Tired of Conflict? A physician coach suggests commitment, acceptance and alignment

We live in an atmosphere of perpetual conflict that seems unsolvable and growing by the week. Military conflicts continue to escalate around the world.  Our government is ineffectual, as neither side wants to work together to find solutions. There are many reasons for this situation, including some developments that were intended to encourage greater exchange of ideas.  For example, cable TV was supposed to allow peoScreen Shot 2014-08-04 at 10.27.45 PMple to be exposed to different points of view, but the actual result is that we remain indoctrinated by only those who share our opinions. It serves to insulate us from other perspectives and reinforces the idea that our ideas are the only rational ones. Even in our own small spheres, there are numerous conflicts, replete with hurt feelings, resentment and dug-in heels.

How can we break this cycle of misunderstanding and conflict?

Several years ago, two groups of people – one pro-life and the other pro-choice – met in Chicago to discuss the problem of unwanted pregnancies. Can you imagine two more antagonistic groups? On the first day, they were instructed, coached and given practice in communication skills, but were not allowed to discuss abortion or any other social issue. On the second day, they were tasked with developing a program they could work on together. The result? After only a few hours, the group easily accomplished its task.

How did they do it?

As part of the program, each person agreed to commit to finding a solution. Similarly, the first thing we need to do in any conflict is agree that a solution can be found, and set our intention to co-create an agreement. We must accept that the other party has legitimate rights and desires, just as we do, and believe that a solution exists that can satisfy both of us. Without this foundation, we will never succeed. When it seems as if no acceptable decision can be found, we need to have a commitment that we will continue to work towards one, opening our minds and using our creativity, until we find one.

As each side states their requests, it’s helpful to ask why that is important to them – what principle, value or aim they are looking to fulfill. This can often help to show common ground, which is important in the next step, which is to find alignment.

What CAN you align around? For the pro-life and pro-choice groups, they were easily able to align around reducing unwanted pregnancies. While each group has a different approach for dealing with pregnancies once they occur, both were able to support an overall reduction in unwanted pregnancy. Alignment is generally found around something bigger than just one’s point of view.

Once we have alignment, we can share our differing points of view more easily, since they are only different ways of looking at the issue around which we already agree. By sharing our views, we begin to really understand each other. Each differing perspective allows us to be more creative in finding an agreement.

There will always be times when negotiations break down, but by returning to our commitment to find a solution that works for all, listening to understand and accept the other person’s priorities, and gaining alignment around a bigger, common issue, we can generally find a solution where none appeared before.  I encourage you to select an unresolved conflict in your own personal or professional realm and put these principles to work.  What would it be like to live with fewer conflicts in your life?

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About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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