Conflict Dialogue: Working with Layers of Meaning for Productive Relationships

Books

Peter M. Kellett

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Conflict Stories, Dialogue, and Negotiation: Concepts and Techniques

    Part II: Conflict Stories and the Negotiation of Relationship Dynamics

    Part III: Stories and the Psychodynamics of Conflict

    Part IV: Using Story Dynamics to Understand and Negotiate Conflict

  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to my Mum and Dad, and to my brothers Paul, David, and Timothy.

    Copyright

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    Acknowledgments

    My special thanks must go to all of the people who have shared their personal conflict stories with me, both in and out of the classroom. In particular, I thank those who have given me permission to include their stories in this book. Their generosity and openness make this work both possible and worthwhile for me.

    I am also grateful to the following reviewers: Pat Arneson, Duquesne University; Angela Laird Brenton, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Roberta A. Davilla, University of Northern Iowa; Larry A. Erbert, University of Texas at El Paso; Claudia L. Hale, Ohio University; and Christopher O. Lynch, Kean University.

    Introduction

    The following is a true story that, in some ways, reads like the start of many roommate conflict stories—in fact it almost sounds like a roommate story archetype: Things started out so well … now we all hate each other and communicate by nasty sticky notes! In between these two states is a conflict over something that seems quite trivial as we are looking back on it. We are all probably familiar with such typical story lines. As you will see, this conflict is about a specific dispute—who gets what room—although intimately tied to the specific decision is the obvious deeper meaning of who has more prestige and privilege in the house and who becomes marginalized into the small space. A deeper read reveals additional layers of meaning attached to the subsequent tangible actions of the roommates as they live out their conflict together.

    Three young, Native American women—Carmen, Beth, and Kathryn—are starting college and decide to move in together to share an apartment; Carmen and Beth are cousins. The three are excited about their new place and the adventures they would share living together. However, the three bedrooms are unequal in size, and the master bedroom has its own bathroom. Besides the large master bedroom, there is a medium-sized one and a small one. The young women are faced with the difficult task of deciding who gets which room. They draw straws, and Carmen gets the master bedroom, Kathryn the medium-sized room, and Beth the small one. Then the real conflicts begin….

    Beth was furious that she got the small room; she expected at least to get the medium-sized room. She tried to “guilt trip” Carmen into giving up the master room, but Carmen stood her ground and, as she says in her story, “However I acted in this situation would set the precedent for me in the future. It did …” Sarcastic comments and put-downs from Beth began to characterize their roommate communication. Apparently, for example, Beth's mother told Beth to be understanding of Carmen's desire for the room since her room at home was so small—clearly a put-down on the relative financial status of Carmen's family. Put-downs evolved into revenge and sabotage. Beth would be rude, put Carmen down in front of others, and purposely forget important information. Revenge evolved into betrayal. Carmen had begun dating a much older man, something that her parents would not approve of, and something that would become fast-traveling gossip in their tightly knit Native American community in eastern North Carolina. Carmen entrusted Beth with the private information and later found out she had let the news out, and the whole community was buzzing with the gossip. Carmen also found out that Beth had been saying behind her back that she was trying to act “white”—a slap in the face and a slur for her as a Native American. Carmen put all her feelings into a letter and left it for Beth. She seemed to ignore it, so Carmen taped it to Beth's computer. Beth continued to ignore it although it turns out she had read it the first day it was left for her. Apparently she ignored Carmen's letter to get back at her. All the relationships deteriorated, and soon Beth and Kathryn were not speaking. Carmen and Kathryn are worriedly expecting a grand finale as Beth moves out. What will she do as her final act of revenge and payback?

    You probably have several questions that you would like to ask to dig deeper into this story, and that's probably a sign of a good story: Good stories generate good questions. Perhaps the two main questions are, first, why was the room ineffectively negotiated? Second, why was the deeper relational conflict not effectively managed? Besides these, there are lots of questions that pop to my mind to get at the meaning and conflict dynamics of the story. These include, Why would Beth be so resentful? What did the room symbolize beyond merely prestige and status within the home? Is there some deeper power struggle or competitiveness between the cousins that is being displaced from their family relationships or community status and brought to life in this context? Is Beth projecting her own dark desires and motives for power and status in the house onto Carmen? How can a seemingly fair and agreed-upon way of making a decision lead to betrayal? How is the letter an important element in the story? How are the betrayal and the “white” slur connected to Beth's assumption that Carmen had betrayed her by taking the big room? What do we not know that might make this make sense? What would you love to know that would help you understand their conflict? These are some of the questions that came to mind for me. This process of digging by using smart questions is at the heart of the interpretive technique you will learn in this book.

