If I win you will lose. If you win I will lose.
If we think of conflict as a one-dimensional struggle between two forces, we can make the conflict easy to understand. If you’re wrong then I’m right If what I want is good, what you want is bad. It’s a tug-of-war between two positions and there are only four ways to resolve it: you win, I win, we compromise (we both lose something) or we end up in a stalemate.
Negotiating between two positions, what you want and what I want, the assumption is that the resolution is just somewhere on the compromise line presented above. In this graphic representation we limit ourselves to a solution that exists on the line between “You Win” and “I Win”. These constraints also limit our process options and choices in how we resolve the conflict. If you don’t give in or compromise, I’ll either have to use force to change your mind or seek an outside decision maker. I either gave up my agency or made you give up yours.
These limited options for both process and resolution explain why conflict often leaves people hopeless and powerless, as if losing control or becoming bullies. The good news is that we don’t have to resort to these methods when expanding our view of conflict beyond a dimension.
In a two-dimensional conflict model there are significantly more possibilities for solving and problem solving. Below the compromise line, there are numerous options where we both lose more than a compromise. This is often the result of litigation as the emotional and financial costs of fighting reduce the potential outcome around those costs. A fight is not a zero-sum game.
However, there are numerous options over the line as well.
There are options where we can both get what we want when looking at conflict in two dimensions instead of one. A two-dimensional conflict resolution model examines the possibility that conflict resembles an Olympic race rather than a tug of war.
Most Olympics racers know they won’t beat the favorites, Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. Then why do they show up? They still come to the race because they are running for something else. You can run against your own time. They can race to show their pride in their country.
They crossed the finish line just like the “winner of the race”.
but they won something else.
We often assume that everyone in the race has the same goal and based on that assumption we see one winner and the rest as losers. This is an over-simplification. We know that most people have no chance of beating Usain Bolt in a race, and at the same time, we may still be successful people. We have different goals. Even Usain Bolt will “lose” his share of races to others, and that doesn’t change what he’s accomplished in the past.
The outcome of conflict can be a success for everyone involved if we look at conflict differently, if we look beyond the tug-of-war and find that our goals can in some ways overlap and in other ways diverge. Even this two-dimensional model is limiting because it assumes that our own interests are linear. As complex beings, not only do we have multiple interests, some of our own interests can conflict.
Indeed, the most accurate way of looking at conflict can be an incomplete sphere of intersecting lines of interest. When we look at conflict in this way, we can see that any conflict has many, many possible solutions, and is based on many potential competing interests. The skills and techniques used by mediators and other conflict resolution experts are designed to help people in conflict step back and see the forest through the trees. When people see their conflict differently than a three-dimensional problem that they can solve together, the process of finding a solution can be as complex and beautiful as this sphere.
The most revolutionary transformation of the conflict comes when we let go of the rope between us and see ourselves not as enemies but as common observers of the problem. If we leave behind a one-dimensional view of conflict, we can all be more creative problem solvers. A two- or three-dimensional view of conflict also frees us from the need to use force or give up control in order to resolve the conflict. When we are problem solvers together, conflict is a challenge that we can address together, and the process itself leads to a better understanding of each other’s core interests.
In conflicts between people who have an enduring relationship, such as families, neighbors, and co-workers, this process of understanding can actually help resolve (and perhaps even prevent) future conflicts. It may sound cheesy at first, but this broader model of conflict resolution can help us see the potential beauty both in the process and in solving a challenge. It can help us recognize opportunity in conflict and remove the fear that drives us to avoid conflict.
When we face conflicts (both within ourselves and with others) we can better understand our place in the world and expand our selves and relationships. Let us no longer fear conflicts, but better understand how beautiful, complex and complex they are – the relationship with our identity.