Saturday, January 10, 2015

Conflict Resolution: How to Win the Battle for Peace

Ever notice how many people are estranged from or fighting with someone?

It was not always this way. What happened?

In previous generations, when people had disagreements with family members, neighbors or business associates, they went to the town rabbi or Bet Din (Jewish court) and resolved the problem. In addition, because people then lived in small, close knit communities and needed each other, there were real incentives to keep the peace.

Times have changed. Now, when people get into an argument, they often see no reason to work things out. In their minds, there are two options: Either the other person capitulates or they will cut off all ties with that person. Protracted battles, emotionally and financially draining, often ensue and both sides end up losing.

It does not have to be this way. By overcoming four common barriers to peace, we can prevent and resolve many conflicts.

Four barriers to peace:

(1) Thinking it is perfectly acceptable to have conflicts. Because arguments are so prevalent, people often think there is nothing wrong with stridently sticking to their opinions and refusing to yield and be flexible. But it is wrong. The Talmud states (Sanhedrin 110a), “Rav said: He who is unyielding in a dispute, violates a negative command, as it is written (Numbers 17:5), ‘…And let him not be as Korach and his assembly …’ Rav Ashi said: He deserves to be smitten with leprosy.”

We are obligated to do what we can to avoid and settle arguments. In addition, King David urges us (Psalms 34:15), “…Seek peace and pursue it…” We must be willing to spend time and money to maintain or restore peace. When we do, it will be among the best time and money we spent.

Even if we have been given the green light by our rabbi to be involved in a dispute, we are still forbidden to use methods against Jewish law to force the other side to capitulate. We are also forbidden to cause the other side needless pain; that would be a violation of the Torah’s command, “Do not cause pain…” (Leviticus 25:17).

This is the opposite of the no-holds-barred approach used by many, who want to win at any cost. But instead of asking a lawyer, “How can I get or keep the most money? How can I force them to do things my way?” We have to ask a rabbi, “What is the halacha, Jewish law, on this matter? How does God want me to act?”

(2) Not being compassionate. We often focus only on our needs and on getting everything to which we feel entitled. We forget that the other party is made up of people too, who also have needs and feelings.

The importance of being sensitive to those with whom we are in conflict is highlighted in a fascinating dialogue in the Torah between Jacob’s sons. They were talking among themselves about their regret over having sold Joseph. What is fascinating is that the brothers did not fault themselves for selling Joseph because it was the wrong thing to do; they still thought they had a legitimate reason for selling him. They faulted themselves for selling Joseph because they should have had compassion for him.

The Torah states: (Genesis 42:21) “They said to each other, ‘It is true, we are guilty for our brother, because we saw his distress when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.’” They blamed themselves for not being compassionate to Joseph, for not being sensitive to his pain.

We all have compassion within us. The Talmud teaches (Yevamot 79a) that one of the defining characteristics of a Jew is that he or she is compassionate.

After we die, we will meet God, our Father in Heaven, and we will have to answer for our actions. For the times we mistreated people, perhaps we will come up with reasons or excuses for why we thought we were entitled to act the way we did.

But what will we answer if God asks us, “Even if you thought you were justified, why were you not compassionate? Why were you not sensitive to their pain?”

To that question, we will have no answer.

We need to correct our behavior now, while there is still time, so we will not be left speechless and ashamed in the World to Come.

Ask, “What’s the compassionate and generous way to act? How does a mensch act? How can I find common ground with the other side and reach a settlement I will be proud of, both in this world and in the World to Come?”

(3) Only seeing the bad in others. Often, we think of people in black or white terms; either they are good or bad. When people do something we do not like, we write them off – terminating the relationship. We disregard the good they have done for us and the good times we shared. Yes, we should be assertive in advocating for our rights, but discarding a relationship over one misguided act or comment is equally misguided.

Think about people with whom you are in conflict and ask, “What are their positive attributes and good deeds? What are some of their struggles, past or present, which may have contributed to their current behavior? Is it possible they think they are doing the right thing? Do I sometimes make mistakes in judgment? Can I guarantee I would act differently if I was in their situation? How can I judge them favorably?”

Just because people did something bad, does not make them bad people. When we realize this, we will be motivated to try to work things out and salvage the relationship, or at least stay on civil terms.

Instead of asking, “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” We have to ask, “How can we work this out?”

(4) Being stubborn and unyielding. The Talmud states (Taanit 20b) that a person should always be soft as a reed and not hard as a cedar. We should always try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. Sometimes though, we become obstinate and fixated on a course of action. We insist that things must be done our way. But the possible benefits of insisting it is done our way are rarely worth the costs of the resulting strife.

