Archive for the ‘Conflict Tools’ Category

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.


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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.

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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:


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.


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.


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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Don’t you just love the eternal optimists, hell-bent at making you see the bright side of things when all you want is a willing ear and good old moan?  And yet, they have a point that makes a lot of sense:  conflict research agrees that optimists fare a lot better than pessimists when it comes to coping with conflict.  (more…)

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“What would you say your strengths are and where do you see your weaknesses?”  is a daunting question for most young job interviewees today.   But employers and HR professionals regularly require potential candidates to present well-considered answers to these and similar questions if they are to face down stiff competition and secure sought-after positions.  Apart from disclosing personal Strengths and Weaknesses, job seekers might also be asked to give a break-down of the Opportunities they see in a position as well as any potential Threats to their executing it and how they intend to overcome them.

These four elements, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats make up the acronym SWOT and describe a  change-management tool of the 1950’s and 60’s that has been developed into an easy-to-use instrument for assessing the pros and cons of new or challenging management situations. 


But SWOT analyses are just as valuable to conflict management practitioners and to individuals involved in interpersonal conflict as they are to management and HR executives .  Apart from the obvious application in assessing  concrete conflict situations, SWOT  is  a wonderful tool for understanding and delving deeper into one’s own conflict profile or helping clients better to understand theirs.

To do a SWOT analysis, divide a page into four equal parts.  Head each part as follows:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and ask yourself the following questions:


  • What am I particularly good at in conflict situations?
  • What skills do I have that support me in times of conflict?
  • What can I rely on about myself in conflict encounters?
  • What do I do best in conflict?

Strengths here would include skills such as listening skills, thinking on one’s feet, staying calm, keeping a cool head, having a great sense of humour, not taking things personally, being able to focus or  having good communicative skills.


  • What trips me up time and again in conflict encounters?
  • Which conflict behaviours have I most regretted in the past?
  • What triggers the “worst” in me?
  • Where do I feel most vulnerable in conflict?

Weaknesses might include traits and habits such as short temperedness, a tendency to over-react, a tendency towards emotional flooding, feeling personally attacked or speaking first and thinking later.


Here answers could include insights such as:  conflict is the opportunity to clear the air, to re-boot a relationship, to make one’s needs known, to lay down or define boundaries, to explore new directions and to bring about change.


  • What threatens a positive outcome to conflict?
  • What might cause a conflict encounter to fail?
  • What would make engaging in conflict futile?
  • What outcome would I want to avoid?

Threats might include the risk that one manages the conflict situation poorly, that the encounter does not achieve the desired results,  that the other party is not willing to resolve, that relationships are damaged or that situations worsen through engaging in conflict.

Using a SWOT assessment in this way not only reveals our desires and fears surrounding conflict but more importantly, uncovers the areas in which we are lacking essential skills in dealing with conflict.  And with self-knowledge as ever the starting point for conflict competence, such assessment can then be followed by focussed training and application to close these gaps in our conflict capabilities and provide us or the client with an invaluable resource when it comes to conflict management.

In concrete conflict situations, a SWOT analysis can help one  prepare for difficult conversations and  take precautions to avoid pitfalls of one’s own making.  It can also highlight one’s strengths and allow one to play these to one’s advantage.  If I for example know that I have a great sense of humour, I can use this to deflect tension and improve communication.  If on the other hand I know that my weakness is a tendency to take things personally, I can be on my guard for this response, watch out for the warning signs and step back well in time from situations that would otherwise cause me to react blindly and to my disadvantage.

The question I always like best is  the one about the opportunities in conflict:  this is where we are often most surprised by what a simple SWOT analysis can reveal about some of our deepest fears and needs surrounding conflict:  the desire to maintain or to re-establish relationships, to find our needs understood and answered and to improve communication.     Isn’t that what conflict competence is all about?

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Feedback is one of those words that mean different things to different people.  Personally, I have on more than one occasion been at the receiving end of an unsolicited “May I give you some feedback?” only to find that it served as the opening gambit to a volley of finger-pointing and blame-laying without even a smidgen of remorse.  On the contrary – the recipient of such well-meant service to one’s person is meant to show gratitude and willingness to reform!    Little wonder then that to many who have experienced this type of misunderstood “feedback”, the word smacks of “heartburn”, something with a “bad aftertaste” or the kind of “static buzz” that you get when you try to tune into a short-wave radio station.

And yet feedback not only has its place amongst the best management tools, it is in fact one of the most basic of them and if understood and judiciously used, a brilliant instrument for managing potential conflict and supporting constructive change and growth.

So what is it about feedback that makes it so tricky? And how do we give good and effective  feedback?

1.  Make it timeous

It is often said that feedback should be immediate.  I prefer to temper this by saying that it should be at an appropriate time and as close as is realistically possible to the event that gives rise to its necessity.   This means that matters that need addressing should not be pushed around until someone explodes or stored away until the next best public occasion for a dressing-down.  This avoids the “Why didn’t you tell me that ages ago?” when an event that is weeks or even months old is suddenly tabled.

2.  Focus on the problem not the person

Address the behaviour or problem that has given rise to a need for feedback,  instead of an aspect of the person’s personality that you may consider is obviously to blame:  “Your laziness is costing us real money”  is different to saying “Late deliveries coming out of the depot are causing our clients to go elsewhere and making us lose money.

