Conflict Resolution 2: Understanding the Need Beneath the Action

4290805_lNonviolent Communication (or NVC), and other tools I work with, are about understanding the need that underlies the action. If I can understand why someone just did a really mean thing, I can understand why, and we have an opportunity to resolve it.

It’s still not okay to be a jerk to someone, but, without knowing why it happened and why, we can’t even get at a forward momentum for resolution, everything we do will just be rehash.

Nonviolent Communication is a technique that I frequently use. The book by the same name by Marshall Rosenberg is an excellent resource. The tool does have a bit of a learning curve, but it’s especially useful if many people in a local community are working to learn and practice it.

In the Conflict Resolution Part 1, I focused a lot on conflict avoidance. I have found that the simple strategy of “when, not if” helps tremendously. Not looking at it as, if a conflict happens, but when. That tends to lower the stress level around addressing the conflict, because I’m not looking at it from the squeamish perspective of, “Maybe I can get out of addressing this.” It’s more, “When will I choose to address this?”

Because that conflict is not going to go away. What you have to do first is understand the nature of the conflict to determine how to address it.

Person Causing the Drama
The person who’s frustrated and whose needs aren’t being met is likely to consistently keep beating their head against the wall engaging in ineffective strategies to try and meet those needs.

Effective strategies is a keyword here. A lot of the process of therapy is centered around trying to reprogram ourselves to stop engaging in ineffective strategies and harmful coping mechanisms, and move towards actual effective strategies to meet our needs.

But first, we have to understand what our needs are, and acknowledge them. And we have a lot of cultural shame around certain needs. For instance, the need for sex. I probably don’t need to go into the cultural shame around this. A more complicated need is the need to be unique, to be seen and valued, to be special. But we’re told as kids, “Children should be seen and not heard,” we’re told to not want the spotlight, to not be selfish like that. You can see where our genuine needs come into conflict with societal morals and shaming.

Digging Deep: What do we Need?
My mentor Cynthia Jones at Diana’s Grove came up with an astrological model of human needs based on the 12 signs of the zodiac. I took her work as presented in a workshop, and formatted it into a visual graphic. It’s not about “what’s your sign,” it’s that each of us has all 12 signs, all 12 needs, it’s just that we have them in different weights and measures. It’s a useful metaphor to understand different categories of human needs. And these needs are normal.

However, when we learn that a certain need is “bad,” that creates a shadow. We hate the part of ourselves that needs that. And so we hide it, we lock it away. So there’s that basic human need many of us have for sex and for pleasure. Basic human need, right? But how much shame do we have out of wanting pleasure? How many of us blush about talking about sex, or try to hide the fact that we masturbate?

Needing sex isn’t bad…it’s when we end up harming others out of our attempts to get that need met that it’s a problem. Like, lying about your life to pick someone up in a bar, or cheating on a partner, or seducing a student.

Compassion for Needs
Understanding people from the perspective of a whole constellation of needs that we each have becomes a useful tool in groups to identify where a behavior that’s harmful to the group was sourced by someone’s genuine human need.

An example is the woman I mentioned in the last conflict resolution blog post, the one who wanted to be seen as “The Writer.” She had a genuine human need to be seen and valued for work she did well. That wasn’t bad. What was bad was that her attempt to be seen and valued for that was expressed by her attacking me in meetings.

Understanding someone’s need–even if they were a jerk to me–gives me compassion for them. I can then actually work with them to find a better strategy to meet their need.

However, there’s also a point where someone hits what I call the three strikes rule. If someone continues to be a jerk, even if we’ve had a “this isnt’ working” conversation a few times, then I may need to cut my ties and stop working with them, or if they are participants in a group I’m leading, I may need to ask them to leave the group. Some people are beyond my pay grade. Some people are not able to be self reflective and see their behavior and how they are harming others. And others may see it, but be unable (at least at this time) to change that behavior.

