William Cottringer, Ph.D.

“Differences in thinking about problems and solutions cause great conflicts; but the way we communicate about these differences is the source of continuing the conflict.” ~ The author.

Conflicts are a frequent part of any relationship at work or home. The personal perspective we assume in the way we view conflicts and their resolution is very much related to the degree of success we get in resolving them and how often they re-appear. However, if we don’t even agree about this perspective, no mutually satisfying win-win resolution is possible. So I guess that is the first question to answer—is there one best perspective about conflicts people should consider converging on?

The answer to this tough question depends upon your basic view of life, or more simply how much do you trust life in knowing more than you do and taking you to a better place? Another way of looking at this is how open-minded are you? Much of our life experiences tend to reinforce our ego and its close-mindedness because that is what builds a real sense of security—what we know to be so about understanding problems and fixing them is who we are. But sooner or later, we get in a sticky pickle with someone because what we know and what they know about this all is different, and we don’t know how to effectively communicate about our differences in such away to uncover the real truth that we sense is there in the back of our minds. After all, acting on incorrect or incomplete truths is what causes all the problems!

I have been dealing with organizational and relationship conflicts all my life. And after enough failures at not being able to resolve key conflicts in my own life, I had to ask myself why I wasn’t being more successful? The answer came from within—because I assumed that my way of thinking about the conflict and its resolution was superior and more correct than the other person with whom I was in conflict. But the real problem was that we both felt that way and we couldn’t communicate without the raw personal emotions that accompany the feeling that our entire self was being challenged by the other person.

Back in 1975 I was a marriage counselor working at a rural southern Illinois mental health clinic. I was having marital problems of my own that resulted in a divorce and remarriage to another therapist at the same clinic where I was working. We were all on yearly contracts and when they came due, the clinic renewed my new wife’s contract, but not mine. I was devastated because this was the life work I had been trained to do and I wanted to continue doing it because I loved counseling and was good at it.

I approached the chairman of the mental health board to try to understand their reasoning and to plead my case, because I was in total disagreement with their actions. My position was that at this point in time there really wasn’t such a thing as marriage counseling. All the people coming into the clinic with marriage problems really wanted to figure out how to get out of a dysfunctional, unfixable marriage and survive the divorce process with minimal battle scars for themselves and any children they had.

What I was doing was more “divorce counseling” and who would be in the best position to be able to do that well, other than someone with personal, firsthand experience in the matter? Of course, the board chairman was more concerned about the awful “scandal” of their marriage counselor not being able to fix his own marriage and the effect that failure would have on other clients and community at large. The story didn’t have a happy ending, and was only slightly mitigated after my new wife and I moved over to Australia to get away from this maddening, impossible situation.

Over thirty years later, I was visiting an old friend vacationing in Moclips, WA. This friend was a retired Social Worker that had been a workmate back at the mental health clinic in Illinois and he had gone to graduate school here in Washington. Oddly, I was in the process of divorcing the wife involved in the earlier scandal. And more oddly, the chairman of the board was also visiting our mutual friend, who back in 1975 was really caught in the middle of the conflict between me and the mental health board.

We all talked about our current lives and then inevitably regressed back to 1975. The outcome of the frank and open discussion was that both sides had been “right” in our different thinking about the situation. But at the same time we were both also a little “wrong” in anticipating the likely consequences of our actions. Above all, we realized we hadn’t understood the purpose and value of the conflict for the clinic and didn’t work hard enough to squeeze out a creative compromise that would have resulted in a win-win outcome for all. And of course, the mentality back then was more win-lose, which has only begun to change with the positive psychology movement going on in our world today.

There are valuable lessons in this story:

1. Whenever people are involved in a relationship, there are going to be conflicts as to how each sees the problems and the solutions. What is important is how we choose to communicate about our differences in thinking and how sure we are about the likely consequences of our choices and actions. To do this we have to leave our ego at home.

2. What may be most important in understanding and resolving conflicts effectively is our perspective of conflicts in general. If we are open to a win-win mentality and trust life enough to take us to a better place, we will have the courage to see that conflicts are the best opportunity for us to see what we are doing wrong, make a key change, compromise smartly and become the best person we can be. This requires much open-mindedness, which we often don’t have at the time, especially when we think we do.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA., along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence), The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree), and Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers). This article is part of his new book Rational Reality Repair Rx coming soon. Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or