Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Conflict to Complexity

In non-violent communication training, we are taught to look at the underlying need in a conflict. Sometimes, people need respect, or to be heard. Sometimes they have a tangible need (food, money, etc). Other times they just want to be left alone. The main point of clear communication is to seek the basic need, and address it if possible.

Of course, if you have ever watched a verbal conflict unfold, you would rarely see two humans listening to each others' innermost needs and doing what they can to accommodate. You are way more likely to see two or more people swirling around unnecessary details, pointing blame and demanding terms. Often, this leads to a "compromise," where a system is developed to replicate justice.

For example: two roomates clash over the dishes not being done. They yell at each other for a while, roomate "A" feeling like he is being taken for granted (he does most of the cleaning), and roomate "B" feeling pushed into a corner (she does not want to do the dishes 3 times per day). After some time, they come up with a "chore check list" for everybody in the house (including roomate "C" and roomate "D," who were not even part of the discussion). Lets say for the sake of argument that they never address the underlying needs expressed in the orginal conflict; Roomate "A" still feels unheard and disrespected, because he wanted some gratitude for the vacuuming he has been doing for months, etc.

This house now has a set of chore rules for no apparent reason. The underlying need has not been fully addressed, and the issue is likely to come up again. Perhaps another set of rules will be developed, or the rules will be modified. More conflict leads to more complexity...

Despite this being a fictional conflict, I believe that this sort of stuff happens in real life all the time. So many laws and policies and rules that are based on neglected needs that never got addressed anyway. How many intake procedures, admission criteria, and eviction policies are based on silly little conflicts that never got resolved? Is it really fair to subject the most vulnerable homeless people to endless red tape because so and so at the intake desk didn't feel like her job was important enough?

If you work with the homeless, take a close look at your policies-- are they all necessary? Remember that these folks are having a hard enough time trying to stay alive... they don't need the extra burden of complexity. We need resources that are instantaneous, light on conditions, and for gods' sake, simple to access.

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