I will, in almost instances, give someone the opportunity to shift their behavior. But if they don’t, then my compassion for them trying to meet their needs has a limit. Just because someone’s trying to meet a genuine need doesn’t mean it’s ok for them to harm me, or my group. Again, I have compassion for people who are frustrated trying to meet a need. But, if they are continuing to be a jerk, willfully so, that’s where I hold a boundary.

Realism in Conflicts
This is a bit of a bummer, but it’s really relevant. Not all wounds can be healed. What I mean is, there isn’t always a pat “Kumbaya” moment where the perpetrator of an abusive situation breaks down and realizes how wrong they were, and goes into therapy to change their life, and the people who were harmed smile and forgive them and it all works out.

Life isn’t that clean.

Worse, I think, are the moments when the perpetrator of an abuse breaks down and begs forgiveness, promises to change, and then people accept them back into their lives for another round of eventually declining behavior and future abuse until they end up in the same situation, or worse.

I’ve been the victim in that situation before. I’ve taken a repeat abuser back into my life. It’s really easy to do. Even with all the personal growth work that I’ve done, and the leadership work that I teach, it can be hard to discern if someone is going to actually change their behavior, or if they aren’t.

Self Transformation
I am an optimist, and at first, I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and I believe in people’s ability to change themselves, transform themselves. I have transformed myself, and I’ve witnessed others do the same. It’s a beautiful thing, and people are beautiful and deserving of second chances.

Some people are genuinely just going through a rough time in their lives. I know I’ve lashed out in some nasty ways when I was going through a terrible time, or when I was stuck in depression or being emotionally abused. I’ve seen a lot of people go through something and hit bottom and come back.

Alcoholics can get clean. A very good friend of mine was hurting me and others when he got addicted to hard drugs, and he quit and made something of his life.

However, some people aren’t going to change. Maybe it’s brain chemistry, maybe it’s a lifetime of them suffering their own abuses…whatever it is, in this lifetime, they aren’t going to change how they treat people. And you can’t fix them. Let me say it again. You cannot fix them.

When faced with someone like that, I do my due diligence. I give them every opportunity. But at a certain point, I recognize that that person isn’t going to change. They aren’t going to–at least for now–engage in a healthier strategy to meet their needs. And that my staying in any relationship with them–friends, romantic, group/professional, is not healthy for me. And at that point, the only thing I can do is cut them out of my life. In some cases, that means kicking someone out of a group.

I wish I had a magic wand to just “fix” people who are hurting themselves and others. But I don’t have that.

Hamsterwheeling: Trying to Make Sense of Illogical Behaviors
When I was in one particular abusive situation, I just about drove myself nuts trying to make logical sense out of his actions. Wanting him to make sense, wanting him to want healing, wanting to understand how he could do XYZ.

It wasn’t until talking to several psychotherapists that I understood that this particular individual has all the red flags for Borderline Personality Disorder. While they couldn’t diagnose him officially (he wasn’t their client), they explained the pattern of behavior, and further, explained that there wasn’t any “making sense” out of it. That my attempts to rationalize that behavior were fruitless, they were a hamsterwheel. They were me, and my rational mind, trying to make sense of someone’s actions that were not rational.

Without help–and, possibly even with help due to the nature of that mental illness–he was going to keep doing it, there was probably no changing the situation.

In some cases, healing isn’t possible. Sometimes all you can do is cut someone out of your life. And that sucks.

Needs and Resolving Conflict
Sometimes, however, getting to understand someone’s unmet needs is the way to resolve a conflict. However, each party involved in the conflict has to be honest about what they want. And has to be honest about their needs. And that usually requires looking in the mirror and admitting to things that–culturally–we’re taught to be embarrassed about.

Often what people want out of a conflict resolution is for the other person to apologize and vindicate them, prove them to be “right.” If that’s what you want, you have to own that. But, you also need to look deeper at the needs beneath that. Why do you need that? What needs aren’t you getting met?