Make a list of the costs and possible benefits of each approach to resolving a conflict. Keep in mind current and projected costs related to time and money and the toll on relationships and physical and emotional health.

Looking over the costs of the disagreement, ask, “Is it worth it? Are the costs of continuing this way worth the possible benefits or should I cut my losses and consider other, less costly alternatives?”

Many times we will realize that continuing the conflict, or in the way we have been doing, is not worth it. It just does not make sense and is self-destructive. But two factors, related to stubbornness, can hold us back from shifting gears to find a peaceful resolution.

A. Not willing to lose. We often think of compromising or yielding on an issue as losing; this is a mistake. Winning is coming out whole, with our integrity intact. The Talmud states (Beitzah 16a) that a person’s income is set each year by God and that, “…You will be given what belongs to you. No man can touch what is prepared for his fellow…(Yoma 38b)”

Seeking peace and making reasonable compromises – what God wants you to do –will not compromise the money He has designated for you. Not only that, but resolving a dispute will bring Divine blessing into your life. Without blessing, money is worthless.

B. Not willing to swallow our pride. Sometimes, both sides would be willing to come to an agreement, but each is waiting for the other to make the first move. We must be the courageous ones: The first to apologize for our share of the disagreement and the first to offer to give in a little, for the sake of peace. We must follow the example of Moses, who went out of his way to try to make peace with those who were clearly in the wrong (Numbers 16:12).

Ask, “Even if I’m right and even if they don’t deserve it, how can I take the lead in working out a peaceful resolution?”

Resolving conflicts

It is much easier to avoid conflicts than to resolve them. To help prevent fights over money, have every agreement clearly spelled out in writing, including inheritance related issues, so that everyone is on the same page. The cost and hassle this may involve is well worth it.

When a disagreement is over an insignificant issue, let the other side have it their way; it is not worth arguing over. The voice in your head telling you to fight over something “out of principle” is often the voice of the evil inclination goading you on.

When an issue is important, schedule a time with the other party to talk about it in a calm and polite manner. A few discussions may be necessary before an agreement is reached. Even if the other side becomes accusatory or aggressive, refuse to follow suit; that will only heat up the disagreement and reduce the chances of settling the issue peacefully.

First, focus on the areas where there is agreement. For the areas in which you disagree, try to understand their perspective. Then be as flexible as you can and willing to make reasonable concessions. Often, when the other side sees that you are willing to soften your position to find a mutually beneficial solution, they will do the same.

As mentioned above, doing what we can to avoid and settle arguments is a religious obligation. (Speak to a rabbi to confirm you have fulfilled your obligation.) If we stubbornly stick to our position and refuse to yield, God may hold us accountable for the negative repercussions of the dispute, compounded by the number of people involved. That is a heavy cost no one can afford.

(For further discussion on the severe consequences of perpetuating a conflict, see Shemirat Halashon Shaar HaZechirah chapters 15-17 by the Chafetz Chayim. This work can be read online in English here, in Vol. 1 starting with p. 173.)

If you are not able to resolve the issue on your own, enlist the help of a third party – a rabbi or someone else you both respect to mediate. Often, when a third party is involved, especially a respected rabbi, people are on their best behavior and want to show how reasonable and accommodating they are.

If that does not work, the next step is to go to a Bet Din (Jewish court), as the Torah states (Deuteronomy 25:1), “When there is an argument between people, let them come to judgment…” (An alternative to Bet Din is to go to arbitration. If neither of these are options, one must speak to a rabbi to determine under what circumstances they would be permitted to proceed to secular court.)

To make peace, we need a willing party. There is not always one and sometimes we have to protect ourselves from the aggression of others. Other times, we have to accept that some people will always be upset with us and have no interest in making peace. Nevertheless, we have to focus on what is within our control, making sure that our behavior is above board and that we have gone the extra mile for peace. We also have to ask God for help and pray that He speedily bring a peaceful and fair resolution.

The Sages teach that before the Messiah comes, there will be unity and peace among the Jewish people. We are steadily approaching the time when the Messiah will arrive. Even if in the past you were unable to make peace with someone, consider reaching out to them again. Perhaps now is the time for peace.

Please share this post with family and friends by using the icons below. 

Please subscribe to this blog by typing your email address in the box on the upper right and clicking on the "Subscribe" tab.

No comments:

Post a Comment