Posts Tagged ‘conflict managment’


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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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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Sharing my life with Apollo, a castrated Parson Russell terrier, I know all about defensiveness.   Funny, cheerful and easy-going as he is, he can turn into a short-tempered piece of trouble if big dogs spend too much time sniffing his nether regions.    This is because as a castrate, he gives off a confusing scent to non-neutered male dogs who tend to sniff him longer than usual trying to work out whether he’s female or not.

Defensiveness is defined in conflict literature as a reaction to a real or imagined threat or attack to one’s sense of wellbeing or self-esteem.  Such threats or attacks generally focus on matters of honour, virtue, reputation or integrity and are always an indicator of deep-seated vulnerabilities that we are at pains to protect.

In the case of Apollo, the prolonged interest in what lies below his tail raises his fear that the attention he is receiving is going to lead to an act of dominance on the part of the other dog.   And being the terrier that he is, he’s not going to let that happen in a hurry and protects himself by attacking first.  The other dog, taken aback by this defensive blow out of the blue particularly from someone who barely reaches his kneecaps, usually beats a hasty retreat.  In Apollo’s case, the act of sniffing (the trigger) is in itself harmless dog-talk, but a terrier’s reluctance to be dominated (his vulnerability) is the underlying sensibility that gives rise to the unmeasured defensive behaviour.

Not unlike our friends in the animal world,  we bluff, growl, ignore and deny  in order to protect deep-seated vulnerabilities which we feel are under attack.   Our defensive responses are similarly less about the object of our rebuttal than about the underlying value that we seek to defend.    What  “I didn’t take the money” really says,  is “I’m an honest person”,  what “I didn’t leave my child alone in the car” says,  is “I’m a responsible parent” and what “I didn’t say that about you” says, is “I’m a good friend”.

So, what are our most common defensive responses, how do they impact a conflict situation and how best do we deal with defensiveness?

Defensive responses fall into 5 main categories:

  1. Denial.  “I didn’t do it.”
  2. Blame.  “It’s not my fault.  You should have….”
  3. Justification.  “I only did it because…”
  4. Deflection.  “What’s the big deal? Everyone does it.  Why are you picking on me?”
  5. Withdrawal.  This includes blanking, ignoring and other forms of shutting down communication.

Defensiveness impacts conflict interactions by:

  1. creating smoke screens and confusion around the real issues at stake
  2. increasing the surface area of the conflict by introducing a further (hidden) element into the conflict discourse
  3. hijacking the communication process
  4. encouraging the conflict partner to become defensive in turn
  5. keeping us from taking responsibility in conflict

Dealing with defensiveness:

Declaratory statements such as “You’re being defensive” are only likely to illicit a  “No, I’m not” in reply followed by more defensive toing and froing and an escalation of the conflict discourse. This is not the way to go.

A three-step approach is more likely to counter defensive feelings effectively:

  1. adopt a curious state of mind at the first signs of defensiveness
  2. ask yourself what vulnerability is under threat in this conflict encounter
  3. attempt to address the vulnerability empathetically

“I know you’re a good friend and that’s why I’m surprised to hear that you said that about me. ” is much more likely to expand communication and allow the real issue to surface than an exchange based on the back-and-forth of accusation and denial.

And,  if the key to breaking through defensiveness lies in uncovering the root of the other’s defensive response, then the best way to do this is to start with ourselves:  taking responsibility for our own defensiveness, identifying the defensive behaviours that we most commonly resort to and exploring the vulnerabilities that we protect by responding defensively is the best way  to understand defensiveness in others.  As ever, walking in the other’s shoes (or in the case of Apollo walking on his paws), is the master-class in perspective-shifting and the most fundamental tool for constructive conflict resolution.

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