3.  Be Specific

Address one or two issues only rather than a “laundry list” of complaints.  Having a bucket of one’s misdeeds turned out over one’s head is not very encouraging when it comes to righting a current wrong.  Neither do generalizations make managing the situation any easier.  As in the case of our delivery agent above:  “losing clients” and “losing money” are too general.  Specifying the problem on the other hand would sound something like:  “ABC Books have given notice on their contract because they’ve received their order late three times in the last six weeks. That means we’re losing US$10.000,00 a month.”  Now the agent knows and understands what you’re upset about.    Specificity identifies and frames the issue clearly and allows the person receiving the feedback to focus his/her energy on addressing that particular problem.  Laundry lists and generalizations on the other hand are overwhelming, confusing and daunting in scope and serve instead to leave recipients of this type of feedback on the defensive.

4.  Substantiate 

Explain what it is about the behaviour that is problematic.  In this way the other is able to understand the problematic consequences of a situation instead of simply receiving a blanket complaint.  “When you’re late home after work, I have to start doing the things with the kids that you’re actually responsible for.  That means that I often don’t get out to the gym and can’t keep up with my weight-loss programme” There is no misunderstanding here as regards what the partner doing more than his/her fair share of housework is upset about

5.  Be respectful

Asking “May I give you some feedback?” should not be the opener to an unkind dusting-down but truly an act of respect.  The same also applies to choosing the venue and the appropriate time for feedback, to ensuring that feedback cannot be taken personally and to explaining the reasoning behind the feedback

6.  Take it one step further

Ask how you can support the recipient of feedback.  Whether in developing a plan of action, allowing time for reflection, offering to brainstorm with them or pointing them in the direction of secondary sources of help turns words into actions and sets the recipient of feedback on track to initiate change.

Like so many things in life, the feedback rule is simple:  give feedback as you would like to receive it – in the right place, at the right time, politely, kindly and constructively.  Everything else causes heartburn.

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Driving across the snow-clad Alps more than twenty years ago (in an age that pre-dates voice-driven navigation systems), I remember winding down the car window and flinging the AA Road Atlas out into the dark ravines below frustrated as I was at my inability to make head or tail of the map.    Strangely enough, despite sharing most of my journeys today with TomTom, my physical map-reading skills have since improved and I am easily able to find my way with the aid of a paper-map when electronic aids fail – as they will ever so often do – a perplexing counter-evolutionary skill acquisition probably based on our knowledge that technology has a way of failing when we need it most.

Like good map-reading skills, Conflict Mapping is one of those great tools that bring clarity and structure to a conflict situation and help us to navigate the choppy waters of conflict encounters constructively, efficiently and with more control. 

Conflict Mapping allows you to

  • determine the parties to a conflict
  • uncover conflict motivators
  • identify obstacles to resolution,  and
  • plan strategies for constructive and sound solutions

Conflict theorists have long used this tool as a way of understanding conflict and there are several mapping models available, many of which are quite daunting in scope for personal use.   My favourite and one that I have referred to often particularly in mediation settings is that developed by Helena Cornelius and Shoshana Faire of the Conflict Resolution Network.   It’s quick and easy to use and does the job brilliantly:

Draw a circle in the centre of a page and as many lines (in sunbeam-fashion) to the outer edge of the page so that a separate space is created for each of the parties to a conflict.  In the circle, write THE ISSUE: Then in each of the separate spaces created by drawing the sunbeams write below each other WHO:, NEEDS: and FEARS:  This is where you fill in the name of each party to the conflict and list his/her needs and fears surrounding the conflict.

As regards the ISSUE:  This is the topic that requires resolution, the naming of the problem.  Keep your definition of it open-ended and free of any ideas of how the conflict should be solved.  So for example, a disagreement between a couple about the venue for a holiday would be entitled „Holiday Destination“ and not „Jim’s stubbornness“ or “Summer with Ann’s friends”

As regards WHO:  this can be either individuals or a group of persons if their position regarding a conflict is homogeonous and they speak with one voice.  In a neighbourhood dispute this could be individual neighbours or the joined residents of a particular street or area.

As regards:  NEEDS:    Unmet or contested needs are the real drivers of conflict. These could be something that the parties want, it could be interests or values that they feel require protection.  Needs are best uncovered by asking questions like „What needs of yours are at stake here?“ or “What needs will be met by resolving this problem?“  Often parties will in reply digress into suggesting solutions.  Bring them back as often as necessary by asking them „What needs would this solution meet?“ or „How would this benefit you?) until you have clearly identified the needs at the root of the conflict.

As regards FEARS:  these are the underlying forces that prevent resolution and keep parties stuck in conflict.  They often remain undisclosed even when parties discuss needs because we perceive them as vulnerabilities that we prefer to keep private.  „What are your concerns around this topic?“ or „What would be the worst outcome for you if you did not resolve this matter?“  brings a party closer to uncovering those underlying fears and makes it easier to formulate what the underlying barriers to resolution are.

Conflict mapping is best done with all the parties to a conflict present but can also help an individual work out the probable or likely position of parties to a conflict in preparation for a meeting or discussion on the topic.  Take time to formulate the topic and work through the needs and fears of the parties one at a time and completely before moving onto the next.

Good traffic navigation gets you from A to B in as short a time possible, avoiding peak-hour bottlenecks and  roadblocks while saving fuel and wear and tear on your vehicle. In much the same way, conflict mapping helps you to navigate difficult conflict issuess, saving time, nerves and relationships while allowing you to reach your goals efficiently, smoothly and as constructively as possible.

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