Paul Butler: Conflict resolution

Paul and Gaynor Butler training together for their 25-year half-marathon journey across all 50 states in 2016. Courtesy of Paul and Gaynor Butler

My wife and I celebrate 25 years of marriage this year, and if I’ve learned anything about conflict resolution, it would be to listen twice as much as I speak.

Have I mastered this?

No. Would my wife tell you I’m an awesome person at all times? No. Do we now, never have conflict? No.

What I have found when I do listen to her twice as much as I speak is that I seek to understand her viewpoint. This is especially important when we’re dealing with a highly emotive issue.

I have found that when I seek to truly listen to her, an amazing thing happens — she then listens to my viewpoint. Sociologists and psychologists call this: “The Law of Reciprocity” whereas I call it, “The Golden Rule.”

See, what I’ve found in times of conflict is that if we treat the other person(s) in a way we would like to be treated, a miracle happens between us, imperfect human beings: the other person is likely to reciprocate the behavior you’re exhibiting.

Will this always be the case? No. Will it take time? Yes. But slowly and surely, as trust builds between people, this law of reciprocity is more likely to bring the parties together to a good solution.

I have also observed how conflict can be positively reduced when we look for the higher purpose and the bond common to both parties.

What do I mean by that?

Well, coming back to the analogy of a marriage (probably the most emotive bond between two human beings), I am not personally the marriage alone nor is my wife.

Together, we form a marriage. The marriage is why we’re together — we made vows to each other, which we intend to keep. The marriage therefore has a higher and longer-serving purpose than any temporal squabble we may have. If we stay focused on the higher purpose and seek to understand each other’s perspective on an emotive issue, I am sure we can work through anything together.

You may be thinking, “This is good marital counseling advice, Paul, but what does this have to do with the workplace?” Well, wouldn’t you agree with me organizations are just a collection of people who need to work effectively alongside each other and other people called “vendors” and “customers?”

Take this principle of looking for the higher purpose and the common bond between both parties, to two of the most emotive conflicts in the last few weeks we’re aware of here in the United States and one, specifically in Los Angeles County. Yes, I am talking about the government shutdown and the one-week strike of employees within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Are their conflicts now completely resolved? No. Are they likely to have conflict in the future? We can be sure of that. But what brought both parties to the negotiating table to move forward? I’d like to suggest it was two factors — in the case of the government shutdown, it was the speaker of the House of Representatives and in the case of the Los Angeles Unified School District it was the Los Angeles mayor.

I believe these two individuals have served well as mediators to bring, respectively, both parties back to the negotiating table on very emotive issues.

The second factor was a reminder that the higher purpose (i.e. having a fully functioning government and open schools) is the priority over and above the disagreements.

A functioning government can work together on immigration policy. Schools that are open and operating can figure out how to secure more state funding to give employees appropriate cost-of-living increases while figuring out how to better serve students in a school system that needs improving.

So whether we’re talking about our most intimate human relationship — a marriage or an emotionally charged situation with another loved one such as a family member or friend — always endeavor to listen twice as much as we speak. Do all you can, to understand the other person’s perspective and remind yourself of the higher purpose that bonds you together.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal newspaper. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected].

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