During conflict we tend to turn our attention to managing the other person or getting her to behave differently.
Realistically, though, the only persons we can truly control or manage during conflict are ourselves. And in managing our own reactions, in seeking more constructive responses from ourselves, we inevitably change the interaction with the other person. When we change and improve the quality of the whole interaction, then we may increase everyone’s capacity to act differently or "better."
About mental models
In addition to understanding your own conflict triggers and how you might manage them better, it’s also important to understand how your conflict mental models are affecting the dynamic between you and the other person. As with conflict triggers, understanding your own mental models is self-reflective work that should happen outside of the conflict arena so that you’re better able to manage your actions and reactions during conflict.
Mental models are the paradigms or lenses through which we view the world, including conflict situations. If you know the work of Chris Argyris, Donald Schön or Peter Senge, then the concept of mental models will sound familiar.
Peter Senge, in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline , described mental models as "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action." He further explained that differences in mental models explain, in part, why two people can observe the same event, then later describe it differently.
Because mental models often exist below the level of awareness, their influence on our behavior and on our thinking is usually invisible and unexamined. Part of our personal work in learning how to manage conflict better is to reveal our mental models to ourselves and examine how those models influence the ways we act during difficult situations. Becoming aware of our mental models creates for us behavioral choices we may not have been aware of before. Senge and others have suggested that mental models are actually generative.with creative energy and self-awareness, we can set about generating new models that help us navigate our world in different and more effective ways.
Uncovering your own mental models
In discussions with family and friends, some of the following examples of conflict mental models rose to the surface:
- "There’s ultimately a single truth in all conflict situations."
- "Overt conflict is a signal that something’s wrong with the relationship."
- "Conflict is normal and important for healthy relationships."
- "Proving I’m right means I’ll be more highly valued by others."
- "People who are loud during conflict are unstable."
- "You can’t fully trust people who keep their conflict bottled up inside."
Wow! With differing mental models like these it’s no surprise that we get into situations where other people inadvertently violate our unspoken conflict rules of engagement or our assumptions about the meaning of conflict in our lives.
Here’s an exercise I’ve done with my mediation graduate students to help them make visible the hidden mental models that influence the way they work with conflict and navigate it in their own lives. The exercise can be rich and informative when done with a partner or close friend.
Find a photo of yourself as a child, particularly one where you can recall that moment in time. Try to put yourself mentally back there, then answer these questions:
- How did your family of origin handle conflict?
- What did you learn about conflict from school, faith, and friends?
- What of those lessons still inform how you navigate conflict in your own life?
- Do you agree with the lessons you still carry with you, perhaps in the form of habits?
- How do some of these lessons reduce conflict in your life? How do some of them contribute to it?