Five responses to people in conflict

In dealing with people in conflict, I come across a range of emotions such as pain, anger, frustration, fear, hopelessness, despair … and everything else in between. However, what they say, surprisingly, often boils down to a few common phrases. I have included my usual response to help clients move from believing something outside themselves (such as a magic wand) will fix things for them to accepting their role in changing the situation.

  1. ‘It isn’t fair’

No, it isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. As we learned from The Princess Bride, ‘Whoever told you life was fair was trying to sell you something’. Even the law is not fair. In fact, the law and fairness often have nothing to do with each other. It’s a very hard thing to face, but nobody has ever argued with me when I’ve said this to them.

  1. ‘I just want their behaviour to stop’

Of course you do. You’re having a really hard time and feel you can’t keep going any longer. But, if change is to occur, you have to do something and you only have three choices:

  • Fix it
  • Live with it
  • Leave

They’re the only three choices you have. It may be worth trying to fix it because usually you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. You may be able to live with it if you can get some extra support, like conflict coaching. Leaving may be a great option if you really want to move on and already have something lined up. Only you can know the best call for you; just be aware of your options and the support available.

  1. ‘They don’t believe me’

Everybody believes what they want to believe, and there is not a lot you can do about it. The internet contains ample evidence that people believe the most ridiculous things (the world is flat, climate change is not occurring, my team can win a premiership one day). Whatever you want to believe, you will find others who believe it with you. So, you can only tell them your truth. If they choose not to believe it, at least you’ve done your best.

  1. ‘Everyone agrees with me’

Each side has a cheer squad. They’re the people on your side. They point out X’s mistakes, and let you know what they overheard X did, or what X said in a meeting. They think they’re doing you a favour by keeping you informed of what X is up to, but they become a constant reminder that you’re right: X is stupid, lazy, manipulative, micro-managing (strike out those not applicable). But as Stephen Sondheim reminded us in Into the Woods, ‘Someone is on your side; someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot. They are not alone’. And, really, your cheer squad doesn’t matter: this is about you. What you want for yourself; not their expectations of you. If anyone else has problems with X, it’s up to them to do something about it.

  1. ‘I don’t know why they think I’m behind it’

If people don’t know something, they make it up because that’s what our brains are programmed to do. We see patterns and seek explanations. So, if we don’t know who started something, we come up with an answer that fits the facts as we know them, and then usually spread our theory far and wide. Sometimes we say it so often it stops being a theory to us and becomes a fact. The only way to counter this is to tell what you know to be true, while accepting point 3 above.

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