Jen, a mediation graduate student in my Interpersonal Conflict course, pointed to an excellent conflict resolution book we’d just read and said, “I love this book. And I hate it, too. It’s got so much to teach me, but I won’t remember it all. I just can’t keep track of that much advice.”
She’d just summarized my own experience with favorite conflict resolution books and a protest I’d heard before: the sense that the best conflict resolution books help us understand our conflicts in fresh ways, yet can overwhelm us in the process. We love what we’re reading, yet can’t retain enough of it for use later.
A few years afterward, in a later version of the same course, another graduate student put out his hands in a supplicating gesture. Kregg said, “When I’m frustrated I need something really simple to latch onto, not a long recipe of possibilities to try. I can probably handle remembering three things when I’m stressed. Why can’t anyone show me how to do that?”
He was right. In the heat of the moment, most of us don’t have the wherewithal to sort through a series of mental recipe cards, looking for and then selecting the approach that will help us then and there. Kregg and Jen, two very smart graduate students, couldn’t do it. I can’t do it consistently either—and I am a professional conflict resolver.
Jen’s and Kregg’s comments left me pondering, What three things can make the most difference in the way a conflict unfolds?