Although the title of this column could be interpreted several ways, a truthful answer to the question is “everyone.” Although many of us may not have the formal opportunity to receive specialized training in communication and conflict resolution skills, others may receive it as children from wise parents who teach them positive ways to handle differences of opinion. Most of us, however, are not so fortunate.
In my family growing up, there was a lot of heated argument. Although those angry words never turned to blows or broken crockery, what usually happened was that both parties went away mad and wouldn’t talk to each other for the rest of the day. Since I was an only child for most of my growing years, my only model for conflict was that of argument. Moreover, I seldom saw those disputes resolved, and understood only that an impasse had been reached.
Experts tell us that no matter how well intentioned, we bring into marriage the same behavior patterns we observed between our parents while growing up. Imagine my consternation to discover that my husband was allergic to conflict and wouldn’t argue at all! The give and take of conflict resolution was absolutely missing from our relationship, which though peaceful, didn’t allow much opportunity to sort out problems. On the day he moved out of the house for good, I was flabbergasted to hear that he hated my not shutting our bureau drawers all the way!
Some of us remember a Gettysburg couple who loved each other deeply but brought bad conflict models to their marriage. It was not uncommon to go to their home for dinner, and while guests sat at the table between courses, to hear a heated altercation in the kitchen followed by a crash. On one memorable occasion, there were several crashes, then silence. When we went to investigate, sour cream was plastered over one kitchen wall.
Unfortunately, what happens in the family often happens in the workplace. Some of us argue. Some of us go away mad. Some repress disagreement. Others throw things. If we had wise parents, we may have experienced family “council” meetings, in which children have a say, as a good way to sort out difficult issues. If we had sensible mentors, we may have learned that asking help from someone else is a good approach.
Mediation helps disputants find solutions to intractable problems. The skills of conflict resolution can be learned. Every workplace should have a mediator who can help to sort out the conflicts, no matter how small, that impede efficient output. Those who work with clients in non-profit organizations and human service agencies need mediation skills to learn how to deal with difficult people.
If conflict resolution training might be useful, check out the new Mediation Services website www.mediateadams.org or call our Intake Coordinator at 717-334-7312 to learn more. Scholarships are available for our March 2009 training.
Janet M. Powers is Presiding Officer of MSAC and Professor Emerita at Gettysburg College.