Master the Four Stories of Transcending Conflict

My friend Les was at odds with his church, and their mutual disagreement was heading for a big, ugly showdown at the annual leadership election.  Everyone’s passions were high, and neither side was listening to the other — I became convinced neither side even understood the other.

The entire organization was based around “mutual respect” and dialog and so forth.  Yet nobody could manage to do that for each other, when it came to this conflict.

Les felt the leadership wasn’t serious about the group’s money problems — they’d lost money for six years running, and he felt they had no serious plan for changing that.  Fortunately, Les had served on the board, knew the financials, and had personal expertise in fund-raising.  Since he loved his church, he didn’t see how he could do anything other than speak up and offer to help.

Meanwhile, the leadership felt Les was ‘disruptive’ and ‘not a team player’ and just wanted to grand-stand.

Sound familiar?  It should.  Every significant conflict between two sides involves four stories, and most of the time each side only knows two of them.  The first side to master all four stories will have the power to either win the conflict or transcend it completely.

The Four Stories

  1. Our view of Us (why we are right)
  2. Our view of Them (why they are wrong)
  3. Their view of Us (why we are wrong)
  4. Their view of Them (why they are right)

Draw it this way and fill in some key words or sentences that reflect the whole picture:

Four Stories of Conflict
Our View Their View
Of Us Our motives are pureWe see things clearly They suspect our motivesThey see us as ill-informed or foolish
Of Them They suspect our motivesThey see us as ill-informed or foolish Their motives are pureThey see things clearly

The primary function of each pair of stories is to give each party a reason to feel comfortable (“my side is right”) and to justify themselves in ignoring what the other side says (“they are ignorant, foolish, or evil, so there’s no point in listening to them”).

Here it is for Les:

Les’ Church – Four Stories Diagram
Les’ View Leadership View
Of Les I want to solve the money problemI want to awaken leadership to the
seriousness of the issueI want to contribute my expertise
Les just wants attentionLes is blowing things out of proportion
Of Leadership They’re burying their collective
head in the sand
We have things under controlWe need to protect the group from
Les’ disruption of harmony


How to Use the Four Stories

Les’ biggest challenge was getting the rank and file of the membership to listen to him — and his initial approach was ineffective.  Because he was a minority and moved slower than he should have, by the time he spoke with most members, they’d already been warned about Les — they were primed to believe the two “Leadership View” stories.

Les believed he just needed to talk louder to get people’s attention.  This just played into the other side’s image of him as “wanting attention” (for himself).

He also tried showing people selected data from the financial reports.  This too was not done well — by selecting the data he allowed people to believe he had cherry-picked it, thus “blowing things out of proportion.”

Only by knowing the other side’s stories — their version of reality — can you hope to connect with people in a way that works for them, where they give themselves permission to really listen to you.

Overcome Mental Defenses — by Not Attacking

Conflict can become entrenched in us when we start to vigorously defend our version of reality, and vigorously prosecute our vision of the other side.  We start to feel that any alternative information is dangerous, or disloyal, or somehow threatening.

And the more forcefully we push a conclusion, the more likely someone else is to feel defensive.

As Dale Carnegie put it, “Those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.”

The trick, then, is to not push your conclusions, to instead let the other person feel comfortable and non-defensive, and invite them to help you interpret the data you’re facing.

You want to model open-mindedness. Couch your conclusions as being tentative. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements — rather than “you didn’t say that” try “what I think I heard you say was…”

So the approach I suggested to Les was to say:

“Hey, can you help me figure out what this means? Because I keep coming up with a scary answer, and other people on the board don’t seem scared, so maybe I’m just not processing this right.  Can you help me figure out what I’m missing, or where I’ve gone wrong here?”

This serves two functions.  First, it allows you to listen more effectively — you might have been blocking out part of their data.  Now you can easily change your mind without having to embarrassingly back down from a strident position you took earlier.

Second, it gives the other person the opportunity to do the same thing.  Never force the other person to admit they were wrong.

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