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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Conflict Resolution

Also see Rogerian persuasion, persuasive writing, and
managerial communication.

Heal broken relationships with empathy and trust

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Note: I wrote this column on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, before I knew its outcome.


So much is happening. Our nation is divided over the outcome of the election. Your ex-spouse has told your children you’re a liar and a cheater. Your coworker has attacked you by pushing three buttons of vulnerability: your competence (“Why can’t you do this right?”), your intelligence (“Why can’t you understand how this works?”), and your integrity (“Why didn’t you tell me this was your plan?”).


How do we heal? How do we repair all the damage? How do we recover after so much acrimony?


President George H. W. Bush sends a congratulatory letter to Bill Clinton, concluding with “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” You admit to your children you’ve made mistakes, you tell them you respect the other parent, and you assure them that both you and the other parent love them. And you resolve conflict with your coworker by doing 10 things. The first seven have to do with adopting an effective persuasive strategy. The last three have to do with being a good person.


1. You show empathy by trying to understand your opponent’s point of view, particularly if that person’s life history, way of thinking, or ethnic background differs from your own.


2. Following the precepts of Rogerian persuasion, you affirm the validity of your opponent’s point of view before countering with your own.


3. You acknowledge flaws in your own argument or performance.


4. You seek common ground rather than emphasize differences, and you look for win-win solutions rather than for ways to defeat your opponent.


5. You “flip the script” by responding with “non-complementary behavior,” as illustrated by a woman in a backyard gathering who shows kindness to an armed assailant by offering that person a glass a wine, resulting in the assailant sitting down and talking with the group and even apologizing for trying to rob them.


6. You go beyond accepting change; you embrace it, without fear of the future, even as you hold on to what you value in the past.


7. You think “counterfactually” by asking what-if questions to reimagine your past as recommended by futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, thereby unleashing a “burst of creativity,” lowering your stress, increasing your sense of control over the present, and creating a heightened belief in the possibility of transformational change in the future.


8. You cultivate qualities that make you a good person based on the YMCA’s core values of respect, responsibility, honesty, and caring, along with the related values of compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and kindness – values that are embraced not only by Christianity but also by all the world’s great religions.


9. You create trust by demonstrating those qualities, especially by recognizing injustice, showing respect for others in both words and actions, and treating both friends and foes fairly.


10. You demonstrate patience by not interrupting or contradicting others as well as by recognizing that winning over your opponents and building relationships take time.


Perhaps most important, you realize that healing doesn’t happen overnight.




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