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I know a woman who created a winning design label in her cellar at night while navigating the stormy waters of marital disintegration.  She would put the children to bed, clean up and then go downstairs and cut, match, sew and assemble pieces of fabric until the early hours of the morning when she had something to show for her labours and her head was “clear” of the nagging questions and worries that beset her days.  It was when she was focussed on a specific task, working out the practicalities of making a zipper disappear into the folds of a pair of trousers or a dress float like gossamer that her mind would switch off and she could distance herself from the gnawing worries of an unravelling life.  And it was often at the end of a long night of working that bingo! – she had the answer to the next sticky question:   “It would just pop into my head, as though someone was talking to me” she said,   “I had no idea where it came from but it was always surprisingly enough, the best next move for me.”

My personal refuge in such challenging times is generally the kitchen and although I love both cooking and baking, it’s preserving fruits and changing them into jewel-coloured jams and marmalades that is my refuge of choice for truly creative conflict resolution.  The wonderful smells of sugar and fruit marrying to form a heady perfume banish all negative thoughts while the activity of washing, cutting and paring fruit, sterilizing and heating jars,  getting out the sugar thermometer and then watching over the process until the setting point it reached, takes care of the rest.    I take no short-cuts and no recipe is too difficult or time-consuming. I seek to lose myself in jam-making nirvana and yes, in the process of switching off I am always able to let go of the problem that besets me and almost always find solutions popping into my head that I had simply never thought of before.

So what is it about throwing oneself into creativity that fosters great conflict resolution?

  • Psychiatry has long known of the benefits of crafting and creativity on mental health.  World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock were taught to knit and knitting remains one of the most popular therapy crafts used in managing depression today
  • Creativity and crafting switch activity from the left, problem-solving side of the brain to the creative, right-hand side of the brain.  In so doing, the pressure to think is literally taken off the cortex, heart rate, blood-pressure and breathing slow down, the amygdala’s fight or flight response ebbs and we become physically and mentally quiet and peaceful.
  • The often repetitive patterns and the focus on detail required in a lot of crafting activities are deeply calming and require us to be “fully present in the moment” as is the case in practising meditation.  In doing so, we are able to distance ourselves from worries about the future.
  • Crafting is also a source of pleasure that brings with it a sense of accomplishment.   Creating something to share with others heightens this pleasure even more. This activates the pleasure centres in the brain that flood our bloodstream with beta-endorphins, dopamine and all the good vibe chemicals that make us feel great.

So instead of focussing all your mental energy on actively solving problems, try gardening, baking, doing woodwork, putting ships into bottles, sewing, knitting or whatever it is that gets you going creatively.   Reap physical and mental health benefits in abundance and surprise yourself with some of your best decisions yet.

 

While the narratives that we tell of our lives define who we are and our place in the world, a story built up around the good bits only does not establish us as plausible human beings.   Since just over a year, thanks to facebook’s  new timeline feature,  everyone is dutifully filling in the gaps and plumping up their narratives with pictures, maps, apps and events.  The facebook sell on it is that it “helps you to tell your story” starting with “born on…”  and  following with images of ourselves from infancy to parenthood and beyond.

The idea behind facebook’s timeline is to help us create a chronological autobiography of annotated photos and posts,  likes and activities so that those who are our facebook “friends” are able to claim a bird’s eye view of our lives and have a fuller and deeper understanding of who we really are, how we got to where we did and who we met along the way.

What most of us naturally tend not to record are pictures of the times we didn’t make it to the finishing line with a big smile on our faces, of the loves that went badly wrong and cost us a fortune in therapy, of the numerous acts of poor judgement (not only in youth) or of the misdemeanours and everyday failings that go to make up a life lived.  We have no pictures of the conflicts we have kick-started, of those that we unwittingly became involved in, of the difficult conversations that we are still avoiding or the wounds that have cut so deep as to be unforgettable.

And yet, these negative experiences are the catalysts of learning and growth that chisel the contours of our lives and provide us with the depth and meaning essential to our development as human beings.   Without this downside,  our virtual timeline courtesy of facebook will never present the full picture and neither we nor our friends will ever attain the promised bird’s eye view of who we truly are.

