June 22, 2024
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Conflict Resolution During the Three Weeks

Conflict Resolution Strategy #1: Separating People From the Problem/Where a Couple Sits Can Make All the Difference

The field of mediation and conflict resolution provides a sort of modern mussar for best practices in dealing with interpersonal relationships and conflict management. In light of this time of year in the Jewish calendar that we find ourselves in, when we are mindful of the destruction of the Temple and its causes according to the Sages, I hope to share some best practices and strategies in dealing with interpersonal disputes from my professional field of mediation and conflict resolution.

The need for conflict resolution skills seems more important than ever during these times when dialogue of differences, not to mention “dignity of difference,” seems like a lost art. It is easy for each of us to escape into our bubbles of news stations and social media feeds that allow us to only see or read what we agree with and to cancel out opinions different from our own. Not only does this impact our larger society, which seems to be diverging farther and farther apart, even some of our close relationships seem to be fraying through the frustrations of hearing opinions different from our own.

When everyone agrees with each other there is little challenge in peaceful relations and a feeling of ahavat chinam. But once the differences become evident, that is when our communication skills and our relationships are tested. Will the difference of opinion lead to sinat chinam? Can relationships be preserved notwithstanding strong differences of opinion? Is conflict bound to ruin relationships?

Probably the most well-regarded book in the field of negotiation, an international bestseller, and considered by most practitioners as the “bible” of the field, is Ury and Roger Fisher’s “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. ” In this book, Fisher and Ury set out to explain two different ways of approaching conflict. Distributed Negotiation approaches a conflict as a win-lose battle, seeing the other as an untrustworthy adversary triggering a reactive strategy of threats and demands for concessions. Principled Negotiation, in contrast, approaches a conflict as a win-win endeavor. Both sides see each other as partners in problem solving with the goal of a wise outcome reached efficiently and amicably that addresses the needs and concerns of all sides. I would like to share just the first of four strategies outlined in this book, which advocates for a win-win Principled Negotiation: Separating People from the Problem.

Separating People From the Problem

Most negotiations and conflicts take place in the context of ongoing relationships. Even though the relationship might be far more important than the outcome of any particular negotiation, we know that relationships tend to become entangled and potentially endangered with the onset of a problem. When engaged in a conflict, we tend to link the people with the problem. But usually, they are not the same. One statement like “the kitchen is a mess” or “our bank account is about to be dried up” may be intended to identify a problem, but it is likely to be received as a personal attack. Anger over a situation may cause a person to express anger toward the other person. Commonly, in difficult conversations, there is a mismatch between intent and impact, so that what one person hears (as a criticism, as an example) is not intended to be taken that way. In a difficult conversation, without taking a step back and slowing down the conversation, these inferences are often automatic.

Thus, the first strategy to have a successful negotiation or conflict conversation is to be “soft on the person, hard on the problem.” Separate out the substantive conversation (the problem) with the other person. Don’t assume the worst intention. See the other as not part of the problem, but as part of the solution. While this might not resonate with every conflict we find ourselves in, it is certainly more applicable than we would initially consider.

Imagine, Ury and Fisher suggest, an illustration of two shipwrecked sailors in a lifeboat at sea quarreling over limited rations and supplies. Instead of seeing each other as we might naturally presume, as adversaries in a competition for limited resources to survive, these two sailors can see each other as partners working together to survive. They will want to identify the needs of each, whether for shade, medicine, water or food. They will want to treat the meeting of those needs as a shared problem, along with other shared problems like keeping watch, catching rainwater and getting the lifeboat to shore. Seeing themselves in side by side efforts to solve a mutual problem, the sailors will become better able to reconcile their conflicting interests as well as to advance their shared interests. Similarly, in most of our own conflicts with other people, however difficult personal relations may be between us, both sides become better able to reach an amicable reconciliation of their various interests when they accept the task as a shared problem and couple and face it jointly.

Where You Sit Can Make All the Difference

In my own practice as a divorce mediator, I noticed a trend that demonstrates this point. As I would welcome a new client to my office, I would invite them to sit down ahead of me “wherever they feel comfortable.” Not knowing the dynamics of this new couple I am meeting for the first time, I intentionally want them to find their seats based on their comfort level. What I noticed after many years of observing this phenomenon is that when a couple chooses not to sit across from each other at the table, but rather, choose to sit down next to each other, facing me, they are making a statement, if not by words, then by action. They are saying “We are on the same side. We are in a difficult situation. We have a problem. But we are here sitting on the same side trying to figure this out together—with each other—not against each other.” It is of no surprise that when a couple sits down with this energy and intention (whether explicit or not), the likeliness of their success in working out a collaborative divorce settlement is extremely high. Even in the context of divorcing, most couples recognize that their relationship matters, that their children should be prioritized, and that they both have needs and interests that can be better met when working together instead of against each other.

So, strategy #1: Separate the person from the problem. A conflict does not need to be resolved at the jeopardy of a relationship. Actually, the opposite issue: By working together through a relationship (even if it is a divorcing relationship), the conflict is more likely to be resolved together.

Stay tuned for next week’s conflict resolution strategy #2.


Adam Berner specializes in mediation and collaborative family law, is the owner of the Berner Law & Mediation Group, with offices in Hackensack and Manhattan. As a leading practitioner in the family dispute resolution field for the past 25+ years he has served as president of the Family & Divorce Mediation Council of NY and founding president of the NJ Collaborative Law Group. In addition to his private practice, Adam is a mediation trainer and adjunct professor at YU’s Cardozo School of Law where he teaches mediation and collaborative law.

Additional information can be found at www.MediationOffices.com  or calling at 201-836-0777.

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