Context matters in conflict resolution

As someone who helps people deal with conflict and misunderstanding, context is to me what water is to fish.

Of course, some behaviors are so heinous that they can never be excused by context, but before judging the actions of others, we need to understand the context in which they took place.

Context shapes who we are. It also helps to explain why we did what we did, when we did it.

Take the recent example of Sam Uffindell, the National MP who was exposed as a bully as a 16-year-old at boarding school in 1999 and as a university student in the early 2000s.

He has been removed from caucus while the facts of his past are investigated, so that his suitability as a leader of our community in 2022 can be assessed.

Mr Uffindell has been quoted in the media as saying: “It was one of the dumbest things I have ever done and something I deeply regret. I have worked hard to be a better person than I was not as a teenager”.

His supporters say he genuinely feels remorse and has changed. He is now “a wonderful husband and father” and “is passionate about making New Zealand a better place”.

Putting things in context

I went to boarding school and college about seven years before Mr. Uffindell. The context and culture of what was acceptable behavior in those environments then is very different from what is acceptable today.

Just as what was acceptable behavior for my father, who went to boarding school and college 30 years before me, may be viewed differently now.

This does not mean that I in any way condone what Mr. Uffindell may have done or what was then acceptable behavior. My point is that we need to be aware of the context in which his actions took place, to help us better understand them.

For example, others who went to the same school as him (like musician and author Lizzie Marvelly and former immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway) said the school had a culture of bullying. well anchored.

Culture informs how people behave, interact with each other, communicate and understand the world around them. It is shared by a group of people and is learned through socialization.

At the time, Mr. Uffindell was also young and inexperienced. The rational part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is then not fully developed and will not be until around the age of 25.

The development of the prefrontal cortex is particularly important for complex behavioral performance. Research has shown that adult and adolescent brains work differently.

Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. It is the part of the brain that reacts to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences.

Teenagers process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part. Therefore, when adolescents have overwhelming emotions, they cannot explain what they were thinking when they took a particular course of action; they did not think as much as they felt. It helps us understand how Mr. Uffindell may have changed and learned from his youth.

How context can help you understand

When dealing with conflict at work or in any aspect of life, it is important to examine the conflict itself: what it is, how it arose and even who is most at fault. .

However, you must be careful not to miss another key aspect, the context in which the conflict first appeared. In other words, we cannot view a conflict situation in isolation from the circumstances in which it arose, and the key to its resolution may well lie as much in this contextual area as in the appreciation of what is at stake in the conflict and people involved in the dispute.

For example, what might be considered bullying in one workplace may not be considered bullying in another workplace because they have different cultures; they tolerate different types of behavior.

Or a person accused of bullying may be from a different time than the one who complained of being bullied; they have different beliefs about what behavior amounts to bullying.

Differing values ​​or beliefs do not necessarily lead to conflict, but disputes can arise when people attempt to impose their own beliefs or attitudes on others, or do not allow for differing viewpoints.

To resolve a dispute when values ​​and beliefs are in conflict (in this example, what behavior is acceptable in your workplace), your team members should describe what behavior they think is “bullying” and discuss the reasons why they share these opinions so that you can fully explore all different points of view in a balanced way.

It is important to understand that many factors influence these views, including age and the environment in which a person grew up.

To allow a full resolution of any conflict, it is also essential to allow people to learn from their past, to admit their mistakes and to be able to repair them. This will allow trust to (re)grow between the people involved in the conflict.

Conflict does not occur in a vacuum. It is affected by the context in which we now live and what has shaped us since our past. Although we may not agree with what someone has done, understanding where they are coming from will help us find a solution and move on.

Kate Hesson is Senior Resolution Practitioner at Fair Way Resolution.

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