Conflicts – how do they arise in the first place?

Does any of the following sound familiar? You’re having a conflict with a colleague at work. You’re feeling ambivalent about something and are finding it hard to make up your mind. Things keep happening to you that you feel are slowing you down.

You may also be familiar with minor signs of exhaustion as those feelings of, “Oh no, not again” or “Just for once, can’t things go as planned?”

In today’s blog post, I’d like to share with you a highly effective language pattern that we’ve successfully used in countless mediations and crisis interventions.

When something goes wrong in our life, relationship, job or health, we’re typically quick to analyze the situation and ask ourselves: Why …? 

  • Why has this happened?
  • Why did this issue arise in first place?
  • Why me?

When we ask these questions, we’re looking for a reason, a cause. And, when looking at a timeline of the past, present and future, the answer is typically found in the past. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with asking why, doing a little self-reflection and learning from this analysis.

Those who ask the “why” question are looking for connections and culprits, for mechanisms and causalities. And while this can be sensible and enormously useful, solutions tend to be found in the future, or at least in the present. Which is why it obviously doesn’t make much sense to pose the “why” question to the past – or does it?

Letting go, learning from our experiences and gaining knowledge can also be achieved by those who are looking ahead and thereby focusing on solutions.

Solution-focused people ask, “What for?” instead of “Why?”

These two questions may sound quite similar. You may even get the same answer to both of them. Yet, they carry a completely different weight – just like the terms “problem,” “defeat” and “failure.” They grow into a challenge.

The “what-for” question focuses on intentions, motivations, goals, needs and emotions, and explores the meaning of it all. These aspects take into consideration the future – or at least the present – and in so doing, they enable us to look ahead towards goal orientation, and above all, solution orientation. Which is exactly where we want to direct our attention!

In conversations, the “why” question tends to trigger feelings of justification in your conversation partner and these feelings, in turn, tend to lead to a blockade. And this is anything but useful in the joint search for collaborative solutions.

So now, imagine a conflict conversation in which you predominantly ask, “What for?” How do you think your conversation partner will feel? They’ll sense your interest in their real and true intentions and motivations and will feel – rightfully! – valued. What effect do you think this will have on the outcome of your conversation? 

To summarize:

It’s a fact that the “why” question rarely leads to truly satisfying answers and many of them won’t really get you anywhere, either – precisely because the question is looking towards the past.

On the other hand, “What for?” has the power to transform a conflict into an important stepping stone along a path towards a goal. And this can provide hope and encouragement.

Why? Just because.

If you need support, think of this passionate crisis manager – your stepping stone in times of crisis: Anke Stein.

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