Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander tells a story about a childhood cello lesson. After three unsuccessful attempts to play a certain passage, he put down his bow in frustration. In response, his elderly teacher leaned over and whispered, “What? You’ve been practicing it for three minutes and you still can’t play it?”
I like to tell this story at the beginning of my fall-term course, Interpersonal Conflict Resolution, in which my mediation students explore the difficult and fulfilling art of working through conflict. Effective conflict resolution has a long list of things it isn’t: It isn’t quick, certainly. It isn’t formulaic-there is no conflict resolution recipe. It isn’t about fixing the other person’s flaws. It isn’t about avoiding and hoping it will go away. And it isn’t successful without commitment.
Effective conflict resolution is a combination of self-reflection outside the “hot moments” of a dispute, regular practice of a few key basic skill sets, commitment to long-term improvement in the way we engage conflict, and most importantly, a learning frame of mind during a dispute. Instead of approaching conflict as a competition (“how can I win it?”) or as a problem (“how can I solve it?”), we need to approach conflict as a learning opportunity (“what can I learn from it?”).
Engaging in conflict as competition may serve our own egos or our own interests quite well, at least in the short term, but it doesn’t do a lot for the other person. Taking the competitive approach to conflict resolution tends to leave debris in our wake and can diminish our relationships. For the important relationships in our lives-those with family, neighbors and co-workers, for instance-winning an argument trades long-term effectiveness for short-term gratification.
A challenge, of course, is that many of us have been raised to engage in conflict with this frame of mind, though it manifests itself differently in each of us. Some of us move quickly to verbal combat. Others of us win by walking away and dismissing the conflict or the other person. The rest of us are somewhere between the two extremes.
Engaging in conflict as a problem to be solved is also enticing, particularly to those of us whose identities are closely connected to “being a good problem solver.”
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.