One of the greatest needs when someone is in conflict, or hurting, is to feel heard, to feel that their feelings and views on the situation are validated.
Attentive, patient and active listening, is in my view, one of the most important skills that either a mediator or coach can bring to the table. It comes more naturally to some than to others, but it is a skill that can be acquired, through practise.
Having been a coach and worked with people in hardship situations, I adapted to conflict coaching quite smoothly.
Jane, my first conflict coaching client many years ago, was such a classic, that I often use her as an example. This initial experience showed me the power not only of listening but of conflict coaching.
Jane was a widow of seven years, now in her 70’s, and beginning to struggle with her health and strength. She had come to me because of a conflict with the manager of her allotment.
He was new and young and wanted to do things differently. Jane, having been a teacher, was used to speaking plainly and to carry weight on the allotment committee. The young man didn’t have much experience handling the conflict, and she was furious and absolutely determined to get what she saw as “her right”.
At first all she talked about was her feeling of disrespect and unjust judgement by this young manager, who finally “kicked her out” of the committee, and was trying to “kick her out” of “her” allotment.
This was of course from her perspective, but right or wrong, the situation had taken over her mind, days and nights, for months now… that’s all she could think about.
I gave her space to talk about the conflict, and it seemed like a pretty difficult situation. She talked and explained for nearly an hour. Then I started to ask a few questions about “HER”, how she was, and she confided how lonely she had been, with her husband gone, 7 years now.
They used to do the allotment together and that common project was all she had left of him. I started to get a glimpse of the reason why she was so affected by the change. Then in the same stride, she began talking about how difficult it was keeping up with the work on the allotment and how she wished she could be free to do things like painting…
As we spoke, it became obvious that her late husband, her grieving and the situation at the allotment were connected.
By the time we ended our conversation, and after unpeeling the situation together, she came to realise that her insistence on wanting to keep the allotment was related to her belated husband and it was in fact, too hard for her on her own, but she had a type of loyalty to keeping it because he loved that allotment.
What “she” really wanted to do was take up painting! There she had said it…. It was one of those light bulb moments for her…. That night, she asked someone to help her collect her tools from the allotment and she turned the page. Most importantly she was set free from the mind traps of the conflict that had been consuming her energy, her sleep, and her every thought.
I want to clarify; I didn’t have any particular opinion on what she should do or not do. It was when we touched on what was really important to her that she realised that it was all part of her not wanting to let go of her shared memories with her late husband.
She was still grieving but longed however for a lighter load, peace of mind and was dreaming of trying out new things like painting and travelling.
Sometimes, when you look at a conflict from the outside, it looks like a ball of yarn that a kitten has been left to play with; but as you begin to pull the threads, things begin to unravel, the main issues and lead threads begin to surface and through active listening and gentle prodding, you are able to arrive at the core, the real need of that person, what made the situation so painful.
The recognition of this very pain often puts the person on the path to recovery and solution finding.
In the case of couples separating, emotions run even higher, all types of emotion, from anger to guilt passing by frustration and denial. A separation is a little like the process of mourning. Something is over, and the one who did NOT initiate the separation will struggle particularly to come to terms with it.
Anger, feeling of unfairness (after all the trying), wanting to hurt the other, feeling sorry for oneself, refusal to accept, all those emotions become interlinked, similar to those of bereavement.
It is a time when getting support from a conflict coach can be a godsend, as he/she will help you find greater clarity and perspective. This is especially important when children are involved.
What couples sometimes don’t really want to face, is that they will be in each other’s lives until the children are grown, and often after that. So the more emotional and “crazy” the situation gets due to the pain, the harder it is to re-establish a “normal” adult trusting relationship where the children’s needs and wellbeing are at the fore. This is, in my opinion the biggest benefits of Conflict Coaching and Mediation, although some details might need to be seen to by lawyers (such as finances).
The support a couple will get from either a Conflict Coach or a Mediator in those initial very difficult conversations is unequalled compared to the legal route. It will set the tone for the entire negotiation. The difference between Conflict Coaching and Mediation? A Conflict Coach will work with one party; a Mediator will work with both parties.
If you are struggling in a conflict, don’t keep it to yourself, get some support, chances are it will enable you to find solutions faster.