Even after a dispute has been resolved, distrust and tension can linger. Even when you’ve made every effort to resolve a conflict, the other person may seem stuck in it still. Is there anything you can do when someone you live, work with, or serve doesn’t seem to be moving on after conflict? There is, but first, you need to understand why.
What prevents someone from letting go and moving on after conflict? Here are some of the most common reasons I come across in my mediation and coaching work:
Something is unfinished for them. There’s something in the conflict that hasn’t been attended to sufficiently and continues to nag at them. Even if you feel it’s all done, that may not be their experience at all. Consider asking, Is there something we haven’t discussed that’s still lingering for you?
They fear a stone has been left unturned. They may think there’s something else that can still be done. Or that all the options weren’t thoroughly discovered and considered. Or that you all haven’t given it your best shot. Consider asking, Is there something we haven’t tried that you wish we had?
They have a stuck story. Like a movie trailer, a stuck story is a montage of the most interesting moments in a conflict, with certain scenes magnified and others omitted. It’s not the story of the conflict; it’s their story of the conflict (you have one too). I wrote a whole book on this; it’s an easy read and people tell me it’s helped them find their freedom again.
The conflict has become a habit. When states of conflict and tension go on long enough, they can become habits of mind (like stuck stories) and body (in the ways we interact). Even when a conflict has been attended to and there’s sufficient satisfaction with a resolution or agreement, the old habits may take longer to change. They may be waiting to see if the solution will really work. They may not even be aware that the old habits are still in play. Consider observing, I’m noticing you still do X when I do Y, like when we were angry with each other. Have you noticed that too?
There’s something they haven’t yet said or heard. Maybe there’s something on their mind and they haven’t drummed up the courage to say it out loud yet. Maybe there’s something they’re waiting to hear from you. Consider asking, Is there anything you’ve been waiting to say or hear?
It isn’t really over. Sometimes, hurrying to resolution can leave something undone or not understood. Maybe they felt compelled to agree to something they still have reservations about. Maybe the resolution served you more than it served them. Maybe the resolution didn’t really end up working for them after all. The list of possibilities here is quite long. Consider asking, Is there something about the problem between us that’s still unresolved for you?
You’re reading into it. Maybe you’re the one with the stuck story, the habit of mind or body. Maybe you suspect something wasn’t fully addressed. Maybe something’s eating at you. Consider asking yourself, Is the signal coming from them…or am I sending it to myself?
There’s an old mediator technique that can be useful for getting at why someone isn’t letting go and moving on from conflict: Transparency + curiosity. The technique is to observe out loud what you’re noticing and ask a curiosity-based question about it. Be kind, don’t judge, don’t accuse, just notice and wonder with them.
It might sound something like this: I find myself thinking that you’re not letting go of what happened, but I realize I don’t really know if that’s true at all. Am I off the mark?
Or like this, Things still feel tense between us. Why do you think that is?
If you ask these questions, you must be prepared that their answer may have much to do with what you’re doing or not doing as it does with them. These are questions that invite honesty in the name of real resolution. Try to resist pushing back if you don’t like their answer or if they have something difficult to say to or about you.
If you ask these questions, you must also be prepared that they may not want to answer them. Or that the answers they give leave you unsatisfied. These questions are an invitation and I have found them to be very powerful, but readiness to answer does matter. You cannot know when they will be ready. You can only ask them in a way that signals you care, are interested, and are open to whatever they’re willing to say.
Of course, some conflict will not get tied up with a bow and put cleanly away. Effects linger. With bigger conflict and with longer-term conflict, the effects linger longer. It will take time. Trust, like Rome, doesn’t get built (and rebuilt) in a day. Conflict resolution is a long game.