Defusing Conflict with Strong Reflection

By Dorit Price-Levine

When we’re in a conversation and a point of difference arises, our alarm bells sound. Oh no, our brains tell us, conflict is inevitable if we don’t change course—and most of us do or try to. But covered-up discontent does not just go away. It can simmer until it boils over destructively. Avoiding disagreements tends in the long term to produce the very conflict we hope to escape. Counterintuitively, discussing differences can directly reduce the potential for raging conflict, if only we can overcome our avoidance and discomfort.

This is exactly what took place in a community I supported this past year. I was invited by a legacy land trust organization to facilitate a public meeting about a new beach management plan. Differences between the trustees and the community about policy decisions had festered for so long that conflict erupted: their park rangers were being verbally assaulted and physically threatened on beach. Rather than accepting the idea that we would hold the meeting with security guards present, I asked the trustees what it would look like to pause the process and rewind. What if we created forums for dialogue, for learning where the trust had been broken, so that the community could begin the work of rebuilding?

We decided it was worth a try, and we created focus groups for different stakeholder groups, and then eventually a working group comprising diverse stakeholders who met monthly. Rather than shying away from differences, we created a space where differences were encouraged to emerge.

Addressing differences may not lead to agreement on all substantive issues, but satisfying and connected conversations happen when parties feel that meaningful topics are addressed head on. And as the psychologist Jean Decety has shown, the simple experience of hearing one another’s perspectives, however divergent, helps us empathize, even while continuing to disagree. That empathy can sustain long-term conversations, collaborations, and relationships.

The trick is to air out differences without escalating conflict or prompting a shutdown, and here’s where a technique called “strong reflection” can help. The national nonprofit organization, Resetting the Table—which has the mission of transforming our broken and polarized public conversation in the civic sphere—offers trainings focused on this crucial skill. A strong reflection is the act of telling a speaker what you’ve heard, with particular attention to what means the most to that speaker. Weaker reflections can sound rote, or oversimplified, making a speaker feel parodied or minimized. By contrast, a strong reflection will show the speaker that they’ve been truly understood. 

To offer a strong reflection we must stop listening in the ways we usually do: finding patterns that fit our own schemas and assumptions, cherry-picking the data that confirms what we already believe, preparing our counterarguments even before the person is finished. We must instead listen to sift out what matters most to the speaker, rather than what matters most to us. Here’s what a reflection can do:

1)    Slow down the conversation

When we take the time to reflect the speaker before sharing our own opinion, we create a moment to cool down and stop, so we can think carefully about what we’ll say in response. This is key when emotions are high and there’s potential for escalation.  You might want to say something in retort, but should you?

2)    Calm the fear response

Offering reflections reduces the likelihood of reactive, defensive responses by helping the other person feel seen and heard.

3)    Encourage reciprocity

When we prove that we’ve really listened, we demonstrate a willingness to understand. This validating, empathetic demonstration encourages the other party to offer the same consideration in return—maybe not all at once or as clearly as we like, but it sets the stage and provides an opening to change course in the conversation.

4)    Promote clarity 

We’ve all been in conversations where speakers offer monologues back and forth, without responding to one another’s points. This captures most “debates” these days, from talk shows to political exchanges. But these conversations are often loud, regurgitating known positions and viewpoints and leaving the listener unfulfilled. When we first reflect what we’ve heard back, seeking to make sure we “got” what the speaker meant, allowing ourselves to be corrected as needed, we ensure that we’ve understood what’s been said before we offer a response. Clarity first, response second!

5)    Allow the speaker a second chance

Upon hearing our own thoughts reflected, we might realize we didn’t express ourselves accurately or fully. Reflection gives a speaker the opportunity to amend a statement that could otherwise have caused unnecessary misunderstanding or increased conflict.

Offering reflection requires practice. It’s a muscle that we can build. I recommend practicing with partners, colleagues, children, and friends. Begin by asking them to tell you about a dilemma they face, and then, before responding with a phrase of consolation or advice, attempt a strong reflection: a description of their situation that emphasizes what matters most to the speaker. Finish by asking what you missed or how you could have done better, and then try again until you hear some version of, “Yes, that’s it! You’ve got me!” 

If you’re a party to a conflict, it can feel quite challenging to reflect in fullness the perspective of your opposition. Strong reflection already requires practice, but it’s much more complicated when you’re emotionally invested in an issue. This is where a neutral, professional facilitator is of great value. A neutral facilitator has—along with training and practice—no stake in an issue and is thus better situated to offer much needed reflections for opposing parties. But in any case, whether you’re a professional or simply involved in a tense disagreement, strong reflection can help bring disagreements to the surface manageably and helpfully.

In the case I’ve mentioned of the trustees and the community, these reflections went a long way. Now, while they don’t necessarily agree on all the substantive issues, the trustees and community members can see one another in three-dimensional ways rather than as caricatures, and they’re better positioned to take one another’s concerns seriously, on their own terms. The working group continues to meet and have productive conversations across differences, without me—and there’s no greater victory for a facilitator than becoming irrelevant in a once highly conflictual context!