Fighting in the space between us

World-renowned negotiator, Daniel Shapiro, writes in his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable that our most constructive conflicts lead to real solutions when they don’t take place inside of us or our opponents but rather in the space between us.

Stringing out the emotions that churn inside of us until they make a tidy or not so tidy pile on the table before us, and inviting the other person to do the same, may seem like a bold and brave conflict resolution strategy. It is messy, though. Out of fear of this emotional can of worms, we reach for other strategies that seem more rational but are in fact emotionally motivated and often highly charged. We do some or all of the following:

  1. Refine our argument against the opposing opinion.
  2. Gather evidence to prove the other person wrong or to prove ourselves right.
  3. Anticipate push-back and become defensive even before a word has been said.
  4. Contemplate and even exaggerate the outcome if we should “lose” this argument and become despondent or hopeless.
  5. Reflect on the times we “won” or “lost” in similar conflict scenarios and become either overly confident or unnecessarily insecure.
  6. Employ avoidance techniques such as denying or postponing the conflict, or withdrawing altogether.

Do you remember the age-old clown trick where the clown stuffs brightly colored handkerchiefs into a pocket or a tiny cup, one by one, only to string them out again – neatly knotted together by the corners and streaming out in alternating colors: blue, yellow, green, orange, white, black …? That is how our inner world – the part of us that tends to complicate conflict – is wired. One experience, one thought, one observation, or one feeling at a time enters our “brain bank”. These are not all bad. Not all untrue and not all negative or upsetting. All these bits of information make up our context for conflict too.

 Some, unfortunately, were unpleasant experiences, inaccurate thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Thus, the true and the debatable, the accurate and the distorted, the hurt and the happiness become knotted together within us. The knotting together is inevitable. Our brain is wired to connect dots and make associations. We are always validating and confirming our experiences by telling ourselves either negative affirmations such as, “There it is again. I knew it. That proves it. It always happens this way. No wonder he did that. There’s no point. It’s just naïve to have any hope. I should have known. Just goes to show … That’s it, I will never believe her again!” or positive affirmations, “I know it will work out again. It always does. See, life is basically good and there are always a few good people to help you. I knew she had it in her. I don’t know why I always worry when the world keeps on turning. Look how perfectly things fit together. It all makes so much sense now.”

Any situation can trigger a long stream of knotted handkerchiefs by pulling on just one. Let’s call those trigger-sensitive thoughts or feelings “red flags” (for the negative ones) and “green flags” for the positive ones. These are the powerful aspects we need to find, and when we can pin-point them, we can untie them from all the others they are knotted to and put them more objectively in the space between us. Then, conflict can be solved more constructively.

Let’s make this practical. Jim and Paul, two cousins, were both asked by the slightly forgetful grandfather to choose the vacation spot for the extended family to have their next summer vacation. Jim chose the East Coast and Paul chose the West Coast. They’ve each separately come far with their planning. Now that they’re looping in the family, they learn that there’s a conflict.

The predictable unfolding according to the 6 behaviors listed above is that each will prove why their option is great and the other awful. They’ll show proof of deposits already paid and other points of no return, compare Airbnb reviews or say, “OK, we’ll do yours but if they all hate it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Outsiders could possibly say, “Wow, these privileged people can afford to rent huge vacation homes on the beach and now they are picky about which paradise to go to. Just unbelievable Just flip for it – heads or tails!” Others would say, “It’s a seniority issue and it has to do with the patriarchal structure of this extended family. The grandfather needs to break the tie and decide who should go ahead. Probably the oldest of the two.” We always have such simple solutions for others. Simple, because we don’t have enough “handkerchiefs” in common with them to know that it is more complicated. Their inner world differs too much from ours.

What we underestimate is the entanglement of this inner world with our identities. Shapiro highlights five key elements that are threatened by conflict such as the conflict between Jim and Paul: Beliefs, rituals, alliances, values and emotionally significant experiences. These are red and green handkerchiefs, trigger points, pillars of identity and they make for “nonnegotiables” that should in fact be negotiable.

This is what it looks like for Jim. He chose the East Coast because of these identity pillars.

Beliefs: The environment is healthier i.t.o. the kind of people and behavior the little kids will be exposed to. It should be a time for all ages to enjoy. This resort has family-friendly entertainment.

