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Diffuse modern conflict by finding your 18th camel

In a recent talk, William Ury (a mediator, writer and speaker) relays an old story about a man who leaves his three sons 17 camels.

To his eldest son, the man left half of the camels, to the next he left a third of the camels and to his youngest son he left a ninth of the camels.

This immediately causes conflict, as seventeen is not evenly divided by two, three or nine. So, the brothers seek the council of a wise old woman.

She offered them one of her camels to make the number an even 18. The brothers then divided the camels.

The eldest brother took his half, nine camels; the next brother took his third, six camels; and the youngest brother took his ninth, two camels. And since nine plus six plus two equals 17, they had one camel left over, so they gave it back to the wise old woman.

When faced with conflict or a difficult conversation, we should all seek our 18th camel, something that allows us to take a step back and view the problem from a new perspective. In this story, the brothers were so focused on what was in it for themselves; they failed to see a bigger picture.

When we are faced with conflict, it is easy to make it all about ourselves and get wrapped up in what we need. And of course, if we allow emotions to enter the mix, then we meet anger with anger and frustration with frustration.

By focusing on the other person’s need, you can remove your emotions from the equation and discover ways in which you can support a resolution.

Think of the old wise woman in this story. She didn’t think of herself and ask “what’s in it for me?” She offered the 18th camel as a means to diffuse the conflict among the brothers.

The brothers in this story also displayed another key to conflict resolution, which is to seek an outside third party.

In the article “Conflict Management, Lessons from the Second Grade,” one of the very first lessons we learn as children is to seek an authority figure when faced with conflict. Think back to your days on the playground and how instinctively we sought out our teachers to help with our disagreements. Or, think about how your own children do this with you.

We need to work at our communication skills. A recent survey from LinkedIn noted that the No. 1 skill that contributed to “career luck” was “having strong communication skills.”

The better we can communicate with one another, the easier it will be for all of us to find our 18th camel.

Damian Dinan is client development specialist for the Center for Business & Industry at Northampton Community College. He can be reached at ddinan@northampton.edu.

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