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Conflict Stories

Conflict Stories

What is a conflict story?



Full Transcript

I think you’ve identified something that’s really a characteristic of people in conflict. They tell these stories, they practice them a number of times to their friends, families, to themselves and they’re really stuck in that story and so when we try to shift them out of that story, they get very resistant and defensive, because their story makes sense to them. And usually in that story, they have a role that, it might not be great, but they’re comfortable with it. I think a very typical conflict story and this might be a bit controversial for some people, but I’ve done some work looking at the genre of conflict stories, and what I’ve discovered is that a lot of conflict stories tend to fit the genre of melodrama. That doesn’t just mean they’re melodramatic, although they do tend to be, but they have a very particular story and this is kind of how the conflict story tends to go.


‘I’m a really hard worker, I work really hard at my job and I try to do my best to get on with people and this person has come into my workplace and they’re just so horrible. They’re going out of their way to undermine me, they don’t have any respect for anybody else and you know, I just can’t even speak to them anymore. They’re just so impossible and I need somebody to fix them. If they just left, everything would be fine. Everything would go back to the way it was and we’d be happy but I just can’t get them to change and nobody seems to be doing anything and I’m stuck.’


They’re archetypal melodramatic story line. There are a number of characters in a melodrama. Obviously, you have the main character. Classically, that would be a woman. She’d be very beautiful and young, so you have the melodramatic heroine. In conflict stories I guess that we deal with on a day to day basis, sometimes it’s a man, but typically the man in that role tends to present himself as kind of emasculated, kind of powerless and people look at men who tell those stories and think, ‘Toughen up, be a man’ because they’re playing the heroine role. You have the heroine and her attributes are that she’s very virtuous, she’s a very good person. She tends to be quite passive and quite helpless so people do things to her. She doesn’t take initiative or make choices or show agency, so she sort of gets pushed around by people who are more powerful than her.


Strangely enough, she also tends, in classical melodrama, to be mute. In those classical dramas, she will often have taken a vow of silence so she can’t make people see what’s really going on here or she’s locked deep in a dungeon and no one can hear her cries for help. She can’t say what she needs to say to have this problem solved for her. That’s your typical heroine.


Of course when there’s a heroine, you have to have an evil villain and the evil villain is very obvious in melodrama. He storms onto the stage with a dark cape and a black hat and he makes pronouncements about all of the terrible things he’s going to do and the villain comes along and he somehow undermines the heroine’s virtue. He somehow implies that she’s not as good as she’s supposed to be or he prevents her from being the good person she wants to be. He interferes with the way things should be and he’s very active. He does things often to the heroine or the people around her and it’s just assumed everything he does is with bad intent because he’s the villain and villains don’t do nice things.


The other main figure is the father figure or the judge. Usually, there’s some very powerful male figure whose job it is to sort out the mess. The judge has a couple of things they have to do. The first thing they have to do is be convinced that the heroine really is virtuous. That she really deserves his help. Heroines spend a lot of time trying to demonstrate how nice and good and virtuous they are so that this judge figure helps. Then, they recognize that the villain is actually evil and so they’ll mete out some kind of punishment to the villain, which usually takes them off the scene, so they’ll lock him away or banish him. Or if it’s a really nasty melodrama, they might kill him. Their job is to restore the status quo. To put everything back to the way it was back to the beginning before the villain undermined everything.


You can already see, I hope, some patterns that tend to be a bit dysfunctional when people are telling that story, they tend to not take action themselves. They tend to spend a lot of time trying to prove that they are good and the other person is bad and they tend to idealise the past. So, ‘Everything used to be great and now it’s terrible’. The problem also with wanting to restore the past, there’s no growth. There’s no development. We just go back to the way it should have been and people don’t progress. Even though we might fix the problem, we haven’t improved the situation. There’s no growth. That’s one of the really disappointing things about this story line, but there’s also another character and this is the one that I really like.


In a melodrama, there’s often a hero. He’s not a very useful hero. He’s kind of a bumbling hero and often he’s a comedy figure. He’s usually in love with the heroine, but at the very least, he is completely devoted to her. He believes in her virtue and he’s trying really hard to help her, but he’s actually quite useless and so the villain always tricks him and he always ends up trapped and he makes lots of pronouncements about how wonderful the heroine is. But he can’t do anything to help her. He tries and he tries, but he’s practically useless.


Weirdly, this is going to sound really weird, but when I’m working with clients who are telling that story, they want me to be their father figure. They want me to fix it for them. They’re helpless. They can’t do anything. They don’t want to talk to the bad guy. They want me to sort it out and my job is to try to be that bumbling, useless hero. I’m totally on their side, I’m totally with them. I’m really trying to understand what it’s like for them, but practically, I’m useless here. It sounds weird, but by doing so, I’m constantly reinforcing that they’re going to have to do something. I really want them to take some action. I’m there with them, but I can’t do anything. That’s a really nice little twist, that I want to be the bumbling hero

About the mediator

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Dr Sam Hardy is a leader in the field of conflict resolution and has been described as both a practical thinker and a thinking practitioner.
 She has advanced postgraduate qualifications including a PhD in
 conflict resolution as well as many years of international experience as 
a conflict resolution practitioner. Sam has been mediating since she completed her original mediation training in 1997, and she is a Nationally Accredited Mediato... View Mediator