How Can the 3 Levels of Conflict Improve Problem-Solving?

{4:00 minutes to read} As part of the mediation training we teach at The Center for Understanding in Conflict, we talk about “levels of conflict”—at the level of position, the level of interest, and the level of meaning.

Level of Position: What Alleviates the Sense of Anxiety?

Position is often what people say they want. In my mind, people reach a position because they have problems that make them anxious. During a divorce, the problems are obviously divorce related: People become anxious about where they’re going to live or how they’re going to pay the bills. They form a position around a result that they feel would alleviate their anxiety.

“I need to stay in the house,” is an example of a position formulated around the anxiety of:

  • Where will I live?
  • Will I look like I lost everything?
  • Will people feel sorry for me?
  • Will I be secure? 

Level of Interest: What Solves the Problem?

Where the level of position often revolves around anxiety, the level of interest revolves around the problem. To solve the problem, we are taught to better understand the situation:

  • What is really important to me and why?
  • What is the economic reality?
  • What is the actual problem?

The level of interest is problem-solving.  

Level of Meaning: What is the Potential Impact?

At the deepest level, we reach meaning. If they are willing and have a chance to explore themselves at this deep level, people in conflict have an opportunity through the conflict to connect with their own sense of meaning and purpose: 

  • Who am I at my core self?
  • What are my core values?
  • How do I identify my own strengths and my own place in this world?
  • How does this conflict interact with my own sense of “me”—where I’ve come from, where I’m going, and who I am?

I’ve always thought of levels of conflict linearly. People come in with their position. Through exploring their position, we get to a place of interest, of problem-solving. Then through that, we reach a place where they understand what the potential impact would be on their own lives, positively or negatively. Recently, I have been realizing more and more that people have all three levels at the same time. Position may be first to appear, but the levels of interest and meaning are right there too. It may not be accessible to them or to me at that moment, but it’s there.

The possibility of being open to and accepting the various levels of conflict, rather than just responding to a person’s stated position, is an important idea.

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