September 09, 2022

Commitment: The Magic Sauce in Conflict Resolution

Every parent knows that what can happen when you send young children to their room to “work it out.” If they feel that the conflict prevents them from getting something they really want, they are likely to work toward a resolution (e.g., “we’re not going unless you can agree on a movie”). However, if they fail to see the benefit of an actual resolution, they are likely to go through the motions to satisfy your demand. In other words, their commitment is not to resolve the conflict but simply to get out of the room.

The difference between resolution of conflict and merely figuring out how to “get out of the room” rests with the nature of the commitment of the participants. What do I want to have happen? How much do I want it to happen? How hard am I willing to work to make it happen? The importance of commitment becomes clear if we contrast conflict resolution with conflict mediation.

Mediation implies looking for a place close to the middle of the conflicting positions that is satisfactory to both parties. This approach is rooted in negotiation – “I’ll give you this if you give me that” – and usually involves something that is finite. You think you deserve a higher salary than you supervisor is willing to offer. Or you and your business partner have split, and you are divvying up the assets. In situations like these, the negotiation is driven by personal interests and your commitment is to yourself: I want to get out of this what I think I deserve.

Not all conflicts can or should be mediated. This is true especially in the context of a working group, whether it is between two individuals or among an entire department. A conflict over the temperature in the office can be mediated by picking a temperature that is equally comfortable for both. But how can you find a compromise position when the conflict is not about the temperature of the room, but the hostility of the overall working environment?

Unlike mediation, which focuses on the fair allocation of a finite resource, conflict resolution is about the quality of the relationships between the people involved in the conflict. This focus on the individuals requires a different type of commitment from them. Participants must display the following:

  • Commitment to the difficult work of introspection.
  • Commitment to honoring the interests and desires of the other people involved.
  • Commitment to finding a way to move forward together.

Conflict resolution is predicated on equal commitment by all participants to improve the conditions that affect their relationship. Unfortunately, full commitment does not guarantee that all relationships will grow stronger. Sometimes, the resolution requires a relationship to be redefined, such as setting boundaries around work interactions. Regardless of the solution that emerges, a commitment to conflict resolution will bring greater insight into ourselves which, in the end, is the only over which we have control.

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