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Vive la resolution

Article written by Alix Johnson

Published in Sunday Life Magazine

Conflict doesn't have to be a dirty word, as long as you know how to handle it.

The next time you marvel at the drama of the Great Ocean Road or admire the beauty of Sydney Harbour, contemplate this: neither would exist without conflict. It was out of the conflicting force of the sea on the land that these coastlines were carved. Conflict is a force of nature. So, why do we, especially women, shy away from it?

Two new books sim to dispel the myth of conflict and re-establish its reputation as a constructive skill, not a destructive one. How To Get What You Want Without Losing It by Gemma Summers and Life Works by Dr Amanda Ferguson are written by women, for women, and each carries the new message that conflict is a creative life skill.

“I come up against women who are afraid of conflict all the time in my practice,” says psychologist Amanda Ferguson, whose specialty is organisational psychology for companies such as Telstra.

“Conflict is about communication skills and power. For women, power is such a critical issue. We are socialised to be good girls, which means being passive. Adult women have vestiges of that tendency not to assert as much power – personal power, not role power – because they think it will make them less attractive, less likable or not acceptable to others.”

Psychologist Gemma Summers, who has worked in Northern Ireland, the USA and Eastern Europe to resolve social conflict, agrees that women often come off second best because conflict threatens their identity as “nice”, “giving”, or “nurturing”. In my years as coach, facilitator and counsellor, I noticed a lot of women didn’t fare as well in conflict as they might. I felt they often lost in situations where they should have ‘won’ or at least got a better outcome.”

The reason why no-one should try to sidestep conflict is that it is a roadblock in the path to getting what we want.

Hotspots for conflict are the workplace (for example, bullying), domestic life (sharing housework) and personal issues (managing time and stress). “Women’s roles have expanded so much over the past three decades that numerous interactions in numerous situations necessarily increase conflict,” says Summers. “There comes a point where you decide that you want to change your way of handling things.”

Conflict resolution is about problem solving. “There is a mass misconception that conflict is a dirty word. Many couples, and even organisations, think that if there is a conflict, there is a problem, yet it is the very lack if it that is the problem.” Alarm bells sound, she says, when a couple announce, “But we never fight!”

“It is a problem if you are not having conflict in a relationship, because then you have two very undifferentiated people who can’t assert their differences and be comfortable in the discomfort of their differences. Instead, they are shelving their problems, compromising themselves and their uniqueness.” At the heart of embracing conflict is embracing who you are and acknowledging that your opinions, wants and needs will not always match those of your boss, your spouse or your local mayor.

Similarly, in a community or an organisation, conflict can be a platform for growth and change. Think of the positive global impact made by feminists, human-rights activists and environmentalists, all of whom were baptised by the fires of conflict.

“We used to call conflict resolution ‘sitting in the fire’,” says Gemma Summers. “In the 90s, I was working in the States and a fundamentalist religious group in Portland was preparing a political ballot that discriminated against gays and lesbians. We brought together both groups to work live on the conflict. It was pretty scary. This degree of conflict is very hard to resolve unless you are willing to hear other people’s stories, and why they are often painful to listen to. What we learnt was that each side had no idea that the other was in so much pain around the issue. Both sides felt attacked.”

So how do you “do” conflict well? The good news is that it is a skill, and, with practice, it can be acquired. “The local Woolworths hates me,” laughs Ferguson. I send my clients there to practise a simple exercise in being assertive.” There are three modes of communication, she says: aggressive, passive, and assertive. Only assertive is empowering; it means you are looking for a win/win situation. Assertiveness is defined by clear, honest and direct communication that is tactful and well timed.

“My clients pick an item off the shelf and go to the checkout. As it is being swiped, they say, ‘I have changed my mind. I don’t want that anymore. Can you remove it, please?’ The exercise is {for me} to listen to the tone of voice. If it is meek and you are cringing, then you are a passive communicator and I get you to try again. It is fabulous once you get some runs on the board and see how it works. Even though it is scary to do it, you get such a sense of empowerment from problem solving and fixing things, “she says.

“I was not raised with conflict resolution skills,” reveals Gemma Summers. “It is not inborn, we have to learn it, like learning to drive a car. I watched, I practised I learnt. I am continually reconditioning myself. Conflict is an opportunity for gain – if you can bear that it is a bit uncomfortable.”

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