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Hearing each other’s needs – the first step of resolving a conflict

Updated: Jul 11

Alan loves cleaned kitchens, dust-dried surfaces and order in the bookcase. He vacuums at least once a day and makes sure that he cleans every surface at least once a week. His partner Kim calls him a "controlling perfectionist". She is an artist and preferably has a lot going on at the same time. When she starts a painting, she wants to leave brushes and paint in order to be able to continue when she feels like it. In the kitchen she prepares many things at the same time and some she does not finish. She also knits and says that she loses the flow in her creativity when she has to clean up all the material every time she does something. Ola calls her "careless and impulsive." They constantly get into arguments about how to keep order at home. The friends who have heard their fights for years sigh and ask them to stop. In the end, they both get enough of the quarrels and decide to divorce even though they still feel great love for each other.

Conflicts can be painful, and we know that conflicts often escalate if they are not dealt with. Both one's own and others' conflicts can be frightening, lead to unpremeditated decisions and stimulate anger, shame and guilt. Many long to help others get along, precisely because they have seen the consequences of conflicts that are not being dealt with. But how do you help someone in a conflict? And in an ongoing one that never seems to end? Maybe you wish it would be so simple that conflict ended just by asking quarrelers to calm down, shut up and stop arguing.

If Alan and Kim had asked for help, maybe this situation wouldn't have escalated to a split-up. A third party - a friend or a mediator - could have helped them connect with their innermost desires. If they could hear the needs behind why the other was prepared to "fight" for their standpoint, they might have been able to handle their conflict differently. Kim could have heard that behind Alans desire for an orderly home there was a need for harmony, beauty and dignity. Alan could have seen Kim’s needs for spontaneity and meaning behind what he called impulsive and careless. If they had made contact with each other's needs in this way, the relationship could have deepened instead of being dissolved. They could have found a third way to accommodate both person’s needs.

When human needs are "on the table", the conversation often changes direction from the never-ending, "I'm right and you're wrong".  You no longer have to get stuck in how someone should behave but can see each other's inner motivations. A mediator can help to address needs, but also support the parties in jointly developing strategies that can meet their most important ones. Ida and Ola might find out that Ida can have her own spaces where she can "ravage freely". Maybe they decide that they should have a cleaning day together where Ola sets the level. Or they come to the conclusion that what is missing is doing things together where they really see each other.

What a mediator or third party, want to do is to establish connection and help the parties express their own needs and to hear the other. Once they do this, they can often, with or without help, figure out how they want to proceed so that both have their needs met. The needs have been there all along, now they become clear and show which way the parties can choose to walk, together or individually.


If you want to read more about this NVC-based mediation read my book a Helping hand.

If you want to deep-dive into this art. There is a chance coming up very soon.

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