As a conflict coach, I help people to understand the role that conflict plays in their lives, the conflict patterns that repeat themselves,  their personal conflict responses and the opportunities and potential for change that their particular set of values and strengths inherently hold for them.  While conflict profile assessments are a good place to start, I find working with timelines that record both the negative and positive milestones in life hugely effective in providing the client with an understanding of who they are in relation to conflict and gaining an accurate picture of their conflict profile as it presents itself over a lifetime.

A timeline therefore that reaches beyond the high-days and holidays to record both the negative and positive events in our lives allows us

  • to identify the opportunities that have come our way and the choices that we have made in response to them
  • to identify influential people or pivotal experiences
  • to recognize the significant thread or theme that runs through seemingly unconnected events in our lives
  • to identify behavioral patterns in relationships, particularly as regards managing conflict
  • to see how negative events have influenced us
  • to understand the challenges and stumbling blocks on the way to change

How to draw your timeline:

Turn an A4 sheet of paper broadside and draw a horizontal line along the length of it, leaving a small margin at both ends.  Mark the line off into five-year periods starting at birth up to the present.  Record positive events above the horizontal line by making a mark on the timeline and drawing a vertical line to the text above that names or records the event.  At times you may need to stagger the length of these lines so as to make space for multiple events during one specific period.   Record negative events below the horizontal line in the same way.  Leave enough space in the five-year period for several events to be recorded or for you to come back to and fill in later.  Make it as complete as possible and then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there an obvious theme running through my timeline?
  • Is there a single driving force that  has influenced the decisions I have taken in my life so far?
  • What are the important stages in my life?  Which people or events have marked them?
  • What are the turning points and which events have led to them?
  • Where are the forks in the road and the criteria that I used to evaluate my choices?
  • Which negative experiences have not been dealt with?
  • Are there negative experiences that through any act of mine can be turned into positive experiences?

Once these questions have been answered and digested and you feel that you have taken all you can get out of your timeline, use it as a launching pad for projections and planning for the years ahead.  The following questions will get you going:

  • If I am able to choose, where do I want to be in five or ten-years time?
  • What do I need to undertake to get there?
  • Is this consistent with the overall themes of my life?
  • What is your driving force for the next  period in my life?
  • Is this consistent with my long-term goals?

Now that’s what I call creating a fuller and deeper picture.  That’s what I call a timeline.

John (let’s call him that) is a youngish and very successful exec who has had a stellar rise in  bio-tech (making a few enemies along the way),  and who is now, as head of a major research division,  experiencing enough work-related stress and anxiety to drive him to coaching.    Asked to tell me more about his stress,  he says that he’s “in a state of siege” at work, “defending himself” against “constant attack” and never knowing “where the next blow will come from”.  When I ask how he most often responds to conflict at work, he says he has learned to “keep his head down”, his “ear always to the ground” and to “dodge the bullets” before he gets hit.  John’s metaphors tell me that he’s at war!

The way we speak and the metaphors we use reveal very much more about us than we think.  And the metaphors we use when we speak about conflict not only reveal how we feel but even how  we rate our chances of reaching successful resolution.

Metaphors are not just figures of speech or the linguistic flourishes of competent speakers but are a fundamental element of everyday communication and reflect how certain experiences have been received and stored in our subconscious and what deep connotations they hold for us.  In this way, metaphors are not only a mirror to the soul but are the soul’s very language – informing the observant listener about our state of mind, what we have in our hearts, what we fear most and how we see the world around us and our place in it.

Focussing your listening skills on the client’s use of metaphor therefore:

Allows you to delve more deeply into the conflict discourse 

Following on the metaphoric leads that your client gives will allow you to delve more deeply and quickly into the conflict discourse than you ever thought possible:  In this way, through curiosity, open questions and staying with the metaphor of war, I am able to ask John about his immediate situation including who his “allies” are, what “resources” he has at his disposal, what his “weapons” are, how he views his chances of “getting out unscathed”, how long he thinks he can “hold out with his current strategies” and what would need to happen to change his “chances of getting out alive”.  But I am also able to dig deeper and ask him how he maneuvered himself into this position in the first place and what long-term vision he has for himself.

