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I’m a mediator. I have helped people have difficult conversations for more than 20 years: in conflict zones and in living rooms, with leaders of corporations and foundations, and people in my own community. If you’ve ever avoided or postponed a difficult conversation, you’re not alone. Conflict avoidance is everywhere. At home and at work, we steer around conflict as prodigiously as we create it.

And yet conflict isn’t inherently bad. It offers us information about how we could work with others more effectively, improve our relationships, and grow as individuals. It’s far worse to try to avoid it, because you just end up creating new conflict – which ends up being more insidious and costly than the original issue.

When I help people have difficult conversations, we’re always aiming for one of three outcomes: a solution, a plan or an understanding. A solution is a grand bargain, a resounding win, a comprehensive resolution expected to withstand the pressures of all unknown future challenges. With a mediator this can happen, but it’s ambitious. We all have a tendency to hope for a dramatic and permanent solution, but this usually causes new problems by overburdening an already stressed relationship. A plan is more realistic, and is like a map for finding a solution. It leaves the precise terms of the resolution open-ended but provides a path forward. A plan reorganises the relationship with new boundaries, revised norms, and sets up shared expectations for how the trickiest parts will be navigated.

But the most realistic outcome, especially at the beginning, is to focus on reaching an understanding. An understanding is a new awareness of what the other person has experienced in the conflict; it’s a mutual appreciation for one another’s needs, fears and hopes. Reaching an understanding is feasible, provides great relief, and can lay a foundation for a plan, a solution and a new relationship.

Read more in Psyche.

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