Real Leaders

The Secret to Conflict Resolution: Don’t Focus on the Conflict

Many years ago, I took part in a three-day conflict resolution between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. Arbinger’s international bestseller on conflict resolution, The Anatomy of Peace, had just been released, and the Shimon Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv had gathered a group of Palestinians and Israelis for an interaction, sponsored by the Danish Embassy. Our goal was to foster togetherness and gain an understanding of how to resolve this centuries-old conflict — beginning with individuals. 

When you think about solving the conflict in the Middle East, three days seems woefully inadequate. But whether it’s three days or three years, successful conflict resolution depends on one counter-intuitive truth: Don’t focus on the conflict. 

People in conflict situations already believe their narrative about a situation, and speaking about it invites them to keep repeating the very story that perpetuates the problem. This is equally true in marital and workplace conflicts After three days, officials at the Peres Center said they’d never seen anything so effective in bringing these two ideologically opposed groups together.
Here’s a short timeline of how we achieved it.

Day 1 — Sharing Personal Stories

On our first day together, we asked the group to think about relationships with family members and neighbors. Through interpreters, they shared their stories, and it got participants to think differently about their lives. They shared stories that others in the group could relate to.

For example, a young Israeli listened to a young Palestinian tell a story about his relationship with his father, and both men could see themselves in that story. In the sharing of personal stories, a listener may react to the storyteller by thinking, “I have that exact situation at home or in my community.” The divide between these groups became narrower as they began to see each other as fellow human beings with similar situations and challenges. The concept of peace became immediately more tangible in the room, which in turn made peace in the Middle East slightly more conceivable. 

Day 2 — Rallying Around a Common Cause

The next morning, we had the group do first aid together. After studying a mix of lifesaving skills, they engaged in a series of competitions in mixed teams. The friendly rivalry brought participants together around a common cause and purpose. That afternoon, we set aside time for everyone to choose an activity to do together. Some swam, others talked, and many played soccer. We allowed them to mingle and enjoy these activities with whomever they chose, and we didn’t force integration or manage the groups. The trust they had already established resulted in the Israelis and Palestinians interacting more easily and sharing activities they both enjoyed. 

Day 3 — Applying Lessons Learned

We only got to the subject at hand on day three: conflict in the Middle East. We started by dividing everyone into smaller, mixed groups and assigning them some of the ideas we had studied on the first day around family and neighbors. Each smaller group presented their thoughts to the entire group, sharing examples from their lives. After each presentation, we discussed and clarified the ideas, with the whole morning devoted to examining them thoroughly.

Next, we applied these thoughts to the situation in the Middle East. Each mixed group was invited to apply a series of frameworks to the conflict, from Palestinian and Israeli perspectives. They discussed and used the framework from one perspective and then from the other. Israelis began thinking from their perspective and also from the perspective of the Palestinians, and vice versa. They placed themselves in each other’s shoes. By the end of this final day, the multi-cultural group had developed an unprecedented understanding and respect for each other — more than the seasoned members of the Peres Center for Peace had ever seen. 

How to Resolve Conflict in Seven Steps

1. Don’t focus on the conflict. If you find yourself in a conflict situation and want to resolve it, resist your impulse to focus on the conflict. This is always a mistake and will only make matters worse.

2. Learn together. To get opposing parties to see each other as people — rather than just blaming each other as objects — try to learn something from each other. You might study unrelated ideas that stimulate thought and discussion or engage in learning something about which you are both equally ignorant. 

3. Do things together. Strengthen each party’s ability to see the other as human beings by doing projects and activities together. These should be things both parties care about equally — things that require a joint effort. In the workplace, this might be a project to improve a process or solve a client service challenge. At home, this might include playing games together, hiking up a mountain, or taking a trip to a place of mutual interest.

4. Wait. Only start discussing difficulties in the relationship after successfully applying steps 2 and 3 above. You’ll know when these steps are successful when all parties have begun to develop or rekindle a level of appreciation for the other person as a human being. You’ll know this has happened when both sides start enjoying the joint learning and activities.

5. Consider all perspectives. Don’t allow each side to become a representative and mouthpiece of their viewpoint only. Together, apply each idea to both parties. If you want to think about your ideas separately, that’s fine as well, but take on the role of your partner as you do so and apply insights from your partner’s perspective. Explore, ponder, and stand in each other’s shoes.

6. Repeat Steps 2 and 3. Once you begin step 5, don’t forget to keep doing steps 2 and 3. These two foundational steps ultimately reduce the need for step 5.

7. Stay the course. Don’t become anxious if you still face challenges near the end. Problems are the stuff of life — or rather, the stuff from which a better life is made. Keep following this seven-step conflict resolution roadmap, and remember the wisdom of songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” 

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