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Self Reflection: Looking Inward to Change Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

We’ve all had the experience of flying into a conversation, riding high on emotions and frustration. The conversation becomes a conflict, the conflict escalates and becomes painful. Hours later the issues may or may not have been resolved, perhaps we still feel they’re very important and perhaps not, but along with the underlying issue there is now another one: freshly formed layers of hurt, quickly and carelessly piled on top of the original problem. Pain inflicting comments, verbal attacks from both sides, new rifts of mistrust and resentment opened between you and your colleagues, friends or family members. After it’s all said and done, we might still feel justified in our original feelings, but all too frequently we regret our behaviors and find ourselves confronting a new emotional struggle.

Such scenarios don’t just occur in our personal relationships, they can recur systematically regarding serious issues in venues ranging from workplaces to communities to societies. They can become normalized and habitual. Writing recently in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Robert R. Stains Jr. described the destructive impact of these cycles.

“In this environment, routine opportunities to directly learn and practice attitudes and communication skills that reach across divides in more than superficial ways have become less frequent and less trusted by an increasingly polarized public. Fear grows with distance, stereotypes fuel suspicion, and conflict replaces collaboration as a first response to meeting community needs. ” [1]

Self-reflection, prior to entering a dialogue or conflict as well as throughout and after, can help us avoid these destructive scenarios, and create new communication patterns.

Why reflect?

It can be hard to consider turning inward when it feels like there is a threat or problem coming at you from an external source.  However, if you can trust in the process and pause while engaging in a conflict, the benefits are likely to be tremendous.

When we get upset, “it’s easy to get pushed into a visual and emotional tunnel by external forces and internal feelings; to start seeing only the parts of others and ourselves that fit the story we’re already telling.”[2] Thoughts, feelings, or experiences that contradict the forceful experience of a particular moment may fall to the wayside of our consciousness.

Self-reflection is the process of stepping back to observe your own thoughts and feelings. It helps us slow down and consider what we actually want to accomplish through any confrontation. In many cases it may allow us to see a possibility for resolution where we did not see one before.

One of the most valuable benefits associated with reflection is the increased capability to “know the mind of the other.”  By taking the time to reflect, we are  more likely to make some space within ourselves for understanding the actions, behaviors, and viewpoints of the other.  Such an act of mindfulness and respect is likely to strongly discourage those regrettable conflict behaviors we brought up earlier as well as make an opening for understanding “the other” in conflict.  Reflection is not about judging yourself for feeling intensely, or giving up on communicating about something that is important to you. It’s about becoming present and aware enough to decide with intention how you want to do that.

Strategies of Self-Reflection

Strain Jr. offers a few topics of inquiry that the neutral might ask a conflict participant in order to stimulate inquiry.  These include: personal history and frames of reference that bring meaning to a situation; one’s own feeling, perceiving, and acting; nuances of strong opinions or perspectives; patterns of response; past experiences that feel relevant to the current moment; hopes and concerns;  and areas that need more questioning or learning.[3]

For reflection that precedes an interaction, you may want to take some time to reflect alone, or have a conversation with a third party. During a dialogue or interaction you may notice things are escalating, and ask to take a pause. Activities like walking, writing, or just temporarily ceasing to communicate and embracing silence can help keep conflicts from taking on a life of their own.

When you feel that a conflict or dialogue has ended, you may feel “finished,” but further deliberate reflection can help solidify closure and help you fully process what took place.  Being a reflective mediation practitioner means regularly engaging in this kind of inquiry. It can also help you draw out invaluable insights  for the future.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.


[1] Stains Jr., Robert R. “Reflection for Connection: Deepening Dialogue Through Reflective Processes,” Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Vol. 31, Iss. 1 (2012): p. 34.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 40.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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  • Ellen,
    Thanks for what you’ve written and your generous citation of my article. I especially appreciate what you said about reflection:

    “Reflection is not about judging yourself for feeling intensely, or giving up on communicating about something that is important to you. It’s about becoming present and aware enough to decide with intention how you want to do that.”

    I will be passing that along to clients and trainees. I find more and more opportunities for reflection in the work I do with groups; taking a break mid-stream and giving the members a reflective task that involves walking, writing, and conversation.
    Bob Stains

    • admin

      Bob, I’ve long been an admirer of the work of the Public Conversations Project and I believe you probably know my friend and colleague Mary Jacksteit from PCP.
      Reflection is part of my regular mediation practice.