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Blog Short #21: How to Handle a Dispute

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

There’s a well-known Indian spiritual teacher who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who often answered questions posed by visitors who sought him out at his ashram where he resided in South India. His name is Ramana Maharshi.

Someone asked him once about how to handle disputes. Here’s the exact question posed and his answer:

Q: “Bhagavan! It happens to all and at many a time too. Two friends get entangled in heated arguments on a commonly accepted issue. Each sincerely feels that his stand is correct. And most assuredly that the other is wrong. A stalemate results. In such cases, how can the issue be resolved to the satisfaction of both? Or is there no practical method at all to settle such tussles?”

A: “Bhagavan replied, “Yes, there is! It is very easy too!” He continued, “Since both are sincere, and are not arguing for argument sake, if you completely give up your standpoint for a moment, and accept the other’s point of view as your own, then there will be clarity in your mind. If possible, both should adopt or be persuaded to adopt, this method. If the other refuses, it doesn’t matter. Just make such a change of view in yourself. You will then experience a release from the stalemate. This change in you will release the other too from the stalemate. Neither of you will be arguing anymore.”

The wisdom in this response is subtle yet powerful, and something we can all use when we find ourselves in a situation where we’re having a dispute with someone.

The instruction is to completely abandon your point of view for a moment and put yourself in the other person’s headspace and see it through his mind’s eye as though it is yours.

Hah! This is not so easy to do, because it requires setting aside any emotional reactions you may be having to what’s said, and letting go of the need to defend your position, at least for a time.

That’s a big order, especially when the stakes are personal. And the more intimate the relationship, the higher the stakes, and the more likely you are to dig your heels in and raise your defenses.

The question is “How do I do that?”

Here’s what to do.

There’s a way that works if you use it early in the conversation before it gets out of hand. It has to do with your initial response to the other person’s statement(s).

Instead of rebutting, defending, or denying, ask one or several of these questions:

“I’m curious. How did you arrive at that conclusion? What led you to that idea? How’d you get there?”

When you ask questions that focus on his thought processes instead of responding to the actual content with a defense, you begin to turn down the emotional temperature while opening up some space for understanding and connecting.

By positioning yourself in the role of curious explorer instead of defensive debater, you change the direction of the conversation. You take the force of the other person’s drive to convince you of his point of view, and use it to open things up instead of lock them down.

By investigating instead of reacting, you get some time and space to cool yourself down by suspending your responses while you just listen. That will come in handy when you’re ready to start talking again.

Once the initial question is asked, keep asking questions and clarifying what you hear until you feel like you’re seeing his viewpoint as though it’s coming through your mind as well as his. Follow his mental steps as he tells you what led him to his conclusions. Drop your need to defend and focus only on understanding what he’s saying.

If you’re successful . . .

You’ll recognize that he’s right! He’s right based on his reasoning, his emotional perceptions, and the information he’s chosen to use. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily totally or truly right if some of those factors are faulty, but from inside his mind he’s right and you now know how he’s gotten there.

Once you understand how he thinks and feels, and he knows you get it, four things happen:

  • He gets calmer because he feels heard.
  • You’re calmer because you’ve controlled the emotional trajectory of the conversation, and you have much more information to work with.
  • He’s much more likely to hear you now.
  • You’re much more likely to explain your point of view in a way that can be received without a defensive response.

By seeking to fully understand before replying, you create a connection. You’re both on the same side, even if you continue to disagree on the content.

There are three ideas you need to cement in your mind to be able to pull this off:

  1. Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true.
  2. No one wins an argument if one of the parties is hurt.
  3. Defenses don’t need to be launched immediately to be effective. To the contrary, they can only be received when there’s a connection between both parties based on a desire to understand. If you take the lead and understand first, you have a much better chance of being understood when it’s your turn to speak.

When not to use this strategy.

This tactic will almost always work if you use it before a conversation moves into a full argument. But, there are situations where it won’t work, and that was pointed out in Bhagavan’s answer to the question. He qualified the situation saying, “if both are sincere and are not arguing for argument sake.”

There are people who want to argue, and will turn any attempt to come to an understanding into more conflict. This can happen when someone’s anger is out of control and they aren’t receptive, or worse, they simply like to fight so they twist words or purposely misunderstand what’s said to continue to escalate an argument.

When that’s the case, step back. Leave the conversation. Either you can come back when everyone’s cooled down and try again, or in the case of the person who just wants to fight, abandon any further attempts until he’s earnestly willing to work at reaching an understanding.

Last note: This is a strategy that not only works for intimate relationships, but it’s also very helpful when talking to our kids, or co-workers or friends.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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