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More PsychNotes: Anger and Conflict

November 30, 2015       

Conflict Resolution: What if You Considered Other People's Views?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

The first reaction most people have to a difference of opinion, values, or perspective is to focus on defending their own viewpoint. Whether the conflict occurs in a relationship, in a social or work group, or even between countries, the initial reaction is “I'm right and the other person must be mistaken.”

Defending is often viewed by the other person as belittling their position. Sometimes defending a position is overtly derogatory by believing the other person is biased, self-serving in some way, or woefully misinformed. As a result, many disagreements result in a “spiral of conflict” rather than cooperation. Each side is focused more on proving “rightness” than on resolving the problem.

The pressure to conform to views occurs even more strongly when a person is part of a group than when they are not. For instance, a family may expect other family members to agree with their views or be subject to ridicule, criticism, or hostility. This is often referred to as the “black sheep effect (Sammut, et al., 2015).”

To effectively resolve conflict, it is necessary to overcome the tendency to see others as wrong or morally challenged. Instead, be open to understanding the differences in your viewpoint and the other person's. Sometimes, by listening you might find that you misunderstood. Other times just by clearly understanding the other person you might find that you are not completely in disagreement and can find some common ground. Or, once the other person feels understood, he or she may be more willing to listen to your position.

Think of the last conflict or disagreement you had with someone. How much did you truly listen to the other person vs. trying to make your point? How open were you to considering another point of view? If not, why was that? What were your concerns? If you considered their viewpoint, how much impact would it have on your life? Would your life be adversely affected in any way? If not, why not listen fully?

Many times people defend their viewpoint for self-satisfaction alone. Certainly, if the conflict involves engaging in a behavior that could harm you or others you may need to defend your position strongly. However, much conflict doesn't involve such circumstances. Generally, it means just listening to someone and validating that you heard and understood their viewpoint.

The best way to do this is through active listening. Show interest by fully attending to them. Ask questions. Paraphrase back to them what you understand about what they are saying. By doing so, it becomes easier to ask them to listen to your position. And when you have two people listening to one another rather than stubbornly defending a position more can be accomplished.

Sammut, G., Bezzina, F. and Sartawi, M. (2015). The Spiral of Conflict: Naïve Realism and the Black Sheep Effect in Attributions of Knowledge and Ignorance. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 21, 289–294. DOI: 10.1037/pac0000098

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Dr. Monica Frank

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