Posts Tagged ‘conflict patterns’


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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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.) (more…)

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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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When it comes to saving a marriage, forget the great boudoir secrets of the world or all your mother ever told you about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach  –  US marriage guru Dr. John Gottmann predicts the success or downfall of relationships with astonishing 90% accuracy by simply observing couples argue.

How well we fight and how we deal with conflict even at the very early stages of a relationship is apparently the best indicator yet of how likely we are to be together five years down the line.

From his vast collection of empirical data, Gottmann has identified what he calls the  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – four conflict habits that, if allowed to develop, are a sure-fire indicator that you’re on your way to a sorry end sooner rather than later.

1.  Criticism

This is the personality or character-type criticism (not to be confused with constructive criticism) that usually serves to allocate blame and by which we feel fundamentally set upon by our partners.  The usual text begins with generalisations like “you always…”, “you never…”, or specific assertions like “why are you so…?”

2. Defensiveness

This conflict response serves to block off communication, to score against the other through counter-attack or to launch a pre-emptive strike by slipping into the role of the victim.  Typical texts here are “yes, but…”, “its not my fault…its yours”, “I didn’t…you did”.  Out of the victim’s corner one might hear “you’re always picking on me” or “I can’t do anything right”.

3. Contempt

In Gottmann’s view, this is the relationship’s red card and the surest indicator of impending disaster.  Contempt attacks the partner’s sense of self and includes put-down tactics designed to expose or belittle the other, showing one’s superiority, pulling rank, flaunting  status or being openly insulting.  Expressions of contempt include verbal abuse, sarcasm, scorn, humiliation or “jokes” at the other’s expense.

4.  Stonewalling

This conflict response comes in the form of body language:  the partner withdraws from the conflict encounter by turning away physically, avoiding eye contact and withholding the natural signs of communication such as nodding, repeating phrases or words used or making the little noises that indicate that we’re still on track and following the interaction.  It also includes waiting impatiently for the other to get done, walking out on discussions, blanking or ignoring the other, maintaining an icy distance or living in stony silence.

Despite all this bad news, Gottmann points out that the major feature that distinguishes relationship ‘masters’ from relationship ‘disasters’ is their ability to repair the interaction.  This is where apology and forgiveness come into play and where relationships that are based on strong friendship, shared meaning and purpose are more likely to succeed and recover.

So, if you hear the hooves of one of those apocalyptic stallions charging through your living room, be warned.  It might be time to pull out your conflict toolbox and take a good, hard look at its contents and start on the repairs.  Becoming a relationship ‘master’ is hard work but picking up the pieces after the four horsemen have passed through your life, might cost you years.

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For most of us, road rage and similar expressions of over-the-edge anger are something we read or hear about rather than experience ourselves.  That being said, we will all at some stage have encountered our own forms of anger as we raise our children, run families, manage offices, engage workmen or interact with the ever-so-obliging service industry.  And because anger has a way of running away with us, we are usually left wishing that we had managed it better than we did and almost always, that we had not said what we did.

Knowing your own anger triggers, recognizing the first signs of anger rising in you and keeping a few easy anger management tips in mind, is the best way to prepare for dealing with your own anger:

Know your personal warning signs:  Explore the physiological reactions that you experience when anger is on the rise:  constricted throat, sweaty palms, increased pulse, clenched teeth, tension in the stomach, shoulders, neck or hands are all strong indicators that you’re heading for that point of no return.  These are anger’s yellow cards, telling you that you need to go into damage prevention mode. Breathing deeply several times floods the blood with oxygen and slows down the physiological processes involved in becoming angry, thus giving you more time to reflect and retain control of yourself.

Remember, your anger is about you, not about them. Ask yourself what is really fuelling your anger:  identify the vulnerabilities impacted by the conflict encounter. It is not the act of a teenager arriving home well after curfew, an employee delivering careless work, a client pulling out of a contract at the last minute or a missed flight connection due to airline strike but our underlying needs, perceptions and expectations that fuel our anger. Fear of losing control, a challenge to one’s authority, loss of influence or an undermining of one’s power are the true motivators of your conflict behaviour.  Recognizing and exploring our personal fears, needs and perceptions allows us to adjust our expectations of others and tempers our emotional responses accordingly.

Step back:  The first step in any conflict avoidance situation is to step back from the conflict moment and to create distance between yourself and the trigger causing your anger to rise.  Since removing oneself physically is often impossible, it becomes essential to distance oneself mentally.   Imagery, mantras, questions or physical reminders all serve to break the trigger mechanism and control the anger.   Try taking a birds’ eye view of yourself and your conflict partner caught in a verbal struggle and gradually move up and away from the image; ask yourself “how important is this going to be in a week, a month or a year?”;  count to 10 or 100 if that’s as long as you need; repeat a mantra or hum a tune to remind yourself that you are not getting onto that runaway train to Angerville or find a physical intervention such as my mother’s advice to me to “bite your tongue” that if practised,  certainly reminds us painfully to slow down and avoid anger.  Whatever it takes to help you take that step back pays off a hundredfold in allowing you to review the situation and consider your  next move less emotionally.