    We often never know the full story, but smart interpretive guesswork can often lead to some keen insights into the various layers and dimensions of a given conflict. In understanding these layers and their interrelationships lies the wisdom to know why the conflict takes the form that it does and possibly insight into how to manage it more effectively based on that wisdom. I hope that you find this approach to conflict as fascinating and as rewarding as I do as you learn to go from smart questions to making recommendations for changing conflict behavior.

    As part of my ongoing fascination with how people manage and negotiate their relationships with others, I have listened to probably thousands of conflict stories over the years, many just like the one involving Carmen, Beth, and Kathryn. One of the lessons or morals in the vast majority of stories is that people would negotiate resolutions to their conflicts much more effectively if they understood the meaning of the conflict for each other and negotiated through the conflict based on that meaning. This lesson suggests that we (1) ought to examine our stories for opportunities to negotiate more effectively; (2) ought to, where possible, approach negotiations dialogically, that is, as opportunities to search for mutually beneficial solutions; (3) ought to become more aware of how to use narrative or story dynamics to enhance our negotiation and dialogue techniques; and (4) ought to examine our conflicts with a focus on how to understand the meaning of the conflict in terms of why it exists, why it takes the form that it does in our relationships, why it has the outcomes that it does, and what prevents the participants from choosing more dialogic negotiation. Imagine how these “oughts” might have made a difference to the conflict of Carmen and her friends if they could go back to a productive point in the conflict before it became divisive.

    These core concepts form the basis of the chapters of this book, and each chapter is an invitation from me to you, to engage these core concepts as ways of understanding conflict. In this book you will be invited to interpret conflict stories as a way to imagine more creative ways to engage in conflict effectively. You will be asked to apply concepts and techniques from the field of conflict management to the experiences of yourself and others in your real worlds. You will learn to critically question how we approach conflict and to hopefully learn valuable lessons from the process of engagement between concept, other people's stories, and your own experiences.

    Carmen may have lost the friendship with Beth forever, and the conflict dynamics and result may have been inevitable given the deeper dynamics of their relationships and the symbolic meaning of the conflict. But if she and her roommates were to carefully consider the concepts and techniques that we will be exploring, the result may have been quite different. If not, she could at least understand why the conflict took the form that it did, learn how to not repeat the same conflict again, and perhaps know how to create the conflict experiences that are more productive for all involved. This book comes out of the simple observation that we can improve our conflict communication and that such improvements will, in many cases, result in more productive and peaceful relationships.

    The invitation to engagement with these concepts in this book is done through the use of personal narratives that I have express and written permission to use. (Note: The collector of each story is indicated in parentheses beside its title, and story characters’ names have been changed for the usual reasons.) You will engage with the conflicts of others through the stories that they have told me. I could only include a small fraction of the stories I have been told, and I could only include a few main concepts in each of the parts of the book, but hopefully both the stories and the concepts covered will be representative enough and engaging enough to pull you into the complex and fascinating world of how people engage in, and how they might rethink, their conflicts. You will also learn to use these stories shared by other people as a way in to examining and questioning your own conflict practices and the stories you tell about your conflicts. Along with learning how to collect good stories, you will learn to ask good theoretically grounded questions—lots of questions, in fact. These questions will help you to engage with the stories and learn as much as possible from them about how we all do conflict. Ultimately, the concepts, stories, and questions will hopefully inform the technique of how you analyze and manage conflict effectively.

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    About the Author

    Peter M. Kellett is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research, teaching, and service focus on narrative analysis and dialogic management of conflict as this helps people build healthier and more productive and peaceful relationships. His most recent publication is “Dialectical Tensions and Dialogic Moments as Pathways to Peak Experiences” (with H. L. Goodall, Jr.) in Anderson, Baxter, and Cissna's Dialogue: Theorizing Differences in Communication Studies.


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