Ms Radhika Shapoorjee, Founder and CEO, Mediation Mantras, focussed on key aspects of conflict resolution and what it entails. Her talk covered these points:
Is conflict an opportunity or threat?
What is conflict and its role in our everyday life?
What are the roots of conflict?
Resolving conflict with effective negotiations
Conflict is a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one, between people, across groups, across countries. Usually, it is a clash of ideas, opinions or interests. A conflict spiral happens when a small difference of opinion that is unresolved becomes a dispute. When the dispute is unresolved, it becomes a conflict. When a conflict is unresolved, many conflicts happen. Then it can escalate into words.
A small disagreement at home can escalate into many different conflicts in our personal and professional lives. The point is that, it is easier to resolve a conflict when it is small; when a difference of opinion starts.
Conflicts are everywhere
Why is it so difficult to address conflicts? Why are there so many conflicts happening in our homes, between parents and their children, over different ideas, over opinions, over interests and over generations? We see conflicts escalating between states over water or other resources. We see on television political leaders with different ideologies shouting at each other. There is anger and resentment. We see business disputes over various issues—personal or professional.
To give you a small number, our courts will take 408 years to resolve the cases across our country, if there is not a single case filed from today. Obviously, conflicts are not getting resolved. Justice delayed is justice denied and that is a topic of a big conversation that is happening across the world.
So how can we understand the roots of conflict in a deeper manner? We must understand the anatomy and psychology of conflict. Conflict is perceived as a threat. How can we creatively resolve conflicts, transform this threat into an opportunity and strengthen relationships? That is the essence of conflict resolution.
Resolving the Inner Conflict
The greatest story about conflicts that has shaped India, for sure, is the Mahabharata, and it has taught us many lessons. We all know that Krishna helped Arjun resolve his inner conflict first, before he was ready to fight the Kauravas in a battle that lasted 18 days. We must overcome our inner conflicts first, so that we can resolve our outer demons as they come in front of us, in a manner which is not destructive but constructive.
My work in conflict resolution has been really to help people understand that inner conflict, because when these issues are not resolved, they spill into the external world. So let’s understand that better.
Conflict and fear
Conflict is perceived as a threat and an attack. We react to that threat with fear. Since the beginning of humankind, fear was a means of survival to humans so that they could protect themselves from wild animals, nature, rival tribes and nature’s fury. All these have now almost stopped. We are in the comforts of our home. We have none of those physical threats. However, we do have the same instincts. When there is a difference of opinion, even our loved ones become threatening enemies.
We react in a way so that we can protect our own identity. If someone says that you are not a good mother, a good father, a good boss or a good colleague, you want to defend that position. That is the core of our conflict. With it, comes the fear. When we get fear, we react in only three ways – fight, flight or freeze.
We have been taught that good must overcome evil. Each of us has a sense of righteousness. We think we are right and the other person is wrong. This polarized view of our opinions and actions leads to so many unresolved conflicts in our everyday life. This adversarial way in addressing each other, where we are unwilling to listen to the other person’s point of view, results in small differences turning into full-fledged conflicts between people and communities.
Seeds Sowed So Soon
The seeds of human identity are sowed in the family and environment in which a child is brought up. Every child learns how to how to deal with conflict from the age of zero when they are born, to 7 years. Those are the foundational years and they watch their parents and family deal with each other. Do they deal with each other in a mindful manner or hostile manner? How do they communicate with each other and the community at large? When they come back home, what stories do they tell?
Children take away these things subconsciously and their social skills are developed and retained in their subconscious mind. Perhaps, you were brought up in an environment where conflict was completely avoided. All these will shape the way you respond as an adult.
Fears all the way
This is one of our biggest debilitators. We also have the fear of not being heard, the fear of losing money, the fear of health issues and the fear of death. All these fears are pretty much at home within the family, because that’s what all of us would have watched subconsciously and consciously. They go into shaping our identity and the way we handle conflict.
Therefore, the need to create a psychological safe place for the child and family to express themselves, to express their views in a way that differences are respected, is something that all of us must think about. Create a safe place where we can express and where we allow our family, our colleagues and our neighbours to come and say things which are not the same as what you stand for.
The Chief Culprit
When a difference arises, the first culprit is usually communication or a lack of it. When there is a breakdown of communication between people in conflict, suddenly there is a roadblock out there. Fear comes in and we start reacting. We see on social media the kind of resentment and hatred that people have for people they don’t even know. This comes from deep-rooted conflicts that have been sown by generations before, against people and communities. So we need to step back and see what is happening around us. Why are the courts clogged up? Why are our homes not seen as safe places? Why is our office not a safe place where we can discuss, be seen vulnerable and yet, do not get a fear of failure.
Look at how you respond to conflict. Do I respond with fear? Do I freeze? Do I flee? What kind of an environment do I create so that people can express themselves? Am I able to respect differences? We all come from very different emotional worlds and therefore, it needs to be respected.
Conflict is a teacher. It tells you that you need to progress and move forward and evolve to a higher place. If you don’t, you go to a lower place. Get into others’ shoes and understand where they are coming from. Make them understand where you are coming from. Have the courage of conviction to have the dialogue, to have that flow of communication.
