Posts Tagged ‘conflict resolution skills’

I know a woman who created a winning design label in her cellar at night while navigating the stormy waters of marital disintegration.  She would put the children to bed, clean up and then go downstairs and cut, match, sew and assemble pieces of fabric until the early hours of the morning when she had something to show for her labours and her head was “clear” of the nagging questions and worries that beset her days.  It was when she was focussed on a specific task, working out the practicalities of making a zipper disappear into the folds of a pair of trousers or a dress float like gossamer that her mind would switch off and she could distance herself from the gnawing worries of an unravelling life.  And it was often at the end of a long night of working that bingo! – she had the answer to the next sticky question:   “It would just pop into my head, as though someone was talking to me” she said,   “I had no idea where it came from but it was always surprisingly enough, the best next move for me.”

My personal refuge in such challenging times is generally the kitchen and although I love both cooking and baking, it’s preserving fruits and changing them into jewel-coloured jams and marmalades that is my refuge of choice for truly creative conflict resolution.  The wonderful smells of sugar and fruit marrying to form a heady perfume banish all negative thoughts while the activity of washing, cutting and paring fruit, sterilizing and heating jars,  getting out the sugar thermometer and then watching over the process until the setting point it reached, takes care of the rest.    I take no short-cuts and no recipe is too difficult or time-consuming. I seek to lose myself in jam-making nirvana and yes, in the process of switching off I am always able to let go of the problem that besets me and almost always find solutions popping into my head that I had simply never thought of before.

So what is it about throwing oneself into creativity that fosters great conflict resolution?

  • Psychiatry has long known of the benefits of crafting and creativity on mental health.  World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock were taught to knit and knitting remains one of the most popular therapy crafts used in managing depression today
  • Creativity and crafting switch activity from the left, problem-solving side of the brain to the creative, right-hand side of the brain.  In so doing, the pressure to think is literally taken off the cortex, heart rate, blood-pressure and breathing slow down, the amygdala’s fight or flight response ebbs and we become physically and mentally quiet and peaceful.
  • The often repetitive patterns and the focus on detail required in a lot of crafting activities are deeply calming and require us to be “fully present in the moment” as is the case in practising meditation.  In doing so, we are able to distance ourselves from worries about the future.
  • Crafting is also a source of pleasure that brings with it a sense of accomplishment.   Creating something to share with others heightens this pleasure even more. This activates the pleasure centres in the brain that flood our bloodstream with beta-endorphins, dopamine and all the good vibe chemicals that make us feel great.

So instead of focussing all your mental energy on actively solving problems, try gardening, baking, doing woodwork, putting ships into bottles, sewing, knitting or whatever it is that gets you going creatively.   Reap physical and mental health benefits in abundance and surprise yourself with some of your best decisions yet.


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On one of the first days of 2013, while digging deep into the back corners of my desk-drawers to trawl in the dust-covered odds and ends that had slipped out of my line of vision over the last twelve months, I came across a hand-written quotation given to me by my son on New Year’s day two or three years ago.  It was so much to the point, that I was left wondering why this particular scrap of paper had found its way back into my hands.  As I sat there pondering the significance of my find, I thought of its wider relevance to those of us in interpersonal conflict and decided to pass it on to you with my very best wishes for a wonderful new year.  Here it is:

“We spent January 1st walking through our lives, room by room, cleaning up, a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives not looking for flaws but for potential”   Ellen Goodman

This inspiring quote beautifully describes the process of personal stocktaking that we should all perform at least once a year:    identifying the different rooms of our lives – family, career, friendships, health, education, spirituality, values – and then going through  the list and evaluating where we stand in each of them and recording where improvement or change is necessary.  So far so good but the true inspiration in this moving image of two people wandering through the dusty rooms of their lives together and taking stock lies in the call to redirect our eye to the hidden treasures hidden beneath the debris.   We’re asked to break from the mould and not,  as we often do, to highlight the flaws and defects but to uncover and explore the hidden potential in that which is imperfect in our lives.  Why is something not working? What does this tell us? Where is the lesson we need to learn?  and What is the gift that lies waiting in our imperfection?

Conflict is always a sign of one or more parties seeking change to an aspect of their relationship.   While we willingly acknowledge that there is no growth without pain and that conflict is par for the course in relationships, when we encounter conflict head-on,  we often run and hide or respond inappropriately and in so doing, overlook the wonderful opportunity for growth that it brings.

Instead of avoiding conflict, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away or answering the conflict challenge aggressively and hoping to defeat the other, let us recognise the potential that conflict brings, the chance for a deepening of connection and for personal growth.

As we walk through the rooms of our interpersonal relationships at the beginning of this year, don’t sweep away the conflicts you see lurking in the shadows,  welcome them in as opportunities to create stronger and more meaningful bonds between us all.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Make it timeous

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

2.  Focus on the problem not the person

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

3.  Be Specific

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

4.  Substantiate 

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

5.  Be respectful

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

6.  Take it one step further

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

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

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

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

Conflict Mapping allows you to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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