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Communication and Conflict Newsletter - Why a Competitive Approach to Conflict Never Resolves It
September 26, 2011

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Why the Competitive Approach to Conflict Never Resolves It - And How Mediation Offers a Non-competitive, Effective Alternative
(....or how devoting time and energy to proving who is 'right' and who is 'wrong' or who is 'good' and who is 'bad' is wasted effort, but will always happen, and how mediation, if practiced with this awareness, can support the creation of sustainable change .....)

Alan Sharland

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Hi Everyone!

Welcome to Newsletter no.27 - September 2011

Why a Competitive Approach to Conflict Never Resolves It

First of all, for those of you who remember my previous Newsletters, you will be aware that this is the first in over a year. My apologies for that, I've had a very busy year of change which I will briefly mention below. To those of you who have never received a Newsletter from me - and there were over 300 of you sign up during the past year - WELCOME! I hope you find what I have to say of interest and of use.

So, to update you all on what has happened - I was previously Director of Hillingdon Community Mediation, in West London, UK, but due to the financial pressures on local authorities the London Borough of Hillingdon decided not to renew our contract at the end of March 2011 after 11 years of operation in the Borough. We were notified in September 2010 and so since that time I have been involved in both closing HCM and starting up my own, new venture, CAOS Conflict Management. Please click on this logo if you'd like to find out more about CAOS, and after the logo I will continue with the theme of the newsletter:

Click here to visit the CAOS Conflict Management website

So, a competitive approach to conflict - what do I mean by that? I mean the practice of seeking to prove that someone else is 'wrong' and I am 'right', and often, in perhaps more emotive disputes, that I am 'good' and they are 'bad'.

Some people might find it a difficult idea to accept that this is an ineffective response to conflict and present various examples of people who are generally considered to be, or have been, clearly 'wrong' in their actions and to be 'bad' people. And of course, at all times, that will still be coming from a competitive perspective. Examples of such people could include Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden etc. We will consider our perspective to be the only 'right' one about such people, and also about many other people we feel were wrong or bad, which may include our boss, our ex-partner, our neighbour.

But for each of these people there will be others who felt they were 'right' and 'good', and so it is inevitable that we will have 'sides' in the situation - a competitive approach to conflict. And we will then be likely to say their advocates are 'wrong' and 'bad' as well as the original person we feel to be so. And so the situation escalates with more people involved taking sides - and inevitably the approach will not lead to resolution.

The competitive approach to conflict follows the 'eye for an eye' idea that what someone does to us we should do back to them, and so, for example this underpins the justification for invading Iraq and Afghanistan following the events of 9/11 and the fear of further attacks.

In so doing, far more people have been killed on both 'sides' than were killed on 9/11 but the aim is to 'win' the battle irrespective of the cost because to 'lose' would be unthinkable (within the competitive appproach to conflict mindset which only allows for winning or losing).

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But before I continue I'd like to emphasise that this is an article of observation rather than one of 'criticism and despair' at this approach. It would be hypocritical to condemn this approach as almost all of us adopt it towards our conflicts at times - but as a result they remain unresolved. In any unresolved conflict we are experiencing there will be an assessment of 'the other' as wrong in some form or as a bad person in some way - they will be unreasonable, a bully, rude, ignorant, lazy, manipulative, power crazy etc. We will label them in ways that blind us to their humanity thus making it easier for us to dismiss them and their view (as 'crazy', 'irrational', 'madness', 'ridiculous') and even to kill them.

One of the aims of this article is simply to raise awareness that we do this and that ultimately it does not resolve the conflict, and also to allow in a questioning of our justification for it, to question whether it is the 'only way'.

But even to question whether it is the 'only way' may suggest another way instead of it may be possible - what I want to identify is that there is another way as well as the competitive approach that can be possible. If we try to tell people to 'stop arguing' or 'end war', we are immediately adopting a competitive approach ourselves as we are seeking to establish ourselves in a position of 'rightness' in opposition to their 'wrongness'.

And so approaching conflict in another - additional - way is about accommodating both the competitive/and another way rather than deciding either the competitive /or another way.

Einstein said 'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.' In many unresolved conflicts people will say, "Well we didn't create the problem, they did and so we're not backing down" .....and again we are in the competitive mindset that goes round in circles of blame and justification and doing to others what we believe they did to us....but worse and more forcefully in order to 'win'.

But the cost of 'winning' is always worse than the cost of the original problem - if we can remember what it was - and if we can't it will still be worse than the cost of the most recent development of the problem - in terms of lives lost or stress accumulated or money spent or relationships damaged etc.

But that is the way of it.

Unresolved conflict IS the competitive approach (or sometimes the avoidance approach - and usually both) and it will always exist.

