Conflict Resolution and Problem Solving: The Nature of Problems

By Peter and Helen Evans

A problem is when one intends two mutually exclusive outcomes at the same time. One wants A but one doesn’t want A.

Nothing is inherently a problem in the physical universe. Problems are a product of the mind. It is only when we add thoughts and opinions and feelings to a situation that it can become a problem. If we just experience and accept the situation the way it is, there is no problem. A problem is a failure to see what is actually there. Instead of dealing with what is there one replaces it with two self- contradictory ideas. And then one experiences the unpleasantness of that impossible situation.

Mostly, choice is limited by preconceived ideas about things HAVING to be a certain way. You MUST behave in a certain way, you MUST uphold right ideas, you MUST respond correctly to events, things MUST be in a certain order, etc.

If we drive down the street with the fixed idea that one MUST always drive in the right lane, and another fellow comes the opposite way with the fixed idea that he MUST drive in the left lane, then we will get a problem. The road might be deserted and have a lot of extra space, but if each of us have only one correct way we must behave, and we insist that others follow it too, then we are in trouble. In the physical universe there is no problem, any of us could probably drive around each other and get on with our business. Only by having fixed ideas in our minds can we make a problem.

People often don’t realize that they themselves control both sides of any problem. The appearance is often that the problem is being controlled by some external agency. One has to agree to the sides of the problem to make it a problem.

Let’s say you promised Amy you’d go to the movies with her. But then your sister comes by and needs somebody to talk to, and you’ve promised always to be there for her. But… you also have a rule that you “never break appointments”. Well, you’ve got a problem.

One can keep ideas fixed because they don’t necessarily relate to the real world. One can make an idea separate from its context and pretend that it is an absolute truth. You could have decided to always talk with your sister when she needs you. That might sounds very nice and noble, but it is just an abstract idea as long as you don’t decide which context you’re talking about. Of course, there might be situations where something else will be more important than talking with your sister. If you have decided to “always keep appointments”, there will for sure be situations where you will have to break appointments because of what comes up.

You don’t have to make more than a couple of fixed ideas before they start colliding with each other and with the real world. Anything with an “always”, “never”, “must”, or “can’t” in it will invariably collide with any evidence to the contrary. Likewise, but to a lesser extent, with a categorical belief that something IS a certain way, or any belief that some things are inherently “good” or “bad”.

When two ideas collide you get an internal conflict, a dilemma. They are both supposed to be true, but at the same time they can’t be. Instead of looking at the real world and adjusting the ideas to be more practical, a person might just keep the colliding ideas in suspension. Instead of solving the dilemma it is kept frozen. An unsolved dilemma becomes a problem. The person will think there is nothing she can do about it, she is not cause. The opposing ideas will build up mass and confusion around themselves and will demand a lot of attention.

Essentially what the person is doing is trying to stop external forces with ideas in her mind. This is not a very good idea, and it doesn’t work very well. In the physical universe two things or events can’t occupy the exact same location in space-time. The mind doesn’t have such a limitation, so a person might make several cover the same area. Until the external situations that the ideas are supposed to represent suddenly appear to be in conflict, she might not notice. And often the person will wrongly assume that the conflict is happening in the outside world, and not in her mind.

Let’s say a salesman makes a really good pitch and you buy a new leather sofa group for your living room that will be delivered the next day. You go home to surprise your spouse and say, “Honey, how would you like to have new leather couches” and he says, “no way, I am going to paint the whole place purple and we will be getting my brothers antique straw furniture. The painters are coming tomorrow.” Let’s say that you just say, “oh” and sit down to think things out. You have a problem. You might sit and sweat over it and start feeling worse and worse about it. If you keep ignoring it both the couches and the painters will arrive the next day. The more you think about the problem the more it would probably feel heavy and give you a headache.

Now, the error is in assuming something without actually perceiving it, and in not communicating what needs to be communicated. Instead of checking with your spouse before a major purchase you just thought “he’ll like it”. In other words you replace perceptions with an idea. Secondly when you found that there were other plans contrary to yours you didn’t communicate what you knew. Lastly, you then assume that you can just sit down and sort that out by thinking about it. However, physical forces are already in action. The delivery people will come with the couches and the painters will come to paint and your brother-in-law will deliver his straw furniture and somebody is going to be mad.

If you assume a responsibility for several flows of activity that are in conflict, and you do nothing to redirect their flow, only attempting to stop the flows in your mind, well… then you have a problem.

You always have a choice about what you do. Any choice you make is what you choose. Making a choice is not a problem. Problems come from not making choices, or from taking on responsibilities that one doesn’t have.

If you are the right person to make a choice, then make it. If you don’t make it things will start piling up and looking problematic. If you are not the right person to make a choice, then don’t pretend that you are. Pass the information on to the people who will make the choice. Don’t lose sleep over anything you don’t have a choice about is advice for conflict resolution.

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