Rituals: He needs his game of tennis and this place has 10 courts and there is never a long wait. He’ll be able to play first thing every morning.

Alliances: Another family he loves will also be there, so there are more friends for the teens and his wife really prefers the East Coast nature and birdlife. He wants to please his wife.

Values: He believes older people should be made as comfortable as possible and this will be a shorter travel time for the elderly members of the family than the West Coast would be, there also are special programs for seniors at the resort. There is also some prestige attached to this place, and he cares about the perceptions of his business partners. It will underline his success in life when he shares on social media that he took his entire family here. It was a prospective client who recommended it in the first place.

Emotionally significant experiences: His favorite vacation ever was just ten miles up the coast at a location that is very similar. He wants his children to have the same memories as he had – making new friends, playing pool in the clubhouse, meeting the most beautiful girl ever – who is now his wife – and watching movies with her till late at night.

Unaware of all these motives on his inside, he simply stands vehemently on the fast that the kids will have a better time, and he proves it by showing complaints of boredom on the West Coast place’s Facebook page. “When kids are miserable; everyone is miserable!”

This, in contrast, is what drives Paul, who chose the West Coast:

Beliefs: Nature matters to the soul and is restorative. It binds generations together. Families should bond out in nature, without crowds and superficial entertainment.

Rituals: Paul feels all evening meals should be enjoyed together and his place has a big enough dining hall to make this possible, whereas Jim’s place will require the family to split in half for meals at their separate lodgings.

Alliances: Jim’s favorite cousin with six children has financial difficulties after losing his job and has asked him to make arrangements that would save them extravagant travel costs. It needs to be a driving distance for them. The East Coast isn’t. His loyalty to this cousin weighs heavily on him. They share many similar values too.

Values: Fairness and equality is a top value for Paul. Last year, the spot was on the East Coast. It is only right that the part of the family who had the shortest drive then make a special effort this time. Nature, simplicity, solitude, story-telling, adventure, and family bonds also matter very much to Paul. His choice is a nature lover's resort with rugged terrain, minimalist lodging, no Wi-Fi, the opportunity to explore the area, beautiful beaches for long solitary walks, and the unique feature of a kitchen and dining area that can accommodate everybody.

Emotionally meaningful experiences: Paul associates happiness with being out in nature with his dad – fishing and hiking, and spending the evening by the fire, exchanging stories. The river close by and a massive fireplace and lounge for late-night conversations clinched it for him.

Paul is ready to draw up a spreadsheet to have the family vote whether they think a movie theater or an outdoor adventure center is more important to the family vacation. Can you say “heels dug in”?

Can you imagine how different the conversation could go if each of them explained their stance based on their 5 identity pillars? That would put only 10 handkerchiefs on the table instead of an endless string for both of them. They may find that Jim can organize a family contribution to travel cost for those who come the long way, or to pick the mansion closest to the river on the east coast - without WIFI - to accommodate three of Paul’s core needs, or that Paul is willing to put more research and planning into activities that would serve the teens who are not outdoorsy, to ensure comfortable extras for the older folks and to agree to let those who don’t want to eat 3 meals together each day have that freedom.

Paul could possibly realize that the chances of any of his children meeting the love of their life in the same way as him meeting his, is negligible, which could help him untangle a green handkerchief of romantic assumption from the green handkerchief teen romance memory so that he can make future choices without that entanglement of trying to recreate the past. Jim could realize something similar: he assumes everyone is counting dollars and miles when they travel to see each other, when – in fact – he is the only one keeping score, as a by-product of his father’s example of charging travel cost to every music show he played with his band during Jim’s childhood. He ties travel to cost instead of to the joy of seeing family. Jim could help him overcome that!

Handkerchiefs unknotting is a freeing experience and when we do that before we start a conflict-ridden conversation, to see what is really going on behind our unbending nonnegotiables while inviting others to do the same, we find that precious space between us, where problems really do have satisfying solutions.

The next time you sense a conflict coming, jot down the 5 keywords (their first letters spell B.R.A.V.E. and not without reason!) and find those 5 red and green triggers. Untangle them from all the associations and assumptions, hold them up to the light to weigh which are the most valuable to you, then place them in that space to ensure you don’t become buried in a string of endless knotted handkerchiefs as so many times before.

by Hettie Brittz


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