Understanding disagreements and conflicts
Basic factors of conflicts and disagreements
When there is conflicts or disagreements, there must be a basic understanding of the situation. What are the conditions, the goals, the bargaining positions, the scope of negotiations, and the attitude while negotiating and looking for a solution? In this article, we will look at the basics of understanding and identifying the problem.
It doesn’t matter if you are a trainer in an international team or you are the smallest of the 4 brothers and sisters in your family. It doesn’t matter if you are a government representative at a climate action conference or a CEO of a company board, you will still have to bargain with the others for your position. People bargain because they have disagreements about how they should proceed in the future.
The future looks different from each perspective: each one of the kids believes that she/he should be the one to have the biggest room in the house. Your government believes that they should not sign the environmental protection agreement, and on the other side, there are 98% of the other countries who do believe you should sign it. If you are a trainer, each one has a different view of what is equal pay vs the amount of work according to their experience, expertise and responsibility, not working hours. Sometimes it sounds way too complicated to bring two sides to an agreement, but many times it is much simpler than anticipated.
I have spent years working on different conflicts – peacebuilding and conflict resolution training for young people and adults from countries in conflict or war, mediations during acquisitions or mergers in the corporate world, up to simply advising friends who don’t speak to each other for several years.
What I learned through the years is that the basics are nearly the same. This also comes as a conclusion when looking at different literature. The framework that I will use in this series of articles is going to be from “Getting to Yes” which is written by Roger Fischer who is a professor at Harvard Law and William Ury who is cofounder of Harvard´s Program on Negotiation. The situations will be often adjusted to the reality of the trainers’ live and work.
There are several key moments that everyone should observe in order to understand the problem:
Bargaining over positions
Before we start, it’s important to make a distinction between two very important terms:
Goals are the wanted outcomes of the negotiation.
The position is the standpoint, concerning the ability to achieve the goals.
During disagreements, people often hide some of their goals in the negotiation. That makes the compromise point more difficult to reveal because of several reasons: they might be embarrassed, they might not want to reveal their end goals because of the negotiations position, they might want to have the upper hand or they might believe that the reasoning behind is their private matter. Sometimes there is no good reason, but we still do it.
The positions are there to simplify the matters – Anna thinks each trainer should get paid equally. On the opposite side, Tony and Maria think that everyone should get paid based on merit, experience, expertise and responsibility, but they don’t want to say that in front of Anna because it might affect the team dynamics. The question is – at which point are they prepared to compromise?
Naturally, people think that the solution or the compromise is somewhere in the middle. Yet, it is always much more complicated than that.
Many times, the starting positions of the sides are exaggerated or understated, some of the goals hidden, so it is difficult to find the point of compromise which is often perceived as a middle ground. Let’s give an example of what the involved people left unsaid:
Anna´s position is everyone to have equal pay, but the goal is to get recognized as an equal part of the team and to bargain for more money because her apartment rent just got 30% higher. The other two trainers believe that everyone should get equal pay, but don’t want to take the whole load of the work and to get paid less than what they believe is fair. Maria additionally differs from Tony, since she comes from Norway where the average salary is twice as high as Tony’s who comes from Italy, so she believes that she should get paid more. Although the starting positions about the salary are clear for each of the 3 parties, the underlying goals for each one are different which makes the disagreement more difficult to understand. Always take into consideration that there might be other goals that are not voiced out and try to get to the bottom of the disagreement, especially if things don’t make sense to you the way they are explained.
Please keep in mind the goals and positions change over time.
Tony might easily agree to a compromise now because he is avoiding big conflicts and dramatic situations because of his recent work overload. However, that might change in 2 weeks when he will have much calmer times.
In 2 years when Anna will have better financial sustainability, she might not care so much about the salary, but more of the equal position in the team that can be expressed in a different way than financial.
Being nice is never the answer.
Being polite and working on a positive relationship is important but avoiding the “pink elephant” in the room is not the answer. Many times it happens that people avoid talking about difficult or sensitive topics, or they agree to compromise just to avoid uncomfortable situations. Only later they find out that they agreed to something that they are not truly prepared for. For example: in the negotiations, Anna, Tony and Maria could have accepted to have half of the salary to be on equal pay and the other half to be determent based on experience and responsibility. That somehow seems the middle way of the positions that they have. But, the question is – did they agree because the discussions took too long and everyone started feeling uncomfortable, or that this is a solution that everyone believes is the fair compromise?
