This article is written to highlight an aspect of conflict, and one’s own personal process, that can obstruct the capacity to restore collaborative and cooperative relationship. It also gives a suggestion for beginning to address this issue.
In my experience of mediating conflict, and understanding my own disputes, I notice that what often emerges is a clearly defined sense of each party feeling they are right and the other is wrong. As mediation courses usually teach, it is the taking of positions that underpins ongoing entrenched conflict. People become polarised, and “the between” (Hycner, 1993: 83), becomes a gaping wound, arid desert, or a high mountain range placed directly between one and the other.
As long as there remains the space for question, an interest in the different “truths” that each person brings, then dialogue can continue and the relationship as a force for cooperation and understanding is sustained. However, when people move from the difference that has emerged, to a solidified sense of “I’m right, you’re wrong”, then dispute usually follows (a quick look online brings up definitions of dispute including “disagreement”, and “argument”. As I use the word dispute in this article, I also attribute the words “stuck”, “repetitive patterns”, and “emotional pain”, to it).
As we explore this topic, many potential paths open-up. For example, why does someone choose to take-up such a polarised position? One interpretation could be that it is a response to strong feelings that a person holds. For example, if I am discussing a difference with someone and that difference is linked particularly closely to core values I might have, then I may feel frustrated, or angry.
Now, if I’m particularly grounded and aware, then I may be able to say, “as you say X, I notice I feel angry”. However, often the emergent feeling and emotion is quick and may move faster than our mind can grasp, and we may express such feelings through an assertive or determined, “I’m right, you’re wrong”.
Other and associated reasons any of us choose to polarise to a place of, “I’m right, you’re wrong”, may include a desire for certainty, as opposed to sitting with uncertainty; a desire to be free of the conflicts within ourselves, as Zinker says, “interpersonal conflict often arises out of intrapersonal conflict” (1977: 206); living within a larger societal field that emphasises this right-wrong polarity (e.g. the state justice system); and others!
Yet, as a mediator, and a human being who sits with his own disputes, my experience is twofold and paradoxical, the “I’m right, you’re wrong” script is so often present in a dispute, and yet so often unhelpful for the person, and people, involved.
My experience is that if I am brokering relationship with authenticity and mutuality, and with the aim of collaboration (and growth), then “I’m right, you’re wrong” is likely to be unhelpful to me. I would also contend that when particularly potent, the “I’m right, you’re wrong” script is likely to have significantly detrimental effects on my life beyond that immediate relationship. The clinging onto this script may leak into others areas of my life and can weigh me down. Yet, the script is so alluring.
As I’m writing now, I relate this “I’m right, you’re wrong” script more overtly to my own life. I bring a personal conflict situation to mind, picture that person, and spontaneously say out loud, “I don’t need to be right…….”, in this moment what I notice follow are the words, “……I’m good enough”.
I try again, this time saying, “I may not be right…….”, and this time what I notice follow are the words, “………and I believe in my experience”. I do it again, “right, wrong, doesn’t matter…….I trust what I know”, then again, “right, wrong, doesn’t matter…….I trust who I am”. As I say these things, I notice myself relax a little, release a deep breath, and see a broader plain in front of me where I have a greater sense of choice. I then understand a little better how every “I’m right, you’re wrong” that I live out, is somehow a small negation of who I am.
Then I think of my job as a mediator, and I am reminded of how the back and forth of such protests in mediation can often leave those involved feeling isolated, frustrated, and exhausted. Sometimes parties will recognise this themselves, with a “this isn’t taking us anywhere”. As I think now of those moments of division, isolation, exhaustion, I notice my heart and my compassion, and I think how I may as a mediator be a mirror to each person to reflect back a sense of “you’re OK”, without them needing to fight for this from the other.
My encouragement for anyone reading now who may have a dispute with a “I’m right, you’re wrong” script, is first of all to bring the other person or people who you are in dispute with to mind, picture them.
Then say to them in your head, or out loud, “I may not be right………”, and see what words come next, see what you notice in your body, be aware of any change in your immediate here-and-now experience; understanding that there is nothing more to do than this, and you are committing to nothing beyond this. Then, or, try again with different words, “If I’m not right……..”, and see what arises. Keep repeating with your own version of this introductory script and see what emerges. It’s an open invitation, feel free to experiment!
(with thanks to Aj for the conversational inspiration for this article)
Hycner, R. (1993) Between Person and Person. Gouldsboro, ME: The Gestalt Journal Press
Zinker, J (1977) Creative Process in Gestalt Therapy. New York: Vintage Books