When conflict is hopelessly stuck

Research tells us that 5% of all conflicts become intractable, or seemingly unsolvable. We typically see this in larger conflicts on the world stage. Democrats vs. Republicans. Israel vs. Palestine. These are conflicts that have lasted for many years without any end in sight. But these 5% conflicts can happen in our personal and professional lives too. And sadly, they can ruin family relationships.

As a mediator, it pains me when mediation doesn’t help a family to find resolution. But sometimes conflict has festered for such a long time that deep patterns have formed, and those patterns are very hard to break. Like a giant hole that you fall into: the worse the conflict gets, the bigger and deeper the hole becomes.

You are stuck.

So what can we do when conflict becomes so hopelessly stuck?

1. Ignore your instincts. In conflict our instincts lie to us. Our instincts tell us that we are always right and the other person is always wrong. Our instincts feed off our biases. They tell us that no matter what the other side is doing it must be bad, since they are bad, and your reasoning is good because you are good. Following your instincts might feel satisfying in the moment but it can come at a high price. How do our adult conflicts affect children? What is the impact on seniors when their children are in conflict? Will conflict prevent a disabled individual from getting much needed support? Ignore your instincts. Take a step back and gain some perspective before taking action.

2. Acknowledge the complexity. A client of mine was hurt by something his sister did. He responded by doing something hurtful in return. This pattern continued with each one hurting the other until they eventually stopped speaking. The conflict became so painful that the only way to stop the pain was to sever the relationship. As it so often does, the conflict took on a life of its own, growing larger with each retaliation. In fact, conflict like this often goes on so long that those involved have difficulty remembering just how it began in the first place.

Here’s the truth, whether you want to hear it or not… I have yet to mediate a disagreement where one side is entirely right and the other side is entirely wrong. Conflict is never that simple.

Maybe it is bigger than just one disagreement. Maybe there are outside forces that are beyond either side’s control.

By accepting the fact that conflict is complex, we begin to shift our thinking away from blame and open the door to reconciliation.

3. Find an opening. Conflict is hard, especially those with long histories, and to protect ourselves, we build defensive walls. Those walls prevent us from seeing things from the other person’s perspective. Explore those little cracks in the wall and see if there isn’t a way to open them up a bit. Is there a common interest? Someone or something that both sides can appreciate together? A reason to celebrate together? These openings, no matter how small, can be just enough for communication to flow and empathy to grow.

4. Change your patterns. What you have been doing isn’t working. If it was, you wouldn’t still be in conflict. So try something different! Do something unexpected such as sending the other person a card on their birthday. Or if you aren’t ready for such a bold move, try a smaller shift in your own life. Learn to think about the conflict differently. What could you do to move away from negative thoughts and actions? By changing your patterns, you force the conflict to change too.

These little changes may seem insignificant but over time they can alter the landscape of our relationships. Maybe things will never be perfectly smooth, but the goal isn’t perfection. The goal is to develop new patterns and become unstuck.

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