Delivers an entire portfolio of client information

Over and above informing the coach about the current conflict situation, the metaphors we choose to use in discussing conflict reveal a great deal about our conflict response styles and our conflict management skills.  In this way, metaphors can deliver an entire portfolio of client information that is otherwise only collected after several sessions of assessment tools and explorative coaching.

Allows easy access to difficult emotions

Working through metaphor allows the client to discuss difficult experiences and emotions with more distance than if they were simply asked to describe “what it feels like”.  Using metaphor enables them to step back and view the conflict situation almost as an observer and from that vantage point, to describe not only what they are feeling but also what they are seeing.

Acts as a vehicle for fundamental change

Staying with metaphor and inviting the client to choose alternative metaphors to describe the conflict or the conflict setting, can be a major step towards fundamental change.   In John’s case, he was able to replace the war metaphors he used for his workplace and career experiences with metaphors surrounding his former passion for rowing.  His focus turned towards becoming “one of a team”, looking out for others, “watching the flow”, “checking the current”, “carrying weight”, “sharing a load” and a wealth more of co-operative and collaborative metaphors that involve communication rather than ducking bullets and keeping one’s ear to the ground.  Needless to say, he felt less anxious going into work and despite performance pressure, was able to focus on getting his research team to the next milestone in one piece.  He turned his focus onto upgrading resources, improving training and furthering the team concept.

Clients love it and are amazed at how revealing it is

I have not yet met a client who is not amazed by what they reveal about themselves through their choice of metaphor.  This moment of discovery generally inspires a willingness and a curiosity to explore all aspects of the metaphor and in that way to uncover hard-to-get-at aspects of conflict.

So, next time your client talks about “storms brewing”, having “lost his bearing” or “feeling adrift”,  stay with the metaphor,  dabble in little linguistic magic and do some great coaching.

 

I recently spoke to a friend who complained to me about his habit of impatience and the impact it was having on his new position as a team leader.   He sketched workplace scenarios that had everyone cowering in fear of his lightening judgement and his verbal dexterity and was unequivocal about the fact that he seriously disliked this aspect of himself.   But with a shrug, a sigh and a fatalistic “I wish I could change…” he reached out for his coffee cup and moved onto another topic.

 

The encounter left me wondering what it is it that keeps us from taking that crucial next step towards change despite apparent self-knowledge and the realisation that change is needed or is in fact long overdue?  And what is it that allows us to repeatedly commit to change but to fall back into old behaviours sooner rather than later?

 

It is commonly assumed that entrenched habit, fear of the unknown or the discomfort that change brings are what holds us back from breaking with unhelpful behavioural patterns or causes us to fail in following through on change.   But there is in fact an overlooked and yet absolutely essential prior step that must be taken before we can even consider braving the waters of change. Missing out on this first step is what has us failing time and again and belabouring the ears of friends with “if only…” tales.

 

To clients who say  “I wish I could…”, “How I’d love to…” or “If only I were…”   I ask permission to pose one question that always comes as a surprise, catches them off-guard and even ruffles and occasionally offends: “What benefit do you gain from not changing?” or “What’s the win in holding onto your pain?” The reply is always the same: “Holding onto pain? to a bad relationship? to an abusive partnership? to an overweight body or to ever-increasing personal debt?  How on earth could that benefit me?”

 

And yet,  that is exactly the question that has to be answered before we can consider committing to change for as long as we are reaping some benefit from our old pain, we will stay with it and its familiarity and resist all change.

 

 

The truth is that we remain trapped in unhealthy or unhelpful behaviours because in doing so, we find some of our deepest and often unacknowledged needs met. Yes, eating too much feels good in the moment of wolfing it down because it provides a primal sense of comfort that is more important than your waistline when loneliness and poor self-image overwhelm. Maxing out your credit-card limit satisfies a need for status and acknowledgement when self-esteem is low and impatience and perfectionism allow one to appear competent, in control and superior when in fact one is often plagued by feelings of inadequacy.

 

Acknowledging the benefits that we gain from holding onto bad habits, helps us to identify the deep needs that repeatedly draw us back into the “if only…” that we so wish we could cast off.   It is however, only through facing up to and acknowledging these needs that we can develop strategies to escape the black holes that await us during the process of change and to support us as we strive towards our desired goals.

