Conflicting Identities

How often we are involved in conflicts, in work and in life, that ruin our relationships or leave us unsatisfied?

When we are engaged in a conflict, we can use several strategies to resolve it.

  • For example, we can choose a soft negotiation style: we readily give our opponent what he wants, in order to stop the discussion and preserve the relationship. The risk is that of feeling bitter about it later because we gave up something important to us. But the relationship will still exist.
  • Another strategy is sticking to our guns until our opponent feels exhausted (but maybe he can become more aggressive) in order to win the argument no matter what the cost, ruining the relationship included.
  • We often use in family life the compromise technique. Therefore, we bargain a solution slightly different from what we really want in order to reach an agreement. It is a solution that preserves the relationship but often does not satisfy our needs hidden under the conflict.

If we are familiar with the negotiation strategy, we can adopt the Principled Negotiation (or negotiation on the merits) method developed by R. Fisher and W. Ury.

The Principled Negotiation

Therefore, we can focus on interests, and not on positions. What are the interests that led us, or that led our opponent, to take the current position? Let us suppose that we are arguing for an orange, as it happens in the famous anecdote. We can make a quick compromise, and settle for half an orange. Or we can investigate the other person’s interest, and explicit our interest. Maybe we need only the orange rind to decorate a dessert, while our opponent wants the orange juice. Therefore, we should solve the conflict with a whole orange for everyone, that it means that every one of us achieves whatever he wants: we are completely satisfied and we have preserved the relationship too.

Sometimes, though, it is not enough.

Sometimes conflicts stir such deep emotions that we are the first to be amazed by the irrational aggressiveness we express during the conflict. Arguing about orange is one thing, negotiating peace conditions after a war is another. Or resolving a painful conflict that affects everyone, where there are no good guys and bad guys, but an enormous amount of anger.

Daniel Shapiro claims that when a conflict is emotionally charged, the charge implicates core aspects of our identity: who we are (or who we think we are), what it is important for us, what we believe it is the meaning of our existence.

We feel, in other words, that the conflict threatens us, directly.

Who we are (or who we think, or want, to be) at a very deep level.

When in a conflict we start to feel overwhelmed by emotions, ask ourselves: “what precisely, in this conflict, I feel is threatening my identity? And which aspects of my identity I feel threatened? It is one of my core value? Or it is my loyalty towards some people important to me? It is a belief about who I am?”

Let ask the same questions regarding our opponent.

Is there a way to protect these fundamental aspects of our identity and to resolve the conflict too, inventing with our opponent new alternatives based on this new awareness?

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