Dealing with Conflict and Controversy

Conflict, by its nature, includes two competing ideas, versions of events, or wished-for outcomes. With conflict often comes the desire to win—to get my ideal at the expense of the other. 

As any good mediator will tell you, in order to resolve conflict this kind of zero-sum/either-or thinking has to be replaced with another way. 

Stating why I am right and you are wrong only escalates conflict further. 

In the world of instant communication, Facebook battles, Twitter wars, and texting combat can go on ad infinitum. Airing anger and struggling for domination may feel really good (trust me, I know), but it does nothing to resolve anything. 

Robert Kegan, Ph.D., identified a stage of development called the Self-Transforming Mind occurring in some humans, only after mid-age. At this stage, a person develops both-andthinking—the ability to hold two competing ideas, versions of events, or desired outcomes and recognizing there is truth in both. 

This kind of thinking can lead to better, more creative solutions. 

If we truly want to resolve conflict, the first step is to give up defending and open up to listening. 

Each side needs to share fully and deeply, to be heard and understood, not just the words but their meaning. 

This means being brave enough to listen and witness without judgement the deeply held beliefs fueling the conflict, the perceived harms or hurts, the woundedness, the anger, and often fear that lie at the heart of the controversy. 

Until each party has an opportunity to share and be acknowledged, resolution is impossible. 

Once a person feels fully heard and understood, only then can she really access her ability to work on potential solutions. Until then, she will be fully absorbed in the story and the pain that goes with it. And, she will defend her viewpoint and her right to win. 

What if the other side won’t listen? What if they continue to badger and brag, taunt and provoke? That’s a very likely possibility. 

Without the intervention of a reasonable third party who is willing to act as a neutral to facilitate the conversation it can be really hard to get traction on your own, but you should at least try. 

Ask questions, listen, reflect and see if that begins to defuse the situation. If it does, listen some more. Invite an opportunity to hear and really understand where the other side is coming from. 

Once you understand more, try to share your thoughts and feelings without blame or judgement. 

Use a three-part assertion statement: When (concrete action), I feel (emotion), because (impact on you). Example: When I saw those comments on Facebook, I felt defensive, because I wanted to make you understand my viewpoint. Then explain what you hope for and see if you can work together to brainstorm some solutions that meet both of your needs. 

If, even after your best efforts, you still can’t make progress, ask yourself if there is a way to get your needs met without this person. How can you take the energy and time you are putting into trying to convince the other person or group of your point of view and instead put that energy into getting the outcome you desire?  

Extract yourself from the battle and decide who you want to be and what you want to be known for. Ask yourself, how would I behave if I were my best self? How can I make the difference I seek and get the outcome I want without this person or group? Then get to work!

Bobbie L. Dillon, MS, is a Conflict Management Specialist who works with individuals and organizations to help them use effective communication and constructive conflict to reach their goals. Learn more at