 

So, with our new year’s resolutions still fresh in mind, the key to forming really strong intentions and to staying the course of change is to ask oneself where the benefit lies in not changing.  It’s never too late to change but it’s a waste of time trying if you’re not prepared to be honest about what it is you’re holding onto and what it is that’s holding you.   

On one of the first days of 2013, while digging deep into the back corners of my desk-drawers to trawl in the dust-covered odds and ends that had slipped out of my line of vision over the last twelve months, I came across a hand-written quotation given to me by my son on New Year’s day two or three years ago.  It was so much to the point, that I was left wondering why this particular scrap of paper had found its way back into my hands.  As I sat there pondering the significance of my find, I thought of its wider relevance to those of us in interpersonal conflict and decided to pass it on to you with my very best wishes for a wonderful new year.  Here it is:

“We spent January 1st walking through our lives, room by room, cleaning up, a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives not looking for flaws but for potential”   Ellen Goodman

This inspiring quote beautifully describes the process of personal stocktaking that we should all perform at least once a year:    identifying the different rooms of our lives – family, career, friendships, health, education, spirituality, values – and then going through  the list and evaluating where we stand in each of them and recording where improvement or change is necessary.  So far so good but the true inspiration in this moving image of two people wandering through the dusty rooms of their lives together and taking stock lies in the call to redirect our eye to the hidden treasures hidden beneath the debris.   We’re asked to break from the mould and not,  as we often do, to highlight the flaws and defects but to uncover and explore the hidden potential in that which is imperfect in our lives.  Why is something not working? What does this tell us? Where is the lesson we need to learn?  and What is the gift that lies waiting in our imperfection?

Conflict is always a sign of one or more parties seeking change to an aspect of their relationship.   While we willingly acknowledge that there is no growth without pain and that conflict is par for the course in relationships, when we encounter conflict head-on,  we often run and hide or respond inappropriately and in so doing, overlook the wonderful opportunity for growth that it brings.

Instead of avoiding conflict, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away or answering the conflict challenge aggressively and hoping to defeat the other, let us recognise the potential that conflict brings, the chance for a deepening of connection and for personal growth.

As we walk through the rooms of our interpersonal relationships at the beginning of this year, don’t sweep away the conflicts you see lurking in the shadows,  welcome them in as opportunities to create stronger and more meaningful bonds between us all.

Ever gone into a difficult conversation reminding yourself to “stay on the mat”,  to “stick to the facts” or to “keep the lid on” and found at some stage (and generally sooner rather than later) that your emotions have run away with you?    There is probably none of us who hasn’t.  This is because whether we like it or not, conflict is always about emotions irrespective of whether we’re hot-blooded or cool-headed by nature and quite independently of whether or not we’re well-intentioned.

In Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro of  Harvard Negotiation Project  fame turn their focus to just this problem.   They identify five core concerns that if ignored or impacted in difficult conversations are guaranteed to lead to strong emotions and to negotiation derailment.   The key to avoiding such unfortunate results in challenging conversations lies in understanding how these five core concerns affect our emotions and those of our partners in conflict.  Once we  do, we become able to prepare for these emotional landmines, to maneuver our way through them skilfully,  to avoid frustration and disaster and to reach satisfying solutions.

The 5 core concerns are as follows:

  1. Appreciation:  we all have a need to feel acknowledged and appreciated.  Statements like “I like your thinking”; “I see where you’re coming from”; “that’s a great point to make” make us feel valued.  Don’t make the mistake of following these up with “but” if you have another point of view you wish to put forward; try “and” instead and acknowledge that both viewpoints have equal validity.
  2. Affiliation: making someone feel that they don’t belong is certain to trigger strong emotions:  “that’s how WE do things here” is not welcoming to a new team member and does not encourage a sense of belonging.  “We’re used to doing XYZ like this here.  How would you tackle it?” is more likely to draw someone in and give them a sense of being valued.
  3. Autonomy: imposing solutions on people pulls the mat out under them and strips them of their autonomy.  Whatever the issue at hand, we do not like to feel tied and bound to someone else’s dictates.  Be careful not to point that authoritative finger and lay down the law in difficult conversations but instead to invite cooperation, contribution and initiative at all times.
  4. Status:  acknowledging someone’s status, be it their expertise, their life-experience or their social or organizational standing is crucial if you wish to avoid major derailment.  Particular caution is advisable around status issues where cultural differences exist between  parties.
  5. Role: who doesn’t want to feel part of the solution?  Including people by carving out a role for them goes a long way in getting and keeping them on board and in tempering the frustration that comes with being overlooked.  Invite someone’s evaluation, ask for their advice on how to proceed or draw them into the resolution process as brainstormers or planners and in that way make them feel essential to the solution.

