When we’re in a conflict, we tend to think that the best way to resolve it is to stick with our point of view as strongly as possible. We’ve been taught that one of us is going to win and the other is going to lose, and we don’t want to be the loser. There’s often a feeling that losing means doom and so we fight desperately to keep to our position. Strangely, the reality is that this strategy doesn’t often work, especially if you’re trying to be part of a long-term relationship-be it romantic, business organization, parent-child, friend-to-friend, whatever.
What if there were a way that had a higher percentage of actually resolving problems and conflicts? There is! I learned it a long time ago. It comes from Process Work, developed by Arnold Mindell, Ph.D.-a kind of therapy I specialized in for a long time.
The “Three-Legged Stool” of Conflict Resolution
Think of a conflict as having three basic positions: my position, your position and the “objective observer” position.
In relationship conflict of any sort, your first job is to notice in which position you’re starting. Are you actually advocating for your own position-“My Position” or are you-without knowing it-advocating for the other person’s position-“Your Position” in the figure? How can you tell? Well, let’s say the conflict is between yourself and your partner about whether to buy a new car or a used car. Your partner wants a new car and you think you should save money and buy a used car. Your argument is that you need to save money for the future and for other things and that if you buy a used car, that money will still be there. In that case, you’re already in “My Position.” But if you’re saying, “I know you think buying a new car is better because it will last longer,” you’re in “Your Position,” that is, for the moment, you’re taking your partner’s point of view.Which position are you in now?
Standing for the Position You’re In
Whatever position you find yourself in, take it over as fully as you can. In the example above, “My Position” might be: “It’s important to me that we’re prudent around what we spend and take the long view. To think about our priorities, to think about what’s most important and less important.”
If you find yourself in your partner’s position, “Your Position” above, you can stand for that position: “I know you want to buy a car where you know it doesn’t have hidden problems that might end up costing a lot to repair.”
Helping the Other Person Stand for Their Side
If you find yourself in “My Position,” and you’ve stood for it, then it’s important to help the other person stand for their position, expressing it as fully as possible. You can start by asking the other person to tell you what they’re thinking or feeling. If they get stuck or are afraid they’ll get shot down, you can start them off by taking their position, as above.
Maybe your partner’s “My Position” would be: “I AM thinking about the future and about priorities! If we get a new car, it’ll last longer and we won’t have to spend money on either another car or on repairs. How about if we look into new cars, see how much they cost. And we can also think about what things we need to spend money on and make a budget.” Either you or your partner can express this position.
Anticipating the Other’s Concerns Helps with Relationship Conflict
Your partner can help her or his position by also taking your position and anticipating what your worries might be: “I know you’re worried that I might not be thinking about our future financial situation. That’s why I went through our IRA’s and our projected income for the next 10 years and have figured out what we have left over after regular monthly expenses.”
Switching Positions Helps with Conflict Resolution
With this three-position conflict resolution model (we’ll get to the third position below), you each switch back and forth between “My Position” and “Your Position,” continuing to express each position as fully as possible. You literally step in and speak as if you are your partner, and your partner steps in and speaks as if he/she is you. You each keep alternating between your own position and the other person’s position.
More and more information emerges, until the situation is deeply resolved. It’s important, when taking a position-especially the other person’s position-to really stand in the position and speak ONLY from that position. It can be tempting to be sarcastically in the other person’s position or to pretend to be in it while really coming from “My Position.” If you’re speaking from the other person’s position, really feel into it and, for the moment, speak as if you actually are the other person, or come from a place where you really relate to their position. You can do this by remembering when you’ve been in their position at some point in your life, or imagining being in it.
The “Objective Observer” position can be really useful, too-for example, when you’re stuck and don’t know how to move further toward conflict resolution. You can each step outside yourselves and, in your imagination, “see” yourselves. Notice what you see and step in and be it. Maybe you notice that the “you” in front of you is feeling hurt and small. Rather than trying to counteract that and be strong, go back into yourself and really show how small and hurt you are, maybe by letting yourself cry or by rolling up into a ball, etc. Actually showing what’s going on can help, because, much of the time, we don’t see or hear each other’s messages if they’re too subtle. When we make ourselves more visible, the other person can react to what’s actually going on instead of what they imagine is going on. This often moves us toward resolution.
Using the Model For Inner Conflicts
This model works with inner conflicts as well as relationship conflict-times when you’re torn about something. First, figure out what the two polarized positions are. Notice which one you’re in right this second. Take that position strongly and deeply. Then literally step out of that position by moving your body over to face the first position. Feel into the other position and speak from it strongly and deeply. Keep going back and forth, trying to listen to each position. If you get stuck, or just need an overview, step into the Objective Observer position and notice what’s going on with each of the other positions. Then step in and-without judgment-do what you saw. This tends to help create solutions.