An Interpretation of the Light Fixture Story
How we interpret any conflict depends on the theory of conflict that we subscribe to. From an interest-based perspective, the story was about two men who had needs for fair distribution of some money and maybe some respect. According to that theory, the conflict should be resolvable once both men received sufficient respect and once they believed they were receiving a sufficient amount of the money at stake. And at the level of problem-solving, the men did ultimately achieve those ends.
But the interest-based perspective doesn’t explain why each man chose to give all of the money to the other; it doesn’t explain why both men ended up feeling good about the situation; and it doesn’t explain the route they needed to take to get there.
The transformative theory provides a better fit. According to transformative theory, we are fundamentally motivated to behave with strength and responsiveness. The distress we experience in conflict is connected to diminished strength and responsiveness in relation to each other; and progress means regaining those qualities of experience.
When Paul asked me for the sales tax, I felt weak. That is, I interpreted Paul’s request as a lack of regard for me; and Paul’s apparent lack of regard for me raised questions for me about myself: Aren’t I worthy of more consideration? Doesn’t Paul know that I’m worthy of better treatment? Will I be able to stand up for myself now that I’ve been disrespected? How can I do so without doing harm to Paul? – These questions reflect a sense of weakness, as well as the sense of confusion that comes with it.
Next, I decided that to regain my sense of strength, I needed to speak up and confront Paul. (I wasn’t thinking literally in terms of regaining strength – at the time I just knew it felt like something needed to be done). I was anxious about speaking up, because I suspected Paul would be insulted.
Indeed, Paul was insulted as he apparently experienced his own sense of weakness. In an attempt to regain a sense of strength, he responded angrily and defensively. When I saw that my words had such a big impact on Paul, I had an increased sense of my strength and was then able to be responsive to Paul. When he proceeded to explain his perspective on the sales tax, I was able to understand it and relate to it. Feeling better about the situation, I chose to give Paul the sales tax.
But over the next few days, Paul and I continued to wrestle with the situation in our minds. Paul, on reflection, apparently regained his calm and his sense of strength; this allowed him to return to his preferred state of responsiveness toward me. Meanwhile, I remained slightly uncomfortable with my interactions with Paul. Although I felt giving him the sales tax was the right thing to do, I still felt a bit weakened in relation to him and I knew that I would not respond well to any criticism from him about the situation. When we finally met again, and he handed me back the money, we both arrived at a state of strength and responsiveness. His gesture of giving me the money and his expressing appreciation of our friendship contributed to my return to that strength and responsiveness I prefer.
As a mediator, I’m reminded that people in conflict need to find their own way back to strength and responsiveness. The space to do their own thinking and the opportunity to speak to each other on their own terms allows them to do it themselves. A mediator focusing them on how to divide up the money can interfere, while a mediator supporting their deliberation and their conversation can help profoundly.
posted by Dan Simon
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