When we are engaged in conflict with someone else, it is often difficult to step out of it to gain perspective. It is hard to pinpoint the exact problem, usually because we are absolutely convinced the problem is the other person, although we may begrudgingly admit that we might be contributing to the problem.
The answers to conflict resolution can be pretty easy. Opening up to them is the hard part. They are contained in the stories we tell. If we can allow ourselves to listen to our own stories with a more discerning ear, we may be able to penetrate to the heart of the conflict more easily.
Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, in their book Resolving Personal and Organizational Conflict, present a framework I find useful and powerful in explaining the underlying dynamics of conflict and my clients find it engaging. It is a way to explore worldview and experience the transformative power of worldview awareness. It is based on the notion that we tell stories in a certain way when we are in conflict. The framework looks like this:
Princess Story Triangle
If you think of fairy tales of old ( since the very nature of our fairytale storytelling is now, thankfully, changing), there is usually a Princess or damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by the Prince from the Dragon, wicked step-mother or other perpetrator. The Princess is pure and beautiful and always the victim of circumstance or of the jealous or evil intentions of someone who has some kind of influence or power over her life. She never rescues herself. The dragon is evil and hateful and has it out for the Princess. The Prince is handsome and gallant and always arrives to rectify the situation. (It is important to remember these are archetypal roles that we all assume so even though the Princess is referred to as “she” it could just as easily and often be a “he” in the role.)
We often tell our conflict stories from the perspective of the Princess. In our stories about conflict we have with another person we are the victim. Somebody has done something to us. Whatever we perceive they have done, we use to justify our own actions or behaviour in the conflict especially when we find ourselves “acting out of character”. When we act out of reaction, anger, frustration, we don’t feel good about ourselves or how we treated someone else. If we can rationalize that we have been provoked into our reaction, that at least offers an explanation for our own behaviour that we can live with, that supports our worldview. We become identified with our position and are unwilling to acknowledge what we may have done to contribute to the situation. The less heard we feel, the more entrenched we become in our position. Our attempts to resolve the conflict feel like giving in.
We want other people to understand our reaction in light of the provocation so we paint the person we are in conflict with as the “dragon”. Then, it’s as if we had no choice because the dragon forced us into it. While we see ourselves as “acting out of character” we see the dragon in our story as very much acting within character for them, more so if the conflict has gone on for awhile or is particularly entrenched.
One of the reasons we tell our conflict stories to others is that we are looking for our knight in shining armour to come along and rescue us. Sometimes the rescue is simply in being validated or acknowledged for our own actions. “The dragon did such a terrible thing, no wonder you reacted the way you did.” Other times we are looking for someone to do something for us, to intervene or to make the dragon disappear.
In promoting our princess stories to whoever will listen, we are looking for sympathy. If we don’t get it, we go deeper into our story, give more detail, repeat ourselves. The repetition makes the story more and more real and we become more entwined with it. We drive ourselves deeper into the princess role because surely that will generate the sympathy we think we need. In exchange for the sympathy we seek, we trade in whatever power we may have to rectify our situation. In the victim role, we are helpless to defend ourselves, change our situation or learn from the conflict.
When we finally realize that the knight in shining armour is us, we stop looking for the prince. When we recognize that the dragon may not be purely evil but also “acting out of character”, we can begin to relinquish the princess role and truly learn from our plight. One key to doing this is to tell our story from the perspective of our dragon, to become curious about how they are seeing the world. The dragon in our story has their own version, their own worldview, of the conflict story. What are the odds that they actually paint themselves as the dragon? About the same as us painting ourselves as the dragon in our own story. Although sometimes that dragon is an internal dragon.
As we tell the story from their perspective, we put ourselves in their shoes. It enables us to see them in a new light. Maybe they were reacting to something we said or did. Perhaps they feel just as helpless in the escalation of this conflict as we feel. Maybe new awareness of their challenges and difficulties come to light that help us soften our own story, make us more curious and more generous, expanding the space for generative conversation to emerge.
Another benefit of telling the story from the perspective of the dragon is that it just might enable us to admit the pieces of our own princess story that we have omitted – the pieces that might have contributed to the dragon’s response, behaviour or actions. If we let down our guard only momentarily, instead of signaling to the dragon an opportunity to attack as we fear it will, it just might signal an opening to disarm the conflict.
In order to do this, we must give up our need to be right and open ourselves up to alternative explanations, stories, scenarios or worldviews. It is possible to have more than one right answer although when we feel absolutely that we are right it is a challenge to believe this.
Our princess story contains our truth. It is not always factual truth but it is emotional truth. It also contains omissions. The dragon’s story contains truth and omissions too. It is in bringing the truths and the omissions together that an alternative story emerges, one that often contains the framework or foundation for resolution in an expanded truth.
The stories we tell ourselves shape our experience. What conflict could you shift the shape of if you found a different way to tell the story, if you become curious about the situation, your reaction, the other person, if you became more gracious and generous in responding to them – even if it is a stretch as you begin. Some stretches end up being worth it.