The Eagle’s Egg
Here is an interesting story. A team of global CEOs were traveling on a plane. It was a long-distance 50 hour ride into Africa. They were going there to find a very rare eagle which laid an egg every 10 years and it was discovered that the egg had the solution and cure for cancer as well as diabetes.
Conflict is a teacher. It tells you that you need to progress and move forward and evolve to a higher place. If you don’t, you go to a lower place. Get into others’ shoes and understand where they are coming from.
Two CEOs were ahead of others in that search—One was the head of a cancer care pharmaceutical company and the other CEO was the head of a diabetics company. They were obviously in conflict as to who was going to get it. But they were wise men and they decided to understand their underlying needs and interests.
They realised that the cure for cancer lay in the yolk and the cure for diabetes lay in the white of the egg. So they both could take that one egg and share it and address a transformational solution to their business. If they had not had that conversation and decided to fight for that egg, they would have destroyed the value. That is something that could have happened.
Everyone becomes happy
I did mediation with two co-founders—One senior and the other, ten years younger. They had a running conflict for years, and it took me three months of about eight sessions to resolve their conflict amicably. Today, they continue to work in the same organization. But at the heart of that conflict were their own inner issues coming out in a not so good manner.
Once I created a safe environment, each understood where the other came from and I was able to help them. They negotiated a new and a far stronger way of functioning. The investor, who got me to negotiate, is now a happy person. The multiple investors in that organization are happy. Most importantly, the 3,000-odd employees who are affected by the conflict are happy. The conflict had created tension within the organization.
Resolve Conflicts as They Arise
Communication and good negotiation skills can convert a conflict into an opportunity. I am so grateful for having learned some of these techniques over the years and I have applied them to my daughter, son and husband. Resolving issues as and when they come up is much easier. I have made so much progress that I have set up my entrepreneurial journey in partnership with my husband Mr Shapoorji. He has played a big role in helping me understand conflict and shaping the path of my future purpose.
The moment you reprimand, get upset or put boundaries, it becomes one-sided. Then they want to rebel.
Remember Maslow’s need theory? Our deepest psychological fears are about our safety and security. This has been used by many marketing and advertising people in their campaigns.
You may have a small difference of opinion with your child when he or she goes out. Recognize that your child wants to be independent. Go two steps deeper into the mind of the child and then, your child will feel heard and wanted. The moment you reprimand, get upset or put boundaries, it becomes one-sided. Then they want to rebel. Understand where the rebellion comes from and address it early. This is an everyday part of life.
Learning from the Experts
Cultivate your own communication skills so that you can negotiate better. Over the last couple of years, I have watched videos of at least 500,000 people. I feel very blessed, full of gratitude that I could listen, read and learn from many people who are experts in the domain of conflict resolution—from psychologists to FBI negotiators, to mediators at Harvard.
My superhero is Chris Voss, former FBI negotiator. He has written a very interesting book called ‘Never split the difference.’ It’s an amazing book and one of many books that has influenced me greatly. ‘Getting to Yes’ by William Ury is also another great book.
One of my clients faced a media boycott. Over a lunch, we were able to resolve it. It is interesting that in that case, it was just the arrogance in the way that my client had dealt with them which had created the block. The simple act of inviting all of them for lunch, resolved it in exactly the same time that we took for our lunch. We all had a wonderful laugh and discussion about everything else and the boycott was taken off within an hour of that discussion.
Tips to remember
- The Power of empathy: Empathy is understanding the other person’s point of view, how they feel and care about it. Harvard Business School has done a lot of work on strategic empathy and tactical empathy. The moment you empathise, the entire negotiation will shift.
- The Power of Listening: The most important communication skill I would say is listening. One of our normal reactions when the other person talks, is to jump in and interrupt. Don’t do that. Instead, listen with your heart, ears and eyes. If you can see the body language, there is so much you can identify in terms of the emotions that the other person is expressing or not expressing.
- The Power of Acknowledgement: It has a huge impact in conflict resolution. An interesting trick that Chris Voss has taught is mirroring. When you talk to me, I can take three of your last words and repeat it and mirror it. You will always feel heard. So acknowledge with the three last words. Use a proper tone which shows your interest. Even a small shift in tone can make the other person feel attacked or unheard. All that people want is that they want to be heard.
- Silence is a great tactical tool: When there is silence, somebody wants to fill it up. Let it be the other person. In that filling up, there is so much which you can learn and so much about what the other person’s true feelings are.
- Paraphrasing: Another way of acknowledgement is a great technique called paraphrasing. It is like mirroring except that it is just playing back what you have heard. This is a powerful technique in communication.
- Summarise: Once you have heard out the other person, it is important to summarize what you have heard.
- Calibrated Questions: Let your questions start with ‘what’ or ‘how.’ They will ensure that you will not get ‘no’ as an answer. It will allow people to elaborate the issue and how they feel. That opens up the space for conversation.
- Getting to YES: At the end of the summary, you must decide to agree. How do you get the other person to genuinely agree? Use the power of ‘Three Yes.’ The first ‘Yes’ maybe just counterfeit. The second ‘Yes’ could be a confirmation and the third ‘Yes,’ a commitment. Therefore, if the person has said ‘yes’ three times, it means that he or she has committed to implement the process.