At a time of crisis, parties can feel stunned and flooded with feelings of shock, disbelief and powerlessness. This can give way to a strong sense of fear, loss and hurt, and then to overwhelming emotions such as sadness, rejection, depression, betrayal and perhaps anger. In this state it is very hard to make sense of what is happening, to find the meaning for unexpected changes, and understand what the impact of these will be and how to move forward.
We all develop narratives that help us make sense of the world around us and provide meaning for day to day occurrences in life. These are built upon our upbringing, our experiences, our personality and our temperament. They are an accumulation of what we have gained from our parents, our friends and partners; they reflect our world view, our values, and our fears. They are not static, but change as we change, and become entrenched when we do.
In the area of dispute resolution, understanding a party’s narrative, enables a professional working with them, to understand their context for the conflict, and assist them to clarify what this means for them. Developing knowledge about the narratives of each of the parties to a dispute, can broaden the frame for the conflict, and identify gaps in each individual narrative, and with these the opportunity for a collective narrative and the foundation for resolution of conflict.
Each conflict has its’ own narrative. When asked to explain their dispute, each party will provide what they see as the essential background, the events constituting the dispute and their view of the characteristics of the dispute that are important to them. In this way they will explain and give their meaning to the dispute.
In other words, each party joins the dots together in a particular way that is based on their personal world view, and gives them meaning to their experience of the dispute. They may cut corners, or leave out some of the dots, but by describing the conflict, they work towards a story with a beginning, middle and end. The repeated telling of their version to family, friends, themselves and professionals, results in those dots that were not joined up, disappearing, and they are left with a version that reflects their reality of the dispute. They become more and more comfortable with this version, and for them this becomes their truth.
Professionals working with parties to a problem, are in a unique position, as they can come to understand the narrative of each party, and with this be able to identify the common ground, and where and why they differ. This can set the scene for “the chink that lets the light in”, and can form the foundation for the exploration and emergence of a new narrative, and with it the ability of the parties to manage the dispute or conflict differently.
Some narratives are strongly embedded in social and cultural context. They are powerful, as they assist parties to understand their world and often they provide identity and are an integral part of how they see themselves. Changing this narrative can be the same as changing who they are.
Disputes involving these types of narratives are extremely difficult to shift. The type of fundamental change required to change identity, is a long and slow process, and sometimes is not realistic to expect, particularly in the time frame allowed for dispute resolution.
It is crucial in teasing out a party’s narrative, that careful attention is paid to the type of narrative and how embedded this is in the sense of self. This is very important in the assessment and management of expectations, of the participants as well as the professionals involved. It is critical that these are always realistic.
Strategies for promoting a new narrative
To achieve a shared narrative, which is sound enough to provide the basis for a mutually acceptable outcome, this must incorporate enough of each individual narrative to feel relevant to each participant. There must be a mutual sense of taking on board the changes being considered, and of the opportunities this can provide for future growth and development. Only in this way can the new narrative provide the basis for effective communication. There must be sufficient ownership to provide the foundation for communication, empathy, cooperation, engagement, negotiation, and ultimately problem solving.
This is only possible when the scope of the narrative is carefully and sensitively expanded to open up space for alternative elements of the conflict and other narratives. This allows for a subtle shift that can lead to change in the way that the conflict is looked at.
Often when joining the dots together, this can skip over troubling aspects, and result in a superficial analysis and conclusion. By unpacking the narrative, and getting to a deeper level, this can be one way to open up gaps that can be used to expand the story.
One good example of this is often thought of as “the elephant in the room”. This refers to a feature of the dispute that is deliberately omitted from the narrative. By facilitating a discussion around this, the narrative can be expanded to incorporate this, and provide foundation for a new mutually acceptable and collective narrative.
Building new narrative frames
Naming the conflict frame and facilitating a discussion of what this means for the dispute, is another strategy that can result in the development of a more inclusive narrative and a more productive frame for the conflict.
Deconstructing or breaking down the frame with the parties so that they understand the elements and structure, is another way to assist parties to move to a new understanding of the conflict.
Using the various elements to then reconstruct a variation of their narrative or perhaps a new narrative, can significantly impact on the conflict and provide a platform for a different kind of discussion and movement towards resolution.
Sometimes suggesting a completely new story-line, can be challenging, but plant the seed for the possibility of an alternate explanation, narrative and frame for the conflict. This can allow the discussion to move forward in a different way.
I have experienced each of these approaches on occasion resulting from suggestions of implications from the parties themselves.
All of these strategies are examples based on understanding the narrative of each party, and the frame through which they are viewing the conflict. This provides the opportunity to reframe the dispute, and with this, to create some space that can lead to an alternate narrative and understanding. Tiny shifts in appreciation can be sufficient for change and the hope for a collective narrative, and novel approach to the dispute and the possibility for consensus.
These ideas are explored by Bernard Mayer in his books but particularly “Staying with conflict”. I have found this text particularly useful in assisting me to understand an approach to dispute resolution that allows me to work respectfully and pragmatically. If you are pondering on this approach to dispute resolution, please contact me so that we can establish a conversation about this type of working with conflict.