If Anna accepted the agreement but not believing that is fair, she might express the disagreement differently – she will not perform as well as she can(quiet resistance, being late, quality of work), might never work with that team again, maybe she won’t be so dedicated as she normally is, or she would be focused on other things than her primary job. If Maria and Tony accepted the agreement but not believing in it, they might make the workshops with less effort and quality, might talk to other people about the unfair situation, might not bond as a team.
And these are only a few of the possible reactions. Therefore, in order to prevent that, being nice is never good when trying to understand the disagreement. You should take your feelings into consideration, and pay attention to how you are addressing the issue. Even when you genuinely care about the interest of the other side, always address the real problem and ask the other side to do the same.
You should try to “dig deeper” and find out the true goals, if things are dysfunctional for a longer time.
When there are many sides, positional bargaining is even worse
Was it really complicated to come to the bottom of what the goals were in Maria´s, Anna´s and Tony´s disagreement? What if we must agree with 10 other people? What about 1000 more people? Or the whole country? What about decisions that concern the whole world?
Imagine that on a forum with 150 countries, they are trying to reach one agreement – to have a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions in each country. Most countries agree flat out. Few countries don’t. Each of those countries is not 100% unified over the goals nor the positions, which makes multiple goals that might drive in different directions. One country is not accepting the agreement because of the effect it can have on the economy, but another might do it because they have plenty of fossil fuels and they will lose the leading position in the world. The third won’t agree because they are already lagging behind with renewable sources and this agreement might just increase the gap.
Finding one magical solution that will satisfy all sides is impossible. That is why conflict resolution and mediation is extremely difficult, slow and it doesn’t work when there are multiple parties with multiple positions.
However, in existing disagreements, it is always better to deal with fewer people and to try to understand their goals independently from their positions.
There is always an alternative
Many times the disagreements are so big and complex, that the people involved believe there is no alternative, there is no good solution. In the last 10 years nothing is changed, but, while there is no change in the positions, the goals, the people involved, the context or the situation might have changed.
Tony and Maria might believe that Anna is very strong-minded and won’t change the position, but she might have taken a job where she experienced her being the most experienced in the team and she might find it unfair of being equally paid with all the inexperienced trainers and her doing the “most of the job”. In time her position might soften, or she might completely change her perspective.
Even the most devastating conflicts get solved over time. After years of civil war in Rwanda between the Tutsi and Hutu, most of the people don’t use their tribal names anymore but identify themselves as Rwandans. France and Germany are in peace for more than 75 years. The world signed the Paris Climate accord. With time, the context might change, the leadership might change, the people involved in the negotiation might change, or have their approach evolve, the overall opinion or feeling might change. So, never lose hope, there is always an alternative.
It happens often that people don’t observe all the possible ways because they are stuck on several most obvious ones. Therefore, in order to understand the disagreements better, try changing the perspective, talk with different people, think from a different perspective. The disagreement might seem much simpler if observed from the right perspective.
How does this relate to being a trainer?
Working as a trainer or youth worker, you will face many disagreements, conflicts, and differences of opinions with fellow trainers, youngsters, partners, participants, externals, organizers. You might work in a team with people that you don’t like or appreciate, or you might have serious differences in opinions and approaches with your partners. This can happen within your team, with external partners, between the participants themselves or with your team. You might have very little time to evaluate, observe and talk to different involved parties, and even shorter time to act. Therefore, it is important to understand the situation from the very beginning, to be able to identify the problem as quickly as possible and to take into consideration several key factors.
The ability to understand the conflict/disagreement will determine your reaction and how constructive is the role you take, the further turnout of events, that can lead to influencing the end goal of your teamwork or purpose. Unsolved conflict or disagreement might have a domino effect on the rest of your work.
Observe the next conflict or disagreements in your team – differentiate between the position and the goal of each side
During discussions try to avoid making agreements because you don’t want to disagree. Address the uncomfortable situation and put effort into planning and thinking it trough. These things improve by practice.
Observe the dynamics in a small team vs in big teams. List out all the favorable/unfavorable factors when bargaining in small vs big groups.
Start thinking about the biggest conflicts that you had in your life. Analyze them once more from today’s perspective. See if something is changed and if there is a new solution insight.
Reflect with your team about the last several disagreements you had and try to identify the problem.
Reflect yourself on the most difficult conflicts and why are they so difficult
Reflect on an agreement that you felt you were too nice and you weren’t supposed to accept the solution. Think of the different possible outcomes, if you have chosen different alternatives.
Reflect on the negotiations of nations, in the UN, in Nato and other alliances. Think of the complexity of goals, interests, positions and processes.
An audio file of the book can be found on Audible: