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The challenge of stepping back

by Dr Esse Menson, MMF associate trainer and mediator

One of the key principles of conflict resolution is for us to be able to accept that conflict is more about different perspectives than about right and wrong. This is much easier to do when we are calm because then we are more able to accept the truths and merits of those other perspectives. More willing to appreciate them even though they may be very different from ours.

But when the stakes are high and we are invested in a certain outcome, acknowledging and accepting different perspectives becomes much more difficult. If the conflict involves differences in view between parents and health professionals about the care and treatment of a child, the stakes could hardly be higher. As health professionals, we can find ourselves sucked into the quicksand of who’s right and who’s wrong, seeing ourselves as on being of the side of the ‘righteous and just’ while seeing the other person as misguided or simply wrong.

Stepping back to appreciate another’s perspective can be anything but easy. We may give airtime to their views, then follow it with a verbal or mental ‘but’ which essentially negates what they have just said.

So how can we achieve this all important process of stepping back?

Kathryn Mannix slide on Stepping back to find perspective

Here are five precepts that can help us:

  1. They feel as ‘right’ as I do A starting point is a robust awareness that the other person is probably as persuaded by and wedded to their viewpoint as we are. Trying to dismantle and deconstruct their argument is more likely to result in a more vociferous defence of their perspective. Instead, consciously listening to them explain their perspective with the intention of better understanding it and what it means to them can be powerful. The effects of listening can often be visible and palpable – the energy in the room changes. Feeling heard, understood and having one’s viewpoint accepted as valid can be intrinsically therapeutic. And people can listen better themselves when they feel heard first.
  2. We see the world not as it is, but as we are Whether we attribute this to the French author Anaïs Nin or to Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, the point is well made: while we tend to regard ourselves as objective rational beings who see things clearly and accurately, in truth we are not. We cannot help but see the world though the filter of our own experiences, our own beliefs, our own values, our judgements and biases. These colour everything we see to varying degrees. Appreciation of this can enable us to explore other perspectives beyond the prism of our habitual filters.
  3. I can be comfortable with emotions – my own and other people’s As professionals, we can regard emotions as an impediment to professional interaction but in fact the opposite may be true. Emotions can bring “a sense of raw unfettered power that can feel dangerous” (Dr Elke Rechbeger, Psychologist) so it’s understandable that we might prefer to sidestep them. Rather than fearing emotions we can recognise them as important information that are communicated differently by different people at different times. What underlies the expressed emotion warrants exploration. It may be the opposite of the behaviour we see. Angry demanding behaviour may arise because of overwhelming feelings of fear or loss of control. Or the person may be wanting to convey some very important information which we are missing. Withdrawn behaviour may be less overt but can be equally important to attend to. If we can be comfortable with strong emotions, we can get to the core of what lies beneath and to important information that needs to be heard.
  4. We are all many – and often contradictory – things Do you notice when we are putting ourselves or the other person into a box? Good or appropriate (us) / bad or inappropriate (them). Yet things are rarely that binary. We can be self-serving in an interaction and also kind, gracious and generous, reasonable in some areas and irrational in others. A tendency to categorise and label others – usually negatively – reduces our ability to see people clearly and to appreciate the different qualities they can bring to an interaction. Try to notice when labelling or categorising is blocking an open-minded assessment of other’s perspectives and viewpoints.
  5. ‘I can invite them to hear my perspective – and still be ok if they don’t engage’ So, we’ve been the listener first, listened to understand the other person’s perspective. And we’ve noticed signs that the other person feels listened to: their shoulders have dropped, they look calmer, the energy in the room has changed. If we immediately launch into giving them our perspective, the connection gained can immediately evaporate. Instead, we can extend an invitation, an offer of information or explanation. This allows the person to subconsciously prepare to receive what we say and to be in a more receptive rather than a resistant mindset. And ideally the offer needs to be genuine, one which the person can choose to reject or decline. Can we accept a ‘no’ as ‘not now’ or ‘not yet’? Can we keep the door open rather than being offended?