This post is cross-posted from The Times of Israel Blog.
* On August 28th, conflict resolution and negotiation specialist Roi Ben-Yehuda will be the featured presenter at FED: dinner parties where you are fed by gourmet food, inspirational ideas, and the company and creative energy of your matched dinner companions. The following is an interview conducted between Deborah Fishman (FED founder) and Roi Ben-Yehuda.
1. Tell me a little about your background. How did you develop this interest in studying conflict?
I’m originally from Israel and came to the US (later Spain) in the late 90s. From an early age I enjoyed solving problems and being helpful to others. So studying conflict was very attractive to me. I did my graduate work in negotiation and conflict resolution at Columbia University and am currently doing my PhD at George Mason University. My dissertation topic is on the role of surprise and conflict de-escalation. I now teach negotiation and conflict resolution at Columbia and John Jay College.
2. How does your identity as an Israeli impact your interest in conflict resolution?
As you might imagine, conflict is rather ubiquitous when you’re growing up in Israel. It’s not just the macro conflicts. We Israelis are a quarrelsome bunch, and conflict regularly emerges in many day-to-day interactions. So one of the first lessons of consciously living in Israel is that conflict is a natural, and even essential, part of life. It’s never a question of whether or not you will have it, but rather how will you manage it when it happens. There are destructive and constructive ways of managing conflict. So as paradoxical as it may sound, you need to make peace with conflict. Growing up in Israel helped me realize that and sparked my interest in the field.
3. From the conflicts you have worked on, what are some of the hardest to resolve?
Conflicts become really difficult and resistant to change when they degenerate from task-based to relationship conflicts. This usually happens when a particular issue that is negotiable is ignored or mismanaged. Oftentimes, other problems then begin to attach themselves– many of them personal. When the conflict becomes about the other person as opposed to the situation, it becomes very difficult to disentangle the issues and resolve them. So another important lessons is to know what kind of conflict you are in.
4. What are the most important elements that go into analyzing a conflict?
There are so many variables that can be considered when analyzing a conflict. You could look at the actors, issues, needs, narratives, environment, context, dynamics, culture, etc. However, if I had to boil it down to a top three – and here I am following the excellent research of Peter Coleman and Rob Ferguson – it would be: 1) relationship importance: How important are the other disputants to me? 2) mutual goals: Are the others with me or against me (or both)? and 3) power balance: Am I more or less powerful than them, or are we equals? The combination of these three factors largely determines our behaviors in conflict situations.
5. What is one common pitfall you’ve seen in conflict resolution, and how can we learn from it?
A common pitfall that we see over and over again is people’s tendency to view conflicts as a zero-sum game: if I win, you lose, and if you win, I lose. This, of course, can be self-fulfilling. What we can learn from this is that our perception matters. Often how we see things is not an accurate reflection of the way things are. In fact, research shows that most conflicts involve mixed motives: people have incentives both to compete and to cooperate. If we move from a strictly competitive orientation, we have the power to constructively transform the conflicts in our lives.
6. What traits do you think you have or see in others who are good at understanding/resolving conflict?
Great question. Besides subject-matter expertise, cooperative orientation, and analytical intelligence, I would say that the most common traits of great practitioners are: a capacity for empathy; great communication skills; comfort with contradiction; imagination; flexibility; and an optimistic disposition. Let me just say a little about each.
By empathy I mean a capacity to generously imagine what it’s like to think and feel like someone else. Successful practitioners recognize that their own perspective, while valid, is inherently limited; the reality of the situation is multifaceted and complex. So they try to see things from the other’s perspective. Doing so also allows others to feel heard and understood.
Relatedly, exceptional conflict practitioners also demonstrate comfort with contradiction and an ability to think dialectally. Like Walt Whitman, they recognize that humans contain multitudes, and that not every element of our identity, thought, and feelings need to neatly cohere. Such recognition allows for greater tolerance towards self and other. Interestingly, research shows that East-Asian cultures fare much better with such thinking than European-American.
Another essential trait is solid communication skills. This involves expressing oneself clearly and persuasively (which assumes a degree of self-knowledge), but it’s not limited to that. Communication is also a matter of asking the right questions (being curious) and actively listening and being attuned to someone else.
A great conflict resolver has to cultivate their imagination and creativity. That is, to be able to reframe problems, come up with multiple options to a given problem, and see potentialities in the conflict system that are not apparent or obvious to others.
Successful conflict practitioners also demonstrate flexibility. They are able to adapt and fit the situation. As we will discuss in our FED talk, different conflict situations call for different forms of interventions, and practitioners need to be fluent in various conflict styles.
Finally, great conflict practitioners have a seemingly unending reservoir of hope. I believe it was Camus who said, “Where there is no hope, we must invent it.” Great peacemakers teach us that we must sustain hope. But not just any hope. We need tough hope, at once ambitious and realistic. Hope that is tenacious enough to deal with all difficulties that conflict entails.
Of course, no one possesses all these qualities in equal measure (I am still holding out hope that a conflict resolution super-hero will star in the next blockbuster). But to one degree or another, these are the traits that make conflict resolution possible. The good news is that all of these traits can be cultivated by each and every one of us.
Interested in attending FED featuring Roi Ben-Yehuda on 8/28? Learn more here!