I work with clients who are in conflict with each other. Their “stories” about the other person make resolution impossible. They’ve been in conflict with each other for so long that they are convinced that their judgments are facts. For example, they are both convinced the other person is a jerk, a bully, ignorant, or selfish. It’s so bad, they refuse to talk about what’s not working and to listen to the other’s needs. How do I challenge their view of the other person so that they can have the conversation they actually need?
Dear Conflicting Facts,
You’ve asked the ultimate question.
The heart of most conflict is not irreconcilable differences, but irreconcilable stories. And to make matters worse, once we begin acting on those stories, we begin to need them to justify the vengeful, fearful, or immoral behavior we’ve chosen. Furthermore, the fact that others behave in the same petty way we do generates more data to reinforce our stories.
There are only three paths I’ve ever seen break people free from such mutually assured self-destruction. Any of these can work. All three combined substantially increase the likelihood of change. But when people are deeply devoted to their stories these roads are unlikely to be taken.
1. Misery fatigue. Sometimes, after an especially discouraging episode, people can reach a point that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Even though they feel entirely justified in their current behavior, they are willing to suspend disbelief for a moment and consider stepping off the treadmill.
2. Shocking data from a beloved source. Most of us have excessive confidence in our own judgment. Which is why it is hard to break free of our judgments. But occasionally our respect for another can exceed our affection for our own ego. I have seen conflict dissolve when an individual who is deeply trusted—even beloved—by both parties is able to do two things: 1) lovingly but forcefully confront their self-deception; 2) bear witness to a conflicting view of their judgments.
3. A surprise encounter with poignant and irrefutable conflicting data. Finally, I’ve seen judgments give way to new data when the one holding them is forced to explain behavior that conflicts violently with their previous view. A quick example from one of the most enduring conflicts in modern history: Shortly after peace accords were signed between Israel and Jordan, a large group of Jewish, school-aged girls traveled to a neighboring Jordanian village to deliver cookies, flowers, and other tokens of peace. Due to some misunderstanding, a Jordanian soldier opened fire on the girls, killing seven of them. Suddenly, decades of deep distrust threatened to return the two countries to a state of war. War was averted, however, by a single striking act taken by the late King Hussein. The King arranged to visit the home of every one of the dead children. He spoke with each grieving parent and personally apologized for the tragedy. As he entered their home, he would kneel on the ground at the feet of each parent and beg their forgiveness. He did not rise until they bid him do so. That one striking act generated irrefutable evidence that conflicted with decades of conflict-fueled stories. And it made it possible for these two enemy countries to quickly heal from the tragedy and find a way forward through their now shared pain.
The good news in this last path is that it demonstrates how the unilateral action of one party can change the calculus of the conflict.
Here are three suggestions for you to consider as you assess whether you can play a role in reconciliation:
1. Can the parties see the price they are paying for the conflict?
2. Do they feel safe enough with you to be profoundly challenged by you?
3. Is one of the parties willing to sacrifice in order to demonstrate his or her sincere desire for peace?
If your answers to these three questions suggests you have some assets to work with, I find it easier to frame my requests with aggrieved parties as experiments not concessions. Ask them if they are willing to make a gesture as an honest test of their current judgments. And if so, encourage them to watch for new data as a result of the experiment. If this works, you can start a virtuous cycle that can slowly unwind the terrible knot of resentment they have cooperatively constructed.
There are far too many storytellers and far too few peacemakers in the world. I am glad you are one of the latter.