The Additional Way

It is only when the additional approach of seeking to change and/or grow and/or learn from an experience of conflict is introduced - what I often call the '3 Cheers for Conflict' Learning, Connection and Insight - that it becomes resolved conflict.

'Winning' a conflict by overcoming the 'enemy' through defeating them in war, or in court, or in an argument in a way that is clearly triumphal, is, in reality the beginning of a future of fear. We fear revenge, and with good reason, as the loser in the conflict will often not be left with a sense of deference or humility but a sense of anger and frustration and determination to 'even the score'. This is not a resolved conflict but a suppressed conflict. There has not been learning, connection or insight.

Quotation Corner:

The perfect way is without difficulty
Save that it avoids picking and choosing.
Only when you stop liking and disliking
Will all be clearly understood.
A split hair’s difference,
And Heaven and Earth are set apart!
If you want to get the plain truth,
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.

From Hsin-hsin Ming by Seng-ts’an quoted in
The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.

A temporary relief from the fighting in whatever form it has previously taken place may occur when one side has 'won', but the risk of it starting again in the same or a different form will always remain when a conflict is not resolved but suppressed. We see this in many of the areas of armed conflict in which it is suggested there has been 'victory' in the situation.

And closer to home, in our personal situations, a neighbour who has lost a court case over a boundary issue will often seek other ways of getting back at the 'winning' neighbour. A work colleague who has a grievance taken out against them will seek ways to bring about a counter-grievance against their colleague. A customer who feels their complaint has been dismissed without genuine consideration will seek other ways of damaging the provider through besmirching its name or by finding new areas to complain about because of their sense of injustice at how they were treated in their original complaint.

In the competitive approach to conflict there is a belief that the punishing of people, or the overwhelming of them by force, whether physical or through 'authority' will stop a conflict. Superficially it may appear to do so but it will always return as it is not resolved.

A boiling pot will look as if it is safe if the lid is pressed firmly down on to it, but the effort to keep it there is continuous and tiring and it will always boil over eventually if the fire beneath it is still being fuelled.

And this is how it continues, in so many of our unresolved conflicts.

So what approach leads to resolution rather than suppression of conflict?

  • An approach which treats the conflict as a shared problem.
  • An approach that enables understanding of other viewpoints without having to agree with them.
  • An approach that allows for acknowledgement of our own ineffective responses without being 'blamed' for manifesting them.
  • An approach that helps to cool the fire beneath the boiling pot

An approach called Mediation - as long as what is understood by that word is a process that is not adversarial, competitive, blame seeking, truth seeking, labelling - as, sadly, it is still sometimes portrayed and practiced. Instead it is an approach that promotes the possibility for co-operation, facilitates shared creation of a different outcome, sets aside the obsession with 'truth' to allow an acknowledgement of a different 'perspective'. Even if the participants still continue with responses that indicate a competitive approach within the process, mediation does not help to 'fan the flames' of the fire beneath the boiling pot which other, adversarial, processes do - and indeed they encourage the competitive approach.

How does it do this?

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Because the content of a mediation is confidential it allows for discussion of what someone did 'wrong' without that meaning the other is proved 'right' in the presence of others who might condemn them. Mutual acknowledgement of things that could have been done differently - words spoken, actions taken, information witheld etc. reduces the presence of 'point scoring', of proving the case, of the pursuit of 'winning', because there is no-one present other than those involved to verify that there is a 'winner' or a 'loser'.

The practise of impartiality by the Mediator reinforces that situation, not only by keeping the content of discussions confidential but also by not taking a position on what those present have said, by not giving views, opinions, suggestions or advice. In adversarial processes, a 'case' is made whether formally or informally, seeking the agreement of others of the rightness of our position and the wrongness of the other's. In mediation, simply by 'witnessing' the accounts of those present the mediator is supporting the validation of both views and emphasising the fact that there can be more than one view, by allowing the expression of both, without trying to dismiss or challenge either.

Through these practises a mediated discussion loses its focus on 'right' and 'wrong' and 'good' and 'bad' and focuses instead on what? and where? and how? and why? in order to support mutual understanding of the different perspectives on what happened in a dispute and then to move forward towards the creation of new responses to the situation that accommodate what was 'wrong' in the past and allow the possibility for change in the future.

In a competitive approach to conflict, establishing someone as wrong by definition establishes someone else as 'right' and so the need for change is not recognised. In fact, ineffective responses become more entrenched and less likely to change when one party feels they have been proved 'right' in a conflict. This is one of the stagnating consequences of an approach that focuses on blame rather than learning and change, that is, the competitive approach to conflict.

How is it possible for Mediation to work alongside a competitive approach rather than instead of it?

