Written by Izumi Tsurumi
Ms. Tsurumi coordinates the Leadership program at UWC ISAK Japan.
When you don’t meet eye to eye with someone, when was the last time you responded by saying “tell me more…”?
Instead, what are our tendencies to respond to a conflict in opinions? Judging what the other person said, defending our point of view profusely, coercing the other person to take our point of view, or keeping our mouth shut? All of these behaviors are a result of us perceiving difference as a problem, and when faced with a conflict, one of us is right and the other one, wrong.
At UWC ISAK Japan, we have people of many different backgrounds — culturally, religiously, socioeconomically — and there are bound to be times when we don’t meet each other eye to eye. So often, we don’t interact with our differences in a way that builds connections and moves us forward us a community. This is because most conflicts happen at the level of positions and strategies, and we view conflicts as win/lose scenarios. To give an example from our daily life, in our houses, we may have a situation where trash is all mixed up, and some students who have the roles to clean up and separate the trash are frustrated. In this case, we often hear the argument of “you didn’t separate out the trash, it is annoying that I need to separate the trash, so please separate it from now on!” This is a typical case of “I am right, you are wrong” approach to meeting a conflict.
What is important for us to recognize however is that there is a level of “human need” that is driving these strategies/behaviors in each of us. Everything we do, we do to meet a need. These needs are universal, and we need them to survive and thrive as humans (examples can be found here). Sometimes the strategies we apply to meet these needs are conscious and logical, and sometimes they are not. However, if we can take the time to ask each other and find out what the human needs are that are driving these behaviors, then we can get past the conflict of strategies and positions and understand each others’ needs that are rooted in our humanness. In this example, the need that is driving those to mix the trash may be that they need ease in their life, and the need of the person who is cleaning the trash could also be ease, along with respect and responsibility. If we can curiously and openly listen to and understand each others needs and values, we can then come up with different ways of meeting both of our needs, that is past simply separating out the trash. Perhaps the need of ease could be met in other areas of their residential life, in very creative ways.
In our Leading Self course, we are currently building skills to understand the nature of conflicts, to develop deep empathy for each other to learn about each other’s needs, and to be creative with our solutions so that we can meet as many needs as possible. What if each of us can adopt a mindset that difference is only natural and that a conflict can be a win/win ground for learning? In order to create a community that builds connections in the midst of differences, it requires that each of us is paying attention to our human needs that are driving our behavior, and are willing to be vulnerable and share them with others. We also need to purposefully meet conflicts with intentions to understand others at the level of human needs.
What if we all took a chance and practiced this? Could we transform our community from a simple co-existence of different opinions, ideas and identities in separate pockets, to one where we are seeking to understand each others’ human needs beyond our superficial differences, and actively creating a community where the various human needs can be fulfilled? Now, that would be practicing transformational leadership to create a community for a peaceful and sustainable future.