The skills that I write about enable you to put your emotions aside and to realise that conflict ebbs and flows. It’s a cycle of ups and downs. At the start, you might be convinced that you will continue to fight until the bitter end. Soon, you start to be impacted by the hostilities and you realise that this is hurting you more than you thought at the start. If you realised this from the beginning, you could resolve it before being stung by it, providing of course, that the other person realises this too. There is an explanation for this.
From the outside, a solution seems simple (just stop fighting and talk!) but both sides are so deeply involved in their emotional reaction to a disagreement, that the reality of their destructive behaviour has not yet surfaced. It’s only once you realise how damaging the conflict is to your interests that you might look for a way out of it. It’s what academics refer to as the “ripeness” of a conflict for resolution.
Conflicts are properly resolved with solutions that benefit both parties’ interests. By this, I mean that the conflict loses its emotional charge. When the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits, you need to offer something that seems more beneficial than continuing to fight.
The theory of conflict ripeness is about knowing when the time is right to attempt to resolve it. This plays out every day in all types of conflict. Couples who stick to their guns may eventually realise that their arguing is causing too much suffering to their children and they must resolve it with counselling. Legal disputes are usually settled right before a court hearing after the parties realise that they have spent too much money on legal costs and can’t risk an unfavourable judgment which could be even more costly.
The question is how do you know when the time is right? Here are a few tips on understanding what could bring a party to the table, whether that’s a person you are in a legal dispute with, a romantic partner, an employee or an international trading partner.
The costs are escalating. If you are both in a legal dispute, you will both be spending an incredible amount of money on lawyers’ fees. Unless you have money to burn, it would be crazy not to attempt to settle before they escalate out of control. Sadly, not many people realise this at the start of a conflict but will reach that conclusion later on when they realise the consequences of long, drawn out court procedures. Ideally, it would be best to settle at the start of a legal dispute in order to save costs, but an offer is better received once damning evidence comes to light or the bluff and bluster or a party’s position proves to be unrealistic.
Costs are not all about money. A conflict can ruin important relationships and affect those around you. If you can see that both of you are suffering because your relationship is under strain or that to lose it would risk economic or emotional turmoil, that realisation may become too hard to bear.
Your mental health may be damaged by the conflict. It can cause hopelessness, feelings of loss, anxiety and anger. This can get to the point when you are both feeling exhausted or lacking in mental resources to continue fighting. Consider this a vital sign that you need to resolve the conflict rather than damage your well-being.
Timing may create a new solution that becomes acceptable to you both. The best example of this is the Northern Ireland conflict. Years of violence and unrest were ended by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The conflict was ultimately political (and still is) in nature and was about whether Northern Ireland should remain under British rule or it should revert to being part of Ireland. A viable solution only became available when the UK became a Member of the EU. This brought freedom of movement between Ireland and the UK and so the physical border between the two territories was no longer necessary. Irish Republicans could feel part or Ireland and the Northern Irish Unionists could remain part of the union with the UK. The treaty is more complex than that, but the solution was only possible after the UK became an EU member in 1992. It probably helped that the intense violence and segregation between the two sides had exhausted their resources thus making a resolution attractive.
This list only provides you with indicators of the key disadvantages of conflict and why they may motivate both sides to put it to rest through settlement. The timing depends on each conflict and there are no hard and fast rule. They will, however, help you to judge when an offer to resolve conflict might be accepted or rejected. If you do attempt to resolve a conflict, it would be a good idea to point out that the conflict is becoming too costly for both of you or that you don’t want to damage the relationship of those around you who are affected.
Even if you misjudge your timing, rejection is useful information. It tells you that the solution you have presented does not meet the other person’s needs or alternatively, that they do not yet perceive themselves as disadvantaged by the conflict. Whilst this can feel frustrating, it’s helpful to know that you need to rethink your next steps, a consideration that you should always factor into any strategy.
Ripeness theory is also a reminder about devising strong, durable solutions that get to the bottom of the problem and leave both sides feeling satisfied with the outcome, both emotionally and practically. If this doesn’t work, just like any cycle, you could go from a position of peace to a position of renewed conflict, in a short amount of time. That’s where a mediator might be able to help.
As always, I’d love to know what you think of this! Leave a comment and let me know.