A colleague recently shared some training materials from Bill Eddy, founder of High Conflict Institute. This article shares some of Bill’s wisdom on how to help resolve conflicts by making effective proposals.
Setting the Stage
Most conflicts, from international disputes to divorces, have been percolating for some time. Someone has done something to someone (maybe many things, many times) and finally, one party insists that things must change. Depending on the type of injury involved, a participant may wish to be heard, acknowledged, and apologized to before any plan for the future can be developed. Those are crucial steps that must be skillfully handled and ….. that is a subject for a different blog post. This article is about how former partners can begin to take concrete steps towards a different future, whether or not they have completed their reconciliation efforts.
“Any Past Problem Can Be Turned into a Proposal for a Different Future”
In one of many past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, both delegations were repeatedly getting into arguments about past wrongs their people had suffered at each other’s hands. Finally, one of the mediators offered the following insight: “If we talk about the past, one side will likely have to be ‘wrong’ for the other to be ‘right’. If we focus on the future, perhaps we can find a way to both be right.”
By exchanging proposals meant to achieve the desired change, we may be able to change the focus from a blame game about what’s already happened to be imagining how to go forward from this point. Either party to a dispute may make a proposal or ask if the other person is ready to make one. Bill Eddy suggests that, to be effective, proposals should include:
- Who does:
- When? and
Example: “I’d like to propose that we change the day we exchange the kids so that I pick them up on Friday instead of Thursday at your house”.
Responding to Proposals: Keep It Simple and Practical
For parties with good faith, the person making the proposal sincerely sees it as a reasonable solution to the problem being addressed, and one that the other might possible agree with. Even if the receiving party does not view the idea as workable, beginning a diplomatic exchange of ideas (as opposed to a harsh critique) may lead to a dialogue where a different, even better mutual solution emerges. Toward that goal, the participants should:
- Ask questions: to ensure that a clear understanding of the other’s proposal, and how it would work in practice.
- Respond with:
– “No, that won’t work for me because…….” or
– “I’ll think about it and get back to you by ……”.
Note that there is no editorializing, just a focus on what works for you, and what does not.
Attack the Problem, Not Each Other
Especially for disputes with a relational or historical component, our habitual pattern of interacting may lead us to an emotional reaction to a proposal we don’t like: “Are you nuts? There you go again! …. What a selfish or silly idea !”. But, if we want to “win” (by reaching a solution to the dispute) rather than be “right” (by debating our perspective), then we must keep laser focused on resolving the problem using Bill Eddy’s simple steps: make or receive a proposal, and respond with “yes”, “no” or “I’ll think about it”.
None of this is to suggest that negotiating with our intimate partner is an easy thing just that, with the right help and techniques, it can actually be done effectively.