Resolving Conflicts with Open Heart Surgery

One of the most common obstacles in trying to solve problems is that others will disagree with your proposed solution. This leads to conflict which in turn may hinder any solution to the problem. So conflict resolution is an important part of problem solving.


All conflicts have complex and often hidden underlying causes. While we might initially assume we are dealing with a “bad” person, the truth is most people try very hard to be good and avoid conflict (because it is a basic human need to be liked and accepted). Since no one deliberately causes harm for another person, the real cause of most conflicts is generally NOT the obvious or immediate problem. An open or noticeable conflict instead is merely the last in a series of steps that lead up to it. The real cause of conflict typically involves hidden issues which are commonly referred to as “personality clashes” or differences in “personal values”. These in turn are based on a life time of experiences which lead us all to believe that we are right and the other person is wrong.

  1. Basic Assumptions

  1. Perceptions influence attitudes which limit options which limit actions. The way we perceive events influences our attitude about them which in turn may limit our options and affect our actions. A major part of our problem with problems is that we perceive them as problems instead of opportunities to learn and grow.

  2. All conflicts are positive in that we can learn from them. A way to help you understand the positive side of a conflict is to ‘see God” in your adversary. For example, imagine that God is driving that slow car in front of you in order to teach you patience.

  3. Effective solutions for working with difficult people require a deep understanding of both yourself and your adversary. Band-Aid solutions which resolve only surface symptoms will generally not be effective in the long run. Any solution proposed will likely be sabotaged as long as the underlying conflict remains unaddressed. Real long-term solutions can only be achieved through a kind of “open heart surgery”. This requires literally opening your heart as well as the heart of your adversary. However, you cannot open your own heart to others unless you first understand why you closed it ( or why your adversary closed theirs) to begin with.

  1. Understand Yourself and Your Adversary

Human personalities are the result of a complex series of past experiences. For the sake of simplicity, the psyche (what motivates us or what we think of as us) can be divided into four primary categories:

  1. Our Animal Brainthis includes our genetically programmed responses to conflict (fight or flight). It also includes our emotional responses when basic physiological needs aren’t met. These basic needs include rest, warmth, food, water, oxygen and emotional security.

  2. Our Child Brainwhich is the result of our emotional development to about age five, including our basic subconscious reactions when confronted with challenges, change, pain, conflicts and other problems. These reactions include fear, hurt, avoidance, denial, stubbornness, determination, etc.. Many books refer to this part of our personality as our “inner child”.

  3. Our Adult Brainwhich is patterned after adult role models (generally our parents). This includes the way we talk to and think about ourselves and others (occasionally with praise but often with criticism). Many books refer to this as our “inner critic” or our “inner parent”.

  4. Our Compassionate Braina miraculous part of us which enables us to rise above and transcend past experiences of misguided or ineffective messages sent to us by our animal brain, child brain or adult brain. Some books refer to this as our heart, our spirit, our soul or our true inner Self. I personally do not like the last term I believe all of the above are essentially integral components of who we are. In other words, there is no false self, only different aspects of a complex whole.

  1. Understand Human Conflict

There are many kinds of conflicts. One way to view them is by examining who is mad at whom…
















Situation 1 is called the Upward Spiral and it is covered in a different part of this course notebook. Situation 4 cannot be resolved until at least one of you is willing to work on changing your attitude (avoidance is the only real option). The subject of this hand-out is to examine Situations 2 and 3.

As the above chart illustrates, the real issue of a difficult conflict is Bad Will. The first question you should try to answer in resolving such a conflict then is: What has cause the normal state of Good Will to be replaced with Bad Will ?

Some possible causes include:

  1. Your or their Animal Brain…Either basic needs are not being met or fight/flight reactions are being triggered by real or imagined fears.

  2. Your inner child is reacting to their inner parent…you believe they are criticizing you .

  3. Your inner parent is reacting to their inner child…you believe they are acting irresponsibly.

  4. Your adversary is simply a terrible person (just kidding).

  1. Understand and Empathize with Your Adversary

What makes some people so insensitive, self-centered, moody, bitchy and terrible? I believe that all people are innately good. Unfortunately, during childhood some people develop bad habits. This is inevitable as long as our society spends more time and effort taking care of our cars than on taking care of our children. These bad habits are generally caused by:

  1. Lack of parent education classes. Knowledge of human development and improvement of basic social skills should be as important to our society as math or reading. Unfortunately, teaching values formation or parenting skills in our public schools is extremely controversial. Our children pay the price for this short-sightedness in the form of teen suicide, drug use and wasted lives.

  2. Lack of good role models…Misbehavior generates more dollars for Hollywood than exemplary behavior. Moreover, one does not need to pass a test in order to become either a parent or a Hollywood producer; even though these activities can generate far more harm than driving a car.

  3. Lack of accountability. Neither the parent nor the Hollywood producer is put in prison when a twenty year old kid commits a crime. No effort is made to determine the true cause of the problem, much less any real solution.

  4. Children are not only taught inappropriate behavior, but they are often rewarded for it. Most of our values and behavior patterns are established by the time we are five years old. Parents may inadvertently send wrong messages to children by unknowingly rewarding poor behavior, such as rewarding a temper tantrum by giving a child attention.

