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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.

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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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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.   

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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.

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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.

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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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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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