Wednesday, 5 September 2007

It only takes one to tango

When I present on Conversational Riffs, a question that repeatedly comes up is how can these methods be of any use if the other person is determined to be difficult.

This is a question of “setting the stage” – how are we going to resolve this dispute? It is assumed that it takes two to tango in dispute resolution scenarios. If the other person doesn’t play ball, then our best efforts are all in vain.

I invite the questioner to turn the situation around.

Why would we allow the aggressive, or difficult party, to set the stage on their preferred terms?

Why should that process take priority over our own? If we give up in our efforts to create a positive dialogue then we are endorsing the other parties approach. We are saying “Our approach is not good enough in this situation. Your approach is right and we will commit to play, argue or fight by your rules.” We don’t want to do that, do we?

That only addresses the issue on one level. Implementing, and getting our approach to stick is another issue.

To be successful in setting the stage, we have to create that space within the dialogue which will draw in the other party. We need to anticipate what motivates the other party to resist and then meet, accommodate or resolve those concerns.

Through our own approach and careful communication we can create a conversation that will carry our colleagues or partners with us.

That is the whole notion of Conversational Riffs. The riff I play in an improvised piece of music will lead naturally onto the next passage. In conversation, the same thing applies. If I can pull out a conversational riff from my repertoire, I can influence how that conversation will progress.

My partner within the debate, argument or whatever, begins to improvise with me in creating a new meaningful, spontaneous dialogue.


alan_sharland said...

I entirely agree with you that it only takes one to tango. I work in the field of Community Mediation and work mainly with neighbours in dispute. In this area most (65%-90%) of cases only involve one party or do not involve a meeting between those involved and so the focus of our work is on assisting the individual who is interested in finding a way forward. This is through supporting their creation of new ways of communicating or of responding to the events that occur in their situation, or even new ways of responding to it personally. It really is the case that some people decide to act differently themselves and, 'magically' the dispute disappears. Irrespective of whether the other party is involved. The dependence on others to be different to who they are is both a major cause of destructive conflict and a major inhibitor of its resolution. We render ourselves powerless by requiring others' involvement in the process of resolution, and if we adopt the thinking that says 'Well if they won't try then neither will I', there can only be impasse and a festering problem, the symptoms of which can range from depression, to alcohol or drug dependence to aggression, including murder.

My own site at has been created to assist people in understanding how communication can be an escalating or destructive response to conflict, or it can be an effective and constructive response. Awareness of how we communicate is often the key to resolution. That is Self-awareness. It doesn't need the other to be involved.
There are various people involved in promoting our ability to see the answers to such difficulties within ourselves. For me the most powerful approach is that offered by Byron Katie, called The Work. See

What do others think?

Alan Sharland

Alexander Massey said...

I think it took me a long time to understand that the only disputes / conflicts I experience lie within myself. The conflict with the Other is a mirror to what is calling for evolution / growth / movement / unfolding within myself.

I learned this the hard way. I spent 16 years estranged from my family of origin. In that time, eventually, I realised that I could either wait for them to put things right for me (and I had a hundred different theories for what that might be), or I could put it right for myself, independently. It was a deep, challenging path to take. I changed out of all recognition. I had to discover deeper and deeper levels of forgiveness in myself. And to do that I also had to understand that I was exactly the same as those who I felt had wronged me. And so then I had to learn how to forgive myself, not in some quick fix New Age way, but in a way that has to be ongoing, constantly calling me to deeper awareness and connection both with myself and others.