Find a physical outlet for your anger

Go for a run, a swim or a brisk walk, do yoga, take a dance class or go to the gym before you engage in that challenging conversation.   Physical activity redirects anger’s energy, decreasing the level of adrenaline in the bloodstream and clearing our minds of persistent one-way messages to engage in battle.  The release of endorphins and seretonin while exercising lifts our mood, clears our minds and makes us more amenable.

If you’re wondering what might help you deflect rising anger, watch and enjoy Jack Nicholson as a somewhat scary anger therapist taking a client through his paces in early-morning, rush-hour traffic:

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“It is the long history of humankind (and animalkind too), that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”  Charles Darwin

Collaboration makes my mediator’s and my conflict coach’s heart soar!    Despite all that I’ve said about none of the conflict responses that I’ve discussed here being either good, bad or better than the next, I openly and unashamedly admit to some not insubstantial bias in favour of collaboration.    As far as I’m concerned, it is quite simply the king’s discipline when it comes to conflict resolution and the basis of respectful, constructive, emotionally intelligent and lasting solutions to conflict – be it in the workplace or our homes.

Collaboration or “working together” is the underlying conflict response to win-win situations. It is the opposite of competition and has nothing whatsoever to do with compromise.  It flies in the face of our strongly adversarial approach to legal thinking and practice, to debate and classical discourse and argument.  Collaboration has nothing to do with the right-wrong dichotomy and even less with positional thinking.

Instead, collaboration sees the parties involved in conflict teaming up to resolve the situation together keeping in mind both their and the other’s interests and placing equally high value on both the outcome to the conflict and the relationship. In this way, individuals become partners in conflict rather than opponents; they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their attempts to reach resolution rather than facing each other across a divide, swords drawn and shields raised.    The aim is for both parties to leave the conflict as winners with solutions that meet their individual underlying needs and interests and leave no room for festering resentment, dissatisfaction and the inevitable revisiting of the conflict battlefield further down the line.

Collaboration is principle-based conflict resolution – the principle being the belief that there is enough to go round, that ones own needs are as valuable as those of ones partner in conflict and that only solutions which answer and meet everyone’s needs, are enduring and truly satisfying.  The aim in principle-based conflict resolution is the expansion of the pie through thinking out of the box and creating options and opportunities that were either not there or not recognized before.

This all being said,  when is collaboration the appropriate response to conflict and where does it fall short in doing the optimal job?

Collaboration is appropriate:

  • When long-term relationships are involved such as between families, friends or intimate relationships, teams, groups, business-partners, colleagues or workplace partners
  • When the concerns of both parties are too important to compromise
  • When the relationship between the parties is as important as the conflict
  • When consensual decisions require the commitment of both parties
  • When conflict resolution requires the merging of various perspectives or insights

And inappropriate when:

  • The outcome to the conflict is more important than the relationship between the parties
  • When other conflict responses would lead to better results
  • When time is of the essence, for example, in emergencies
  • When  the skills required for collaboration are lacking in the parties

In conclusion, collaboration is what makes teams great, leaders visionary, businesses revolutionary and families memorable and it starts from the realisation that we are not alone – that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that if we acknowledge our individual strengths while bearing in mind our inter-connectedness, we can create gratifying and lasting solutions to whatever problems we encounter.

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Thinking back to my childhood and my early experiences of conflict resolution, the response I most associate with this time of life is without a doubt,  compromise:  “Stop fighting and share!” was the plea for playroom harmony, the consequence of which meant that I had to make do with half – half of the doll’s house furniture, half of the plasticine or half of the crayons when what I really  wanted was the whole damn lot, so that I could live out the imaginative potential that those objects held for me.   Sharing down the middle  reduced the magic, the creative buzz lost its zing, my friend wasn’t my friend anymore and I was left with a latent aversion to the well-meant admonishment to “share nicely!” which I can only admit to now, many years later.

Don’t get me wrong – I had no problem sharing  sweets, toys that were in abundance or that in which I had no particular vested interest  but things that held special meaning to me or which I (or my sibling or friend) had an emotional attachment to were indeed a problem.

When it comes to creating fair factual solutions such as dividing goods or allocating time-slots compromise is great but on issues close to one’s heart or in matters affecting ongoing relationships, compromise introduces something that allows dissatisfaction and resentment to rise and linger and leaves one with memories that smack of regret.

If what looks good on paper does not meet the emotional or behavioural needs of ongoing relationships, compromise often results in both parties feeling short-changed and aggrieved and only serves to increase rather than reduce conflict potential.

Compromise is therefore appropriate:

  • When a quick or temporary resolution is sought
  • As a back-up to other conflict resolution modes such as competition or collaboration
  • When the parties are equally powerful and equally committed to opposing views
  • When “splitting the difference” is better than getting nothing at all
  • When the parties “agree to disagree” and to live with the decision
  • When the outcome to the parties is of moderate significance only

And inappropriate:

For conflict theorists compromise is a win-lose situation – one in which both parties get something but not all of what they want.  Being able to hold this middle-ground implies  a certain tension – and therein lies the groundwork for festering ill feelings and dissatisfaction which have the potential to surface as conflict sooner rather than later.

In the words of Calvin and Hobbs ,  “A good compromise leaves everybody mad”. And for Calvin, one that requires relinquishing a favourite marble or a treasured fishing-fly definitely would: certain things in life just cannot be compromised!

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