  5. Too much TV. Children learn incredibly bad behavior patterns by watching TV. Unfortunately, adults often use TV to entertain and baby-sit small children. The average child now spends over a hundred hours a week watching TV. During a typical week, children see over one hundred murders and many other examples of poor conflict resolution skills. TV also teaches passive couch sitting rather than active outdoor play. This in turn leads to avoidance and denial pattern associated with living in a fantasy world rather than the real world.

The most effective thing any parent can do is to be a good non-violent role model for their child. The second is to reward only positive behavior. The third is to throw away or at least monitor TV watching. Unfortunately, even then children will pick up poor behavior patterns from other children and it is difficult to control their choice of peers. They should therefore be taught the virtue of responsibility and the connection between choices and consequences. By understanding that people exhibit inappropriate behavior because of poor childhood experiences, you can look at difficult people and your conflicts with them in a positive, more objective and compassionate light…”there, but for the grace of God, go I”.

  1. Understand and Empathize with Yourself in Conflicts

Carefully examine your own feeling…Why is it that you perceive the conflict or the other person as being difficult? What part of you is reacting to what part of them? What are your true feeling toward yourself and your adversary? What about your past might have caused these feelings? What kinds of people push your buttons and why? What issues are sensitive and why? Remember that no one is perfect. Expecting yourself or others to be is both unfair and unrealistic.

  1. A Strategy to Resolve Conflicts with Difficult People

Try to find the sacred way and walk the path of peace by using the Eight Steps of Problem Solving discussed elsewhere in this course notebook…
  1. Awareness of the conflict. This involves listening both to others and to your own feelings.
  2. Crisis management. Avoid fighting, it leads only to resentment. Instead be peaceful and remain calm. Avoid flight and the urge to run away. Instead, be confident and courageous. Heal thyself first…Relax, take slow deep breathes and use both positive self-talk ( I can do this) and positive mental visualization (everything will be okay).
  3. Understand the problem and its potential causes. Either on your own or with the help of your adversary, What is the real conflict and what is its cause? Seek the advice of others. Be patient. Take time to thoroughly research the matter.
  4. Develop several options. Be creative and open to suggestions. In particular, come up with options which are entirely within your control and do not require any change on the part of your adversary.
  5. Analyze your options. Seek out win-win solutions. Create a team with your adversary. Ask them what you can do to help them. Take ownership of the problem if you ask them to help you.
  6. Pick a solution. Make a plan. Will you talk to them in private? Write a letter? Buy them lunch? Met with the group? Pick an option which will be the last threatening to your adversary and will offer them the most benefit from their own point of view.
  7. Carry out your plan.
  8. Evaluate the effectiveness of your solution. If the current plan doesn’t work, don’t give up or get discouraged. Instead simply try another plan until you find a solution that works.

  1. Other Useful Tools

  1. Humor…Use Happiness Jumper Cables
  2. Find common interests to help you better understand and empathize with your adversary and to help your adversary understand and empathize with you.
  3. Use other team members, especially friends of yours who are friends of theirs.
  4. Listen to their position. Ask them not only what but also why.
  5. Use empathy to improve understanding. “I imagine they are feeling_________. That makes sense because_____________________”.
  6. Respect and appreciate differences.
  7. Shift the focus from the negative (fear, worry, anger, blame) to the positive (we can all be happy).
  8. Be patient and forgiving. Some things take time. No one is perfect.
  9. Diversion. Go for a hike. Take your adversary with you.
  10. Recognize your limits. Not everyone will get along with everyone. Remember the joke about how many councilors it takes to change a light bulb.…The answer is that it only takes one- but the light bulb has to want to change! If your adversary is not open to change and you cannot change the adversarial nature of your relationship with them by actions of your own, then at some point you’ll have to consider the option of going in a different, more positive direction. It is okay for groups to part company, even in the backcountry. The most important issue is that choices be based on positive options ( going for something better) rather than negative options (avoiding situations or people simply because you are afraid of them or because they are “difficult”).

  1. A Personal Example

I am intolerant of rich or greedy people who are destroying the environment. I perceive these people as being extremely short-sighted and self-centered. I intellectually rationalize my intolerance because I blame this self-centered attitude for causing our current environmental nightmare. But in examining my own past, I discovered that I was using my own father as a poor role model. My father was very intelligent. But he was also intolerant of imperfection in himself or others and I have subconsciously inherited this attitude. When I look at my conflicts objectively, I’m sometimes able to see that greedy people are not being bad deliberately. They are simply unaware of environmental problems and are merely living their lives the way they were trained to do as children. They may have been taught as children to reward themselves by accumulating material possessions. Understanding this helps me to realize that the best solution is not to get angry with greedy people, but rather to find compassionate ways to educate them and to recognize their natural fear of change by gradually raising their level of awareness.

  1. Recommended Readings

  1. Anything by or about Mahatma Gandhi
  2. Forgiveness… A Bold Choice For A Peaceful Heart, by Robin Casarjian
  3. Toward a Psychology of Being, by Abraham Maslow