4 Tutorials that teach Separating People and Problems
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Separating People and Problems

Separating People and Problems

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that focusing on situations and actions rather than the nature/identity of the parties is fundamental to conflict resolution and will be able to use specific strategies to separate actions from actors in a conflict.

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Video Transcription

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When people are in conflict, they are upset. They are upset with each other, and oftentimes they're blaming each other for the problem.

I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you a little bit more about that issue of blaming people as opposed to focusing on the problem. Because one of the goals in conflict resolution is to use strategies and techniques that will focus on the actual problem and move away from blaming people, so separating people from problems.

It's not easy to do that initially. Initially, people react. They may say something-- something happens and a person says, you are so irresponsible. I can't count on you. You're disorganized. You always, you never. Statements like that are reactions, and they're blaming statements. They're saying that the person is responsible here for something negative that happened.

Statements like that will also cause a defensive reaction on the part of the person, because their character, their identity is being attacked. So rather than attack a person by saying you always do this, this is something to do with your identity, who you are, you're un-dependable, it's best to use one of the conflict resolution techniques of "I" statements, "I" messages, to focus on the problem. This is a technique that focuses on the tangible actions and conditions that are upsetting you, that are at the root of the conflict, not on the person.

Because any one of us can change the way we behave. We can change our actions and our behavior without having to change our innate identity. So it's about our actions. It's about something specific and tangible, not about identity, which is really a key concept here in effective conflict resolution.

For example, the statement you're irresponsible, you are lazy, I can't count on you, is a blaming statement focusing on a person. By responding differently, using an "I" message and focusing on the problem, you might say something like, when you turn in the numbers at the last minute, I become very anxious because I need those numbers to finish the final report, and I don't have them on time. So now we have focused on something specific that happened here-- getting the numbers late-- your reaction to that action, that specific thing that happened, and the impact.

This is something we can now look at, this tangible action in this situation. And we don't want to even assume intentions on the part of the other person. We can listen to their side of this. What happened here? Is there a reason why the numbers were given to you late? Is there something, perhaps, that you don't see here? There could be. So once we start talking about the specific action, the specific situation, it opens us up to listen and take into perspective what the other person's point of view is here.

So using "I" messages to state what it is that's upsetting us here, the actual problem, and moving away from these blaming you statements. Another technique that can be used is questions. Ask some clarifying questions to get at the root of the problem. Tell me more about the situation. What happened? So that we can re-frame the issue at hand here to be around the problem and not around the person.

Once again, in conflict resolution, a very effective goal, a very effective strategy, is to move people away from people, focusing on people and identities, and towards the problem, the actual issue, the action, something tangible that can be changed.

Thanks for joining me today, and I look forward to next time.

  • People vs. Problems

    A conflict resolution perspective that focuses parties' attention on tangible actions and conditions within a conflict rather than perceived innate qualities of the parties.

  • Blaming

    Attributing a negative experience to another's actions or inactions.