcomes in interpersonal conflict. Unlike the previous methods to de-escalate and solve conflict, Conflict Resolution requires both parties to work together in accordance with a chosen methodology.
When I taught elementary school students, I adapted standard conflict resolution elements to create the ABCDEF model:
A – Find out what the problem is About
B – Brainstorm solutions
C – Choose one solution
D – Do it
E – Evaluate its success
F – Friends again
If the solution is not successful in achieving a win-win outcome, a different solution is chosen. The last step, Friends Again, was inspired by Kingian Nonviolence’s emphasis on Reconciliation (see below).
Kingian Nonviolence is a set pf principles and steps to resolve conflict, especially between groups of people. It is derived from the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and the experiences of the Civil rights Movement.
There are six principles to live and abide by while engaging in six steps in Kingian nonviolent conflict resolution:
- Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
- The Beloved Community is the Framework for the Future.
- Fight the forces of evil, not the people doing evil.
- Accept suffering without retaliation for the cause, to achieve the goal.
- Avoid internal violence of the spirit, as well as external, physical violence.
- The universe is on the side of justice
- Information gathering
- personal commitment
- Direct Action
The concept of the Beloved Community was central to Dr. King’s vision of the future. It envisions a world in which everyone is included and afforded the freedom to live up to their full human potential. For this to take place, reconciliation must be worked towards in any campaign for social justice.
What the Six Methods Share
I-Statements, Nonviolent Communication, Active Listening, and techniques such as LARA/CLARA, Conflict Resolution and Kingian Nonviolence all require a self awareness that can only come from stepping back from the emotional grip of a problem to allow for rational analysis.
With I-Statements, we need to step outside our feelings enough to name them, to see them as they are, understand their origin, and then to ask for something. Nonviolent Communication has the same underlying requirement; it requires a degree of emotional detachment in order to objectively work on a problem. With Active Listening techniques such as LARA/CLARA, we need to remove ourselves from our own emotions long enough to be other-centered. This allows for clearer thinking. The same is true for conflict resolution techniques, which normally also deploy calming techniques, such as deep breathing, before a problem is tackled.
Calming down the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals most directly with survival-based emotions, and relying instead on the higher functions of the prefrontal cortex allows people to take control of problems in a constructive way. This is the benefit of all of these methods to resolve interpersonal conflict; all of them activate the parts of our brains best suited to creative problem solving.
This is not to say that conflict resolution and reconciliation are anti-emotion. Rather, emotions are recognized, accepted and used to humanize one another in honest communication. Strong emotions bring conflict to our attention. They are like a messenger. We accept the message and use it to understand the conflict. But the messenger doesn’t solve the conflict. For that we need a set of analytical skills that are independent of emotions.
The various conflict de-escalation and reconciliation programs listed above may seem artificial, even unnatural; people may balk at using any sort of script to communicate. But that very artificiality may help to move ones center of awareness from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex. They all provide a framework that lets the prefrontal cortex get to work on the problem. The differences between them are far less important than their commonality: They let us know that we don’t have to be at the mercy of circumstances, that we can take control of our lives through intentional work that promises to create a safer, more interconnected world… a Beloved Community.
A look back at an article I wrote in 2013 about bombing Syria: