History teaches us that conflict is dangerous unless it is controlled by regulations. When nations go to war, there are some agreed-upon rules of conduct. When high-school girls play basketball, they are protected from certain types of violence by the rules that govern the sport. And yet the most important conflicts of our lives are unregulated. When parents and teenagers, co-workers, and long-time friends argue, rarely are there agreed-upon rules to protect them and their relationships. This chapter encourages assertive communication and the expression of feelings without a verbal free-for-all that blocks creative resolution of conflict and destroys relationships. Problem-solving is a process that generates constructive “fights” in a systematic, noninjurious, growth-producing manner.
Whenever feelings and emotions are unusually high, it is important to alleviate the emotional aspects of conflict at the outset. Anger, distrust, scorn, fear, rejection, and defensiveness—these emotions collide head-on with the real issues of the conflict, such as opposing needs, disagreements over policies and practices, and differing concepts of roles and resources. Only when the emotional aspects of the conflict have been resolved can the parties proceed to the next stage, the rational and creative examination of the actual issues that divide them.
Skill in listening, assertion and conflict resolution are required in collaborative problem-solving. In addition, you need to understand what Bolton defines as the Collaborative Problem-Solving Method. Here are the six steps of Bolton’s process: 1. Define the problem. 2. Brainstorm possible solutions. 3. Select the solution that best satisfies both parties. 4. Define how the decision will be implemented. 5. Implement the plan. 6. Evaluate the process and the solution.
Let’s explore each step briefly. 1.Define the problem/Assert your needs. Listen reflectively until you understand the other person’s needs. Include those needs in a short summary of the problem. Except for very simple and difficult problems, allow five to 20 minutes for this step. As Grandma said, “A problem well-defined is half-solved.” 2.Brainstorm possible solutions. Brainstorming is the rapid listing of possible solutions without any clarification, evaluation or judgment. Brainstorming focuses on quantity, not quality. It is essential for you not to come into a problem-solving session with the attitude that there is only one adequate solution to the conflict. 3.Select a mutually satisfying solution. Suggest more than one solution to the problem, then ask your opponent which of the proposed alternatives she favors to solve the problem. State which alternatives look best to you. See which choices coincide. Then jointly decide on one or more of the alternatives. Be sure your opponent is satisfied with the solution. Once you have agreed to a solution, it is important to try to foresee the possible consequences of the solution. 4.Plan who will do what to implement the solution. Sometimes the solution is such an accomplishment that implementation is overlooked and taken for granted. The parties involved need to decide who will do what, where and by when. If necessary, write down your agreement, date it and sign it. 5.Implement the plan. The first four points in the problem-solving process are generally resolved during your first discussion. Now it is time to act. Be sure to follow through and do what you promised. If the implementation falls short for whatever reason, it may require an assertive message and reflective listening to avoid subsequent conflict. 6.Evaluate the process and the solution. It is important for the parties involved to question the collaborative process. Helpful points to consider in your evaluation include:
A. What did each person like most about the process? B. What did each person like least about the process? C. What can each party do better next time?
Sidestep stumbling blocks
When the collaborative approach to problem-solving fails, it is usually one of the following stumbling blocks that derails the process: 1.Emotions. Emotions must be tempered to a tolerable level for the collaborative approach to function effectively. 2.Unclear Definitions. Some people do not listen long enough, openly enough or efficiently enough to understand the other person’s needs. Many fail to accurately define their own needs through a clearly stated assertion. Use your communication skills to help others define their needs—and understand yours. 3.Derailed Brainstorming. Many people fail to stick to the meat and potatoes of brainstorming. Some are wordy and often cannot refrain from adding their opinions and comments. Again, through assertive communication keep brainstorming on track. 4.Pinpointing Details. Some people feel that specifying all the details of an agreement implies a lack of trust in the other individual. Others are simply impatient and refuse to take the time to spell out the specifics. Insist upon having your need to communicate met. 5.Follow-through. Time is the critical factor here. Many well-intentioned people fail to follow through with their part of the solution. Realize that lack of follow-through doesn’t necessarily imply that they don’t care about you and the agreement—it may simply mean they lack the skills to follow through.
Benefits of collaboration
Collaborative problem-solving is mutual affirmation of individual worth. By opting for the collaborative approach, you are saying to the other person that her needs are important to you and that yours are equally valuable. You show respect for her ability to think creatively and regard for her initiative in facing common problems. Using the process implies that both parties have the power to change their behaviors in ways that will improve their relationship. The evaluation act indicates mutual humanity, that people can err and improve. The desire to improve the relationship underscores your respect for the other individual and the value you place on your relationship.
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