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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.  Continue Reading »

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Walking my dog through the woods on a glorious Indian Summer morning, I feel a blister developing on my left heel.  Little wonder:  I’m wearing regular boots – not walking shoes and because it’s not yet winter, I’m wearing them without stockings.   I’m halfway through my walk and have at least 3kms back home.

At first I’m just irritated by it and admonish myself for not dressing appropriately but the pain is low-grade and I muster all of my coaching skills to walk myself through it:  I focus on my long-term goals: what I’m going to do when I’m back home and what my planning for the rest of the week looks like; I mentally structure my walk by breaking it down into chunks, marked by the trees and the path I know so well and in that way make the distance before me seem less daunting and more manageable and,  I distract myself by looking out for mushrooms and birds to while away the time and take my mind off my foot.

But as is the nature of blisters, they seldom just disappear and the problem on my heel won’t be ignored.   Within a short time it has developed into a major pain and I am forced to think seriously about how I’m going to make it back.

When I finally do, I am struck by the similarity between my blister and our inherent reluctance to acknowledge conflict and deal with it timeously.  In fact, my experience with the blister tallies almost perfectly with the phases that we go through in dealing with conflict:

  1. Ignore the problem.  (I feel that something is amiss.  I identify what the problem is but tell myself that this can’t be happening halfway through my walk. Denial.) Continue Reading »

I recently listened in on a discussion on the merits of opposing political systems between two people very dear to me.  Each stated his position, defended it and described what was bad about the other’s preferred system and why his own preference was superior.  The other then did the same: positioning, defending, disassembling and re-stating the original position in ping-pong fashion until it was clear that they were going nowhere.

Suddenly, one of them interrupted the other just as his position was being proved lacking for the umpteenth time with a little question that knocked my socks off:   “What’s good about it?” (“it” being his preferred political system currently under attack). The person asking the question was my 20-year-old son.  Both as a mother and a conflict resolutionist, I was impressed by the tool he had instinctively chosen to turn a conversation that was heading for the sticky wasteland of intractable positioning into an opportunity for expanding viewpoints and finding common ground.  A short while later I found them both taking an amicable refreshment break in the kitchen.  They continued their discussion and in the end were both happy with the outcome describing it as constructive, informative and “adult”.

Lying awake in bed a few nights later with the usual line-up of problems robbing me of sleep, “what’s good about it?” popped into my mind.  I started applying the question to each of the persistent problems that haunt those gloomy hours and the result was amazing – eyes shut and stretched out in the dark, I found new and positive angles to my old problems and within no time was relaxed and off and into a deep sleep once again.  Since then, I have applied it in my coaching practice and have received a similarly grateful response from clients who were amazed at the power it holds to change our hitherto held take on things.

So, what’s the secret of this little question and how does it turn the tide on a conflict experience?

1.  Fight or Flight Response

The anxiety and fear surrounding conflict, the horror scenarios of how everything is going to go belly-up are all outgrowths of our fight or flight response, that millisecond answer to conflict that the amygdala holds ready for us.   These doomsday visions shut down creative thought around conflict and stand in the way of constructive conflict resolution.

“What’s good about it?” takes us out of the automatic pilot mode of doom and destruction and shuts down the knee-jerk amygdala-driven response of fight or flight.

Instead, it takes us by the hand and leads us to that part of the brain responsible for logic and reason, for creativity and new ideas bringing with it a wealth of physical benefits including lowering of blood pressure and heart beat as well as the release of chemicals into the bloodstream responsible for positive emotions.

2.  Perspective

“What’s good about it?” is a call for a change of perspective around a problem.  Particularly in the case of stubborn or recurrent conflict,  negative thought patterns and conflict narratives become firmly entrenched in our minds preventing us from entertaining alternative outcomes or viewpoints. In this state “nothing good about conflict” becomes our mantra.

The invitation to search for the positive contained in this little question therefore comes as a surprise and following it forces us into a perspective-shift on established thought-patterns.  It takes us out of our dark tunnel-view of conflict and onto wider plains where we are invited to see and discover new aspects of a problem from different vantage points.

3.  Creativity

“What’s good about it?” is nothing other than the essence of the brainstorming exercises that fill flip charts and whiteboards across the planet millions of times a week in an attempt at finding new answers to old problems.  It introduces creativity to problem-solving by challenging us to break out of old thought patterns and entertain new.