So for your next difficult conversation, start with yourself: check what needs to happen and how you need to feel to satisfy these five core concerns – and then as ever, step into your conflict partner’s shoes and apply the same five point check making sure that you think of ways to meet their essential needs for appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status and role.  Then and only then, are you equipped to “keep the lid on” and to reach constructive conflict solutions.

Optimism and pessimism are both natural traits and acquired ways of viewing the world.   While pessimism has its uses and its undeniable place in our lives, a more optimistic approach grounded in reality and not to be confused with the overworked pop-psychology concept of positive thinking, has proven time and again to be the fuel that carries us out of and beyond adversityOptimism correlates to confidence, resilience, hopefulness and a sense of well-being in the face of adversity and is an overlooked secret ingredient of great leadership.

 

Too much pessimism holds us back, keeps us helpless, underlies depression, robs us of tranquillity and peace of mind and stands in the way of a successful life at so many levels.    Enriching and as a result, improving our lives through adopting a more optimistic stance is a matter of practising and developing optimistic habits to balance or replace the gremlins of pessimism that so easily take us hostage.
There are certainly many ways to approach this but these three little exercises are great for taking us out of negative thought patterns and towards a more optimistic outlook on life:

 


1.   
Practise gratitude

Keep a gratitude journal next to your bed or in a desk-drawer and record three to five things daily that you are grateful for.  Set aside a specific time for doing so and ritualise the act in some way: make it the first thing you do in the day as you drink your morning coffee or the last thing before turning in for the night.

 

By nourishing gratitude and developing a sense of abundance we lay down the expectation in our subconscious that good-fortune is what comes our way and as a result, gradually move ourselves towards a less pessimistic mind-set.

 


2.   
Focus on your needs, not your wants

The confusion of our “needs” with our “wants” is responsible for much suffering in our lives.  Knowing that your most essential needs are met and that your emotional needs are not to be satisfied by purchasing still more goods, is key to an optimistic mind-set.

 

For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a developed and peaceful part of the world where our basic human needs for food, water, shelter and security are usually met in abundance, we “need” for very little indeed. And yet, who of us ever ponders on this privilege? Instead, we become slaves to our “wants” and puppets on the end of the advertising industry’s campaign strings.  Throughconfusing our wants with our needs in this way, we end up living life in the wish-list-lane, constantly striving for the next gratification and fuelling only anxiety and depression in the process.

 

Put a few “needs/wants?” post-its around the house, in your wallet or your closet door to remind you when you find yourself “wanting” what you believe you need, that you already have it all and that that is a great reason to celebrate and see that glass as more than half-full.

 


3.   
Practice changing perspective 

When faced with a negative challenge or a piece of downright misfortune ask my personal favourite power-question: “What’s good about it?”  You didn’t get the job you applied for!  “What’s good about it?” Your girlfriend left you! “What’s good about it?” Your project is not the runaway success you thought it would be! “What’s good about it?”

 

This little question is great for turning your downward focus towards a more upbeat point of view and introducing a good dose of optimism into your life.    Your immediate response might well be “nothing’s good about it” but if you stay with the question long enough,  the answers you come up with will certainly surprise you and probably inspire you.

 

So, instead of starting a new job, you might just take that trip you’ve put off doing for years;   the loss of the girlfriend might  be a blessing in disguise and allow you to open your heart to the soul-mate waiting around the corner and the project that has flat-lined could just be the kindest way of telling you to up your game a notch, to get out of a market before it’s too late or to seek new partners for long-term realization of your  goals.

 

Using this great little conflict management tool more often encourages you to look for the opportunity and good fortune in every challenge that comes your way and to seek the potential good that is inherent in every experience.

 

One of the most beautiful haikus I know comes from a 17thC  Japanese samurai and poet Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down – now I can see the moon”  That’s Zen for you.  And optimism!

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