- June 1, 2020
There is a story of two sisters who were fighting over one orange. Each felt she was entitled to have it and wouldn’t budge from her position. Tired of listening to the incessant bickering, their mother walked into the kitchen, cut the orange straight down the middle and gave each sister half of it.
The first sister proceeded to make fresh orange juice from her half and discarded the peel. The second sister grated the peel of her half to add to the cake she was baking and threw out the fruit.
In the end, the problem was ‘solved’. The mother’s decision to split orange was based on logic. Did it work? Yes. Was it the best outcome? No.
Let’s envisage a slightly different scenario here. What would have happened if the sisters had asked each other the right questions? What if they had made an effort to consider each others underlying needs? What if they had listened to each other’s perspectives? Would things have necessarily escalated to the point where the mother needed to get involved? Might they, in fact, have ended up getting exactly what they wanted and been happier for it?
Conflicts are a healthy part of our human experience- they open our eyes to new ideas, help us differentiate ourselves, give us the space to verbalise our needs and the opportunity to do better. There is nothing wrong with conflict. But every conflict does need a resolution; preferably one that benefits the parties involved in the most optimal way.
WHY we want something is always more powerful than WHAT we say we want
The story of the two sisters and the orange wonderfully illustrates the importance of identifying underlying needs, perspectives and interests in the process of conflict resolution.
While we tend to put greater focus on what a person wants (their position), why they want it (their motivation) is always more powerful. The ‘why’ comes from a place of understanding, the ‘what’, from a place of judgement. How then, do we move from a place of judgement to understanding? Where to start?
One word. Listen.
It sounds like a desperately simple thing to do. But apparently, it’s not. We say we are listening. To our children, spouses, friends and co-workers. But oftentimes, it’s a lie. We are not listening. I mean deeply listening.
Listening doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree with the other person. Neither does it mean that we are looking to defend our positions or address the “content” of what they are saying in the moment. It does mean that we are hearing someone, validating their experience(s), and affirming to them that what they’re saying matters. Because we all have our right to feel what we feel and express it in the best (or sometimes only) way we can.
25 years and 37,000 interviews later, Oprah Winfrey revealed the need to be heard as the one commonality she’d seen among the thousands of guests she spoke to on her iconic Oprah Winfrey Show.
“After every interview, they would say, was that okay? How was that? How did I do?” In one form or another, somebody always said that [to me],” Winfrey said. And this went for inmates and Presidents, scientists and world-class entertainers alike.
Everyone wants to be heard.
Winfrey came to realise that every issue or problem on which she did a show was at its root caused by someone not being noticed.
“They all wanted validation.”
Here, she wasn’t talking about the ego-stroking, ‘you’re so gorgeous’ or ‘you’re the best boss I ever had’ kind of validation.
No, she was talking about something more basic, and critical when it comes to connection through conflict: validating what a person is saying, and validating that it’s important.
Winfrey deduced that all our arguments come down to these three questions:
1. Did you hear me?
2. Did you see me?
3. Did I say anything that mattered?
“I can tell you, in your daily encounters, in your kitchen, in your conference rooms, in your work, in all of your relationships…that is what every person you encounter is looking to know. Did you see me? Do you hear me? And every argument is about that,” Oprah said.
The importance of being heard
Numerous studies have documented the benefits of “perspective-taking”, that is, making an effort to hear and understand another person’s experiences.
In one such study, Palestinians and Israelis, and Mexican immigrants and white Arizonans, were recruited for what they were told was a study of an online translation system.
Each participant was asked to write about the difficulties of life in their society or to read and summarize such an essay written by a member of the opposing group.
After the exercise, it was found that attitudes toward the opposing group improved most among members of the disempowered group who told their own stories, and among members of the dominant group who read others’ stories.
When members of the less powerful group simply wrote their stories without having anyone from the opposing group read them, this did not boost their attitudes towards the other group- reinforcing the importance of being heard.
For the dominant group, the researchers believe that hearing the opposing group’s stories is beneficial because members of the group in power often fear being blamed for the conflict. Therefore, listening gives “an opportunity for them to act virtuously and morally and to show that they’re actually good people,” said Rebecca Saxe, a senior author of the study. The finding supports the idea that for the disempowered group, in particular, the biggest barrier to reconciliation is the belief that their concerns are being ignored.
This reinforces Oprah assertion that once someone feels that you see them, the game changes.
Think about the times you have experienced conflict in your own life. Think about the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening in America, the many others that have happened here in Kenya and indeed all around the world, if you dig deep enough, it’s almost always because somehow someone didn’t feel heard. They weren’t seen. What they said didn’t matter. But when we share our upset and feel like the other person is actually listening to us, the energy both within and without undergoes a considerable shift. And only then can the process of healing and, ultimately, change begin to occur.
In Oprah Winfrey’s words, “Try it with your children, your husband, your wife, your boss, your friends. Validate them. “I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me”. And see what happens.
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