To get to the “good” about something that we perceive as “bad” requires quite a stretch of the imagination and this is where creativity comes in.  We’re invited to think differently, to believe everything is possible, to dream big and to entertain the hitherto inconceivable. Simply posing the question as you ponder a problem lifts the spirits, widens the gaze and introduces an element of playfulness and pleasure to the challenge of facing conflict. It makes you shake your head, sit up straight and put on a different thinking-hat.

4.  Optimism

In Learned Optimism: How to change your Mind and your Life, Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of  positive psychology claims that contrary to common belief, we’re not born either optimists or pessimists and that optimism can be learned.  In the process of proving his theory, he shows in scientific studies that optimists are healthier, happier and more successful because of how they think about what happens in their lives.  “What’s good about it?” is a question that could be almost tailor-made to suit Seligman’s theory – hence, a tool of choice for the optimist.

So, no more counting sheep and no more pacing the floorboards when you lie awake in the wee hours visiting and re-visiting the same problems:  instead, ask yourself “what’s good about it?”,  indulge yourself in the unexpected pleasure of creative conflict resolution and enjoy your best and most restful night’s sleep ever.

“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:

Strengths:

  • 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.

Weaknessess:

  • 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.

Opportunities:

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.

Threats:

  • 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?

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.

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.

Corporate conflict management employs a wealth of tools and instruments to assess and analyse conflict, to support decision-making processes and to engineer change.  These grids, charts, flows and spreads all named after their various creators (and often franchised by them) promise a wealth of revelatory data on everything from leadership styles to risk assessment, strategic thinking and creativity and are state of the art  for corporate clients today who expect value for money and ROI.

Many of these instruments are unaffordable for private conflict management use but just as many of them are free so that there is no reason why such tools or the idea of using such instruments of assessment should remain the privilege of corporate clients only.    The best of these tools are those that require nothing more than your imagination and pen and paper to jot down the great ideas they generate.

One of my favourites  stems from the father of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono and is his Six Thinking Hats tool:  easy, creative and playful on the surface and yet once you know how, a wonderfully accessible instrument for breaking out of our habitual thinking patterns, gaining a more complete picture of a problem and uncovering aspects and options which would not otherwise have been apparent.   It is a great exercise in perspective-taking that works just as well for problems involving a number of stakeholders as for individuals tackling challenging problems alone.

The tool is based on six different (metaphorical) coloured hats, each standing for a different mode of thinking.  Imagine them however you like – from pointed wizards hats to baseball caps – whatever you feel most powerful in! The idea is that while wearing one of the hats, you think only in that mode.  Once all the possible information is gathered in that thinking particular mode, you remove the hat, put on the next and start the process again until you have as thorough and full a picture as possible.  The colour and thinking modes are as follows:

  1. White:   purely factual information
  2. Red:   emotion, gut reaction and instinct
  3. Black:   negative, pessimistic thinking
  4. Yellow:   positive, optimistic thinking
  5. Green:   unleashed creativity
  6. Blue:   process control (applicable to facilitators or chairs when working with groups)

So for example, the White Hat collects all the necessary information to a problem, identifies what information is available, what is missing and what is still needed.  The Red Hat then invites pure gut reaction to step in and invites the parties to explore how they feel, what they fear and how they are reacting to a situation.  The Black Hat provides negative thinking around the problem allowing for the more conservative perspective, warning of possible weaknesses in the plan or of short-cuts and potential dangers that could lead to disaster.  The Yellow Hat then steps up with the best-case scenario – what if we’re in luck, what if everything turns out well, what if things go our way?  The Green Hat then pulls out all the creative stops and imagines how the edges could be smoothed and the difficulties overcome, the gaps closed and the worst and best-case scenarios provided for.  The Blue Hat manages the process in a group situation.  In an individual situation, it can step in as a balancing force and return you to one or other hat to dig deeper or explore further.

What a great way of thinking!  Imagine the wealth of information you’d collect even in small-scale problems.  Practising the Six Hat tool regularly also attunes you to your inner voice allowing you to realise at any given time, which hat you’re wearing, which thinking mode you’re in and what aspects of a problem are yet to be explored for a solution to really be constructive and complete.

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