Often the “need to be right” all the time that is present in people who are KnowItAlls is, deep down, a need to be loved and valued by others because they themselves have very poor self esteem and a poor self image. I know a lot about this one–I used to be very guilty of it. Somehow I equated “being right” with “being good” with “I have value.” Later, I learned that being a KnowItAll was contributing to my status as a social outcast. Amazingly, once I stopped being such a KnowItAll, I had more friends, and my self esteem improved.

This is where the idea of conflict resolution connects to a process of therapy, or at least ,relentless personal growth work. If your behavior in a relationship or group is causing a conflict, you have to look at the needs you are trying to get met and the unhealthy, ineffective strategies that you are employing to meet that need.

First you have to acknowledge you have a need. Next, you need to acknowledge that you’re engaging in a harmful strategy to meet that need.

Maybe you’re being the KnowItAll and you are interrupting meetings to point out how someone else is wrong, or argue over minutia, or even interrupting someone else’s workshop. Maybe you dominate a conversation with the stuff that you know, even if others weren’t talking about your topics of interest and expertise.

Then, you need to actually commit to changing that behavior. A group leader can help you find a way to meet that need in a better way–perhaps establishing you as the person who will write an article on the sabbats, or on myths, or some other area of interest. I’ve worked with people in my groups before, including working out some hand signals or other communication to let them know when they were acting out again in a subtle way that wouldn’t shame them in front of the group.

Needs, Therapy, and Successful Strategies
A process of therapy is often very useful in continuing to explore the unsuccessful strategies you use to meet your needs, and work to establish healthier, successful strategies. Our own Ego–our self identity–is the biggest block in this process. Ego’s job is to make you look good, to make sure you like yourself. So we don’t want to identify ourselves as someone who is “bad.” That might look like, “I’m bad if I’m a KnowItAll.” (Trust me, I’ve been there on that one.)

So we have to circumvent our ego, our identity, and acknowledge, hey, I do this thing, because I’m trying to be seen and valued, and I’m not bad, I’m just going about it in a crappy way, and I can change that behavior.

However–life’s not that clean. the strategies I’m discussing above are tremendously useful for conflict resolution if people actually do them. If people are actually self reflective enough to look at their behaviors and acknowledge that they need to make a change. Most of the time, people engaging in these behaviors will rigorously dig in their heels. They will not admit to being wrong.

Because, being “wrong” is being “bad” and ego can’t take being seen as “bad.” In fact, most egomaniacal and arrogant behavior is typically covering over really, really poor self esteem. If you want a magical exercise to work on this in yourself, I suggest the Iron Pentacle exercised, particularly working with the Rusted and Gilded pentacles. I believe you can do some of this work in T. Thorn Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft book, but there are also various resources for it if you Google it. If you have the opportunity to take an Iron Pentacle class, even better.

Ego, Egotism, and Conflict Resolution
Ego isn’t bad. Ego is just our identity. It’s just that our ego can be a little overzealous in its job.

For a conflict resolution to work, all parties need to understand their own needs and desires. They need to be honest about them. And, all parties need to be willing to explore their own egos, and egotism, and need to be right, and fear of being “bad.”

Again, it’s been my experience that people who are engaging in some of the most unsuccessful–and harmful–coping strategies to get their needs met, are also the folks who have the poorest self-esteem. And thus in response, they have the most overzealous and protective egoes, and that manifests in egotism and arrogance.

Those are the folks least likely to come to the mediation table, and the least likely to back down even when they are clearly in the wrong.

So, do the work to understand your own needs, and the needs of those in your group. Understand the needs beneath the conflict. Try to actually be able to articulate the needs, and the unsuccessful strategies that are harming the group. And if someone isn’t willing to hear it, be prepared to cut ties.

And keep in mind, if you’re going into a conflict resolution because you are dead set on wanting to be “right,” you probably need to do a bit of work on your own shadows around your needs, your identity, your self esteem. If each of us did this rigorous personal work, we would have far healthier groups, and less conflicts.

Stay tuned! Conflict Resolution 3 will come out tomorrow.


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