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Do we have to argue over every darn thing?

Here's what you need to know about conflict resolution from someone who teaches it for a living. 
Conflict resolution. We Are
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As is often repeated, there is much that divides us right now — from the war in Ukraine to the pandemic mandates to the pace of development. 

These divides can impact relationships between friends, co-workers, neighbours, families and countries, both online and off. 

At the root of much discord is an inability to resolve conflicts in a healthy way. 

Kent Highnam, dean of the School of Health, Community and Social Justice at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC), says the key to any conflict is first figuring out why you are engaging in it at all. 

Highnam, who has been working in conflict resolution for 22 years and is an instructor in JIBC's Centre for Conflict Resolution, says if your reason for engaging on a topic is to have fun, then it is a debate. 

If your reason is to be right, then it is an argument. 

If it's to learn, then you want to explore. If the reason for the conflict is to protect yourself, then you want to disengage.  

If it is to protect others, you want to assert yourself. 

If the reason is to connect with the other person, then you want to find your common humanity.

It's important to know why you are having the conversation and whether agreement is necessary, he says. 

"For example, if you and I are parents of a child, and we're talking about whether or not they're going to get vaccinated, yes, agreement is necessary. If I'm talking with my father-in-law about politics, agreement is not necessary."

Yelled at by a stranger

Highnam notes that in the current climate, many people "tend to be on a hair-trigger." 

"So we're acting or reacting to situations that are outside of our normal temperament. After two years of pressure, ambiguity and fear, and kind of a scarcity, Hunger Games mentality, we're all just so close to the edge. And it's hard to know when people are close to the edge when you just see them walking down the street."

Say you are confronted by someone who yells at you for wearing a mask when it isn't required. In that situation, the key is not making the problem worse, he says. 

"If I'm in a situation where somebody is catching me off guard...what I really need to do is not become part of the problem. I need to just stay focused and think about 'What do I need to do in the next 30 seconds to help not become part of the problem?' And that's as simple as not saying anything, and just not engaging," he says, adding that one should internally recognize that this situation is not about you; it is about the other person and find some compassion in that. 

"That person is having a rough moment," says Highnam. 

"It's not necessarily about me. They are yelling for themselves — they are not yelling at me." 

(Highnam notes that for any situation, safety comes first, and so only act if it is safe for you to do so. )

Confronted in an unfriendly crowd

The crowd mentality really helps people become, in a way, anonymous, says Highnam. 

"And so if you're an individual who was not part of that crowd, and somebody is coming at you, then my recommendation would be to try and see this person as an individual and help them to see you as an individual.” 

You could say, " I can see you're really passionate about this," for example, he says. 

Connect with a victim of bullying

From the playground to the workplace to online forums, bystanders see others being bullied. 

In these situations, what bystanders can do is connect with the target.

"Ask what they would need. Let them know that what you've seen is not OK with you and maybe strategize about how to connect them with resources to address it," says Highnam. 

For example, if it is an adult on a worksite, WorkSafeBC has legislation against bullying and harassment. So, that organization could be contacted for help. 

Compassion for the mentally ill

If you encounter someone who is raging and seems mentally ill, try to be empathetic. 

 "If I need to engage with them, then I want to do all the same things, be friendly. Keep a calm tone of voice. Try to see them with compassion. That is what they need," says Highnam.

If someone is in distress, then getting them help by calling 911 is best.

"Treating people with respect and dignity, I think, is the safest way to go."

Don't argue with someone drunk

If someone is drunk or high, there's little point in engaging while they are under the influence, says Highnam. 

"Alcohol affects the hippocampus, which is important in storing memory and encoding memory. So, that's why people can actually have quite a detailed conversation and not remember it because they were under the influence of a substance. So even if you do make headway in that conversation, the person might not remember it."

Reporter hate

Recently, reporters trying to do their jobs have been interrupted — sometimes during a live broadcast — by upset protesters trying to get the journalists to leave. In a situation like that, or others where someone is very confrontational, Highnam recommends the professional engage in a very open and non-confrontational way, 

"I might turn to that person — physically turn to them at an angle rather than square off against them. Body language is very important in this. I want to keep my hands low. I want to have a friendly level of eye contact, which means not constant, and not completely avoidant."

As social animals, we pick up on other people's vibes, so it can be hard to not meet aggression with aggression, Highnam notes. 

"Somebody is coming at me aggressively, I will start to feel aggressive simply because I'm interpreting their internal state through my own chemistry. So, I need to realize that and try and manage it by staying calm." 

Next, you want to ask an open, simple, non-confrontational question such as, "What is your concern here?" 

Highnam adds that question does a couple of things. 

"One, it helps me stay in control of my own internal monkey chatter. And it's an invitation to them — to help me understand — so it gives me some information. Three, it demonstrates that I'm engaging with them in curiosity. And it helps just set a normal conversational tone."

Highnam said retreating altogether is always an option if engaging seems impossible or unsafe.

Online dumpster fire

The best way to address any conflict is face-to-face, according to Highnam, which is why online discourse can be a dumpster fire of depravity. 

"A really good way to address these situations is face-to-face. That gives us the most context, and it creates the richest channel of communication. Texts and emojis are just so open to interpretation. But it's very easy — especially if we are already kind of on the edge — for us to interpret [them] in a negative way and then to raise the ante," he says. 

Conflict as opportunity

While many of us want to avoid it, face-to-face conflict is a "huge opportunity," says Highnam. 

"It's an opportunity to learn about myself, primarily, to learn about others, and it can be a source of creativity and growth. To engage in conflict in a healthy way is actually a fantastic skill.”

Find out more about JIBC's Conflict Resolution programs here.