It Depends: Finding balance in conflict
Question posed: My two siblings are in a conflict and asked me to chose a side, like casting a deciding vote. I said I’m neutral, which upset them both. I have an opinion on who’s correct, but don’t want to get involved. Should I tell them my decision?
Answer: It must feel like whatever you chose to do, you lose. You’ve tried three options: to steer clear, be neutral, and offer an opinion, none of which they accepted. They won’t retreat from their one option of you choosing, which you’ve refused to do. Call it a lose, lose, lose for the three of you, the least ideal outcome. What’s a sibling to do?
Shift the pressure
The pressure is on you to be tie-breaker. Unless you have extraordinary influence and your choice will bring peace, picking a side has risks.
Choose either sibling’s side and predict likely outcomes. Who gets satisfied with either choice? Not you and not one sibling. So, now it’s two against one over a reorganized issue and the causes of conflict in the family have escalated up a level.
Time to deflect the pressure from you to where it belongs.
Another option is as an advocate for peace
It sounds like you want them to stop the conflict, which wasn’t mentioned. You don’t have to prefer a side to be an advocate for peace. That’s not avoiding conflict and not neutrality. It’s an active position you state.
On what basis or from which story or set of facts are they asking you to pick? Every conflict stems from a point of view that sounds correct to the person who tells the story. Conflicts depend on context, history, feelings, and beliefs. Sometimes, conflicts even depend on facts. Every story has its facts and context shaped to be persuasive. If neither conflict story persuades you, the option of both being somewhat right and somewhat wrong gives room for resolution.
What’s more important is the history among the siblings. Is this conflict unusual or part of a long line of quarrels? Have other conflicts ended badly, or well? Is conflict ever resolved among you or is it avoided and left to simmer? If something has changed this time, you might want to consider asking a professional Conflict Manager to help.
What do you mean by staying neutral?
You got here because you wanted to be neutral. What does neutral mean to you? As much as we might like to believe we are impartial (without bias or prejudice), no one is that objective or free of socialized or cultural influences. We all have biases towards or against certain things.
Even though we may be unaware of it, our thoughts, words, body language and behaviours express our biases. Careful listeners and observers hear and see our biases. We telegraph, in our answers to questions and statements of opinion, what we believe.
In other words, how do your siblings view your claim of neutrality? How might your position contribute fuel to the fight? What other stance could you take that advocates for peace rather than conflict avoidance?
Consequences of bias
You have a preference. What is it based on and how do you know?
- Our biases can prevent our seeing the full complexity of a situation. In complex issues, we fall back on what we already believe to be true. That helps us manage the amount of information we would otherwise need to have in order to understand what is happening. A bias or two here and there means we accept some things as true whether they are or not. Thus, we don’t have to rethink everything we accept as true. Whatever does not fit with what we believe to be true, we can reject as false. While this simplifies our life, it acts as a barrier to getting the full story from all perspectives.
- A bias towards something is just as limiting in our points of view as a bias against something. I love popcorn. It is my bias towards what makes a treat great. I’d reject any advice that popcorn is bad. However, if my bias is the reason I accept or reject a ‘fact’ that doesn’t fit with my ideas, I risk perpetuating limited knowledge and decrease my self awareness.
Who is wrong and who is right might warrant: “It depends”
Many variables exist in each unique conflict situation. There’s simplicity in having biases decide for you because you don’t have to challenge your own thinking and feelings about what you believe.
In complex conflict situations, we know what we already believe, and then reject the other sides’ facts. If we don’t acknowledge the complexity of the situation, we can stick doggedly with our own point of view. It certainly is easier to believe what we already believe and reject anything that disagrees with us.
Challenging whether we have a bias towards one of the sides takes insight, self awareness, and discipline. However, it might be that our underlying assumptions, beliefs, and biases are not true, or at least not as true as we want them to be.
If you are comfortable that your preference is based on something you can defend, and have predicted the likely outcome you can live with, and can’t make peace between them and can’t withstand their pressure, then you decide what to tell them.