A Powerful Conflict Resolution Model

When we’re in a conflict, we tend to think that the best way to resolve it is to stick with our point of view as strongly as possible. We’ve been taught that one of us is going to win and the other is going to lose, and we don’t want to be the loser. There’s often a weird feeling that there’s doom attached to losing, and so we fight desperately to keep to our position. Strangely, the reality is that this strategy doesn’t often work, especially if you’re trying to be part of a long-term relationship—be it romantic, business, parent-child, friend-to-friend, whatever.

What if there were a way that had a higher percentage of actually resolving problems and conflicts? There is! I learned it a long time ago. It comes from Process Work, developed by Arnold Mindell, Ph.D.—a kind of therapy I specialized in for a long time.

The “Three-Legged Stool” of Conflict Resolution

Think of a conflict as having three basic positions: my position, your position and the “objective observer” position. It looks like this:

Conflict Resolution Zoe Zimmermann

Which Position Are You In Now?

The first job is to become aware of which position you’re starting in. Are you actually advocating for your own position, “My Position” in the figure above, or are you—without being aware of it—advocating for the other person’s position, “Your Position” in the figure. How can you tell? Well, let’s say the conflict is between a parent and teen. The parent wants the teen to be home by ten. The teen wants to stay out as late as she wants. As the parent, you’re saying, “If you come home later than ten, you won’t be able to get up in the morning to go to school.” In that case, you’re already in “My Position.”  But if you’re saying, “I know you want to have fun with your friends,” you’re in “Your Position,” that is, for the moment, you’re taking the teen’s point of view.

Standing for the Position You’re In

Whatever position you find yourself in, take it over as fully as you can. In the example above, “My Position” for the parent might be: “To me, school is most important. I want you to take responsibility for getting there on time every day, and I’m afraid that that’s not your priority. I worry that you’ll have a hard time in life if you don’t focus on school now.”

If you find yourself in your child’s position, “Your Position” above, you can stand for that position: “I know you want to have fun with your friends. I remember hanging out and talking for hours and I never wanted to leave. It seemed so rich being with them, and I learned so much from their experiences, from sharing mine, and a lot more.”

Helping the Other Person Stand for Their Side

If you find yourself in “My Position,” and you’ve stood for it, then it’s important to help the other person stand for their position, expressing it as fully as possible. You can start by asking the other person to tell you what they’re thinking or feeling. If they get stuck or are afraid they’ll get shot down, you can start them off.

So maybe the teen in the above scenarios “My Position” would be: I AM focusing on school. Don’t you realize that I’ve been getting mostly A’s in my classes? I only want to stay out later for specific events. How about if I let you know ahead of time when I want to stay out later, and for what?” Either you or the teen can express this position.

Anticipating the Other’s Concerns

The teen can help her or his position by taking the parent’s position and anticipating what the parent’s worries are: “I know you’re worried that school is not a priority for me and that all I’m thinking about is having fun with my friends. I do like to hang out with my friends. But I always make sure I do my homework before it’s due, and I’ve been acing all my tests. I know it’s important to you that I plan for college and for my future. I’ve been thinking about which colleges I want to apply to. College is really important to me, too.”

Switching Positions Helps with Conflict Resolution

With this three position conflict resolution model, you each switch back and forth between “My Position” and “Your Position,” continuing to express each position as fully as possible. The parent literally steps in and speaks as if he/she is the teen and the teen steps in and speaks as if he/she is the parent. You keep alternating between your own position and the other person’s position.

More and more information tends to come out, until the situation is resolved in a really deep way. It’s important, when taking a position, especially “Your Position,” to really stand in the position and speak ONLY from that position. It can be tempting to be sarcastically in “Your Position” or to be pretending to be in it while really coming more from “My Position.” If you’re speaking from the other person’s position, really feel into it and, for the moment, speak as if you actually are the other person, or come from a place where you really relate to their position. You can do this by remembering when you might have been in their position at some point in your life, or imagining being in it.

Objective Observer

The “Objective Observer” position can be really useful, too. One example is when you’re stuck and don’t know how to move further toward conflict resolution. You can step outside yourselves and, in your imagination, “see” yourselves. Notice what you see and step in and be it. Maybe you notice that the “you” in front of you is feeling hurt and small. Rather than trying to counteract that and be strong, go back into yourself and really show how small and hurt you are, maybe by letting yourself cry or by folding up into a small ball, etc. Actually showing what’s going on can help, because, much of the time, we don’t see or hear each other’s messages if they’re too subtle. When we make ourselves more visible, the other person can react to what’s actually going on instead of what they imagine is going on. This often moves us toward resolution.

Check out my page on Relationships.


Wishing you a free and joyous life,


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