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The competitive approach cannot be 'switched off' in a dispute, and so a process for resolution has to be able to exist alongside it rather than instead of it. Even within a battle a General can see that many troops are being lost and its continuation will be unsustainable, and within a court case or a personal argument the participants may start to see the damage that being involved in the unresolved conflict is causing them and those around them in terms of health, stress, distraction from loved ones, financially etc. If they do recognise this, a process that offers a way out without having to be seen to 'lose' can be very attractive.

Of course the participants may not recognise this and so the battle continues until one or all involved collapse from ill health or mental illness and incarceration or death. And still the conflict remains unresolved as others may take up the 'cause' and seek to win rather than resolve.

But where there is such a recognition the opportunity exists for a discussion that is not heard by an 'authority' such that a view or judgement is then made about what is heard but by a 'witness' of the accounts and viewpoints of those involved. And the Mediator-witness encourages the witnessing of each participant's accounts and viewpoints by the other(s). And even though the participants may still be adopting a competitive approach, it is not given 'fuel for the fire' by any endorsement from the Mediator. It is not crucial that the participants adopt a non-competitive approach, only that the mediator does not reinforce it.

Instead of trying to establish whether one participant was wrong or not, the Mediator will explore what the consequences were of the actions taken in the dispute and what mutually desired outcomes can be possible. In line with Einstein's quote, the thinking within a mediation approach is not the same as the one that caused the original problem and so a greater possibility exists for the problem(s) to be solved.

Exploring the actions taken and what the consequences were, instead of seeking to establish blame allows for a focus on how to move forward to create different consequences that accommodate both/all participants' needs and interests.

Area Addressed Competitive Approach Mediated Approach
SITUATION The 'established way' (for each disputant) is defended and justified and the opponent's is criticised and discredited Learning - A recognition of the failure/ineffectiveness of the present situation exists and a 'third way' is created that meets the needs of those involved
THE OTHER The actions and thinking/philosophy of the other is condemned and dismissed as irrational and inconsistent and wrong and their view is not entertained for fear of being seen as a 'concession', a chink in the armour of 'our' argument. Connection - A recognition of the failure/ineffectiveness of the present situation exists and an openness to the possibility that other perspectives may be possible whether we would endorse them or not. This oppenness allows for the possibility of a 'third perspective', one that involves 'movement' from our own to a different one that need not be the other's.
OURSELVES To lose is 'death', shame, embarrassment, loss of face, condemnation, loss of integrity.

To win is power (over), triumph, vindication, status (above).

Mistakes are vulnerability and therefore inadmissible or not possible - others must be at fault.

Insight - A recognition of the failure/ineffectiveness of the present situation exists and we can acknowledge things we may not personally have done as well as we could, or could have done differently. We gain personal awareness of our ineffective responses to certain situations and behaviours in others. We acknowledge our vulnerabilities and fears in certain situations and create different ways of responding, giving us a sense of choice and personal power over such situations for the future.

Thank you for reading this latest, and rather late, newsletter, I hope you found it of interest. If you have comments or questions regarding this or any other aspects of my website or my work, please contact me at:

Alternatively, please Click Here to go to the Communication and Conflict website 'Questions Page' to make contact with me.

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Besides being the author of the Communication and Conflict website Alan is Director of CAOS Conflict Management Tel. +44 20 3371 7507

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Free e-book - Contemplations on Communication and Conflict (click the link to download)

This e-book is an archive of some of the early observations and anecdotes I have written for these newsletters, but now collected together in a free downloadable e-book, my aim being to make them more accessible than for you to have to scan through various web pages to read them.

Some links that you may find interesting...... is an excellent resource of information relating to mediation. There are articles, links to websites and blogs as well as the possibility of locating mediators in your area. - is a comprehensive guide to information about Self Improvement, Personal Growth and Self Help on the Internet. It is designed to be an organized directory, with articles and references to thousands of other Web Sites on the World Wide Web. is a rich source of information, quotes and support to enable us to find and be true to ourselves.

Oh Wow This Changes Everything is a great site with an enormous number of links to articles about different aspects of effective communication and conflict resolution. Definitely worth a could be there for hours! helps people, like yourself, create change in their life and business. They share fun stress management strategies and personal development articles.

New This site is sooo full of great links and resources relating to Co-operative Communication skills - I would very much recommend it.

Learning Supersite is a fascinating site dedicated to the development of informal learning. "A new approach to learning, the Learning Supersite is a venue that provides personal learning community, but with state-of-the-art Web technologies."

Transforming Conflict is an excellent organisation which works with young people, and adults, in educational settings, promoting restorative approaches to conflict.

Aik Saath This is an amazing and interesting website, quite besides the work of Aik Saath that it promotes. Aik Saath works to promote conflict resolution skills in young people and the development and support of racial harmony in Slough, UK and its surrounding areas.

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