Posts Tagged ‘mediation’

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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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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Ever found yourself in front of a store in the early weeks of a new year faced with a sign reading: Closed for Stocktaking?  Annoying as it is, part of me admires the process happening behind the locked doors – a kind of counting your chickens and getting your house in order that seems both simple and wholesome and that has in essence, despite today’s electronic scanners, hardly changed over centuries.  The process of stocktaking enables businesses to get more than a general overview of where they stand.  It allows them to see what is good and what is amiss on their shelves or behind their computer screens and on the basis of that, to adjust, correct and fine-tune with a view to optimizing  business in the year ahead.  In short, stocktaking is the essential groundwork for change, for setting goals and for realising potential.

At a personal level, the end of one year and the beginning of the next, offers us all a wonderful opportunity to reassess our values, to look more closely at the problems that beset us and to align the wheels of change for our future growth.  Making personal stocktaking an annual event to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to adjust the path on which you are travelling is a hallmark of mindful living.

From a conflict management point of view, what are the factors involved in personal stocktaking?  The following 10 questions will give you a good idea of how you stand in your management of interpersonal conflict be it in the workplace or in private relationships:


So, instead of the ubiquitous,  off-the-cuff New Year’s Resolutions, why not close for personal stocktaking this year?  Take half a day to assess where you stand as regards conflict management and make whatever adjustments are necessary to ensure that at the end of 2012 you are able to add conflict competence to your list of personal achievements and satisfying personal relationships to your capital gain.  

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Christmas like no other holiday, raises the bar when it comes to expectations.  Unfortunately, it also often ends for so many of us as the season of disappointment and unmet expectations.

Whether it be young children drawing up their wish-lists or adults racing through the retail industry’s tinsel-trends to find the perfect gift for a loved one or the obligatory gift for the not-so-loved, we all buy into the expectation that by jumping onto the Christmas bandwagon we stand in line for peace, harmony, love and good cheer.  How disappointing then when we find ourselves faced with grumpy relatives, bickering children, ungrateful recipients of our bestowals and gifts that are not what we wished for or that don’t have the desired effect.  Little wonder that for conflict practitioners the world over, Christmas is the holiday in which families and relationships experience the highest tensions and conflicts despite (or because of) all of our seasonal expectations to the contrary.

So how do we turn the holiday period around and get our share of good cheer despite such sobering conflict statistics?   How do we manage Christmas so as to come out of it feeling some of the love, peace and harmony? The secret is to give the truly personal gift – the giving of oneself instead of or in addition to the wrapped offering under the tree.  Any or all of the five gifts below will go a long way in making this holiday season wonderful and memorable and in the process, benefit not only the recipient but also the giver:

  1.  Step back and let conflict pass you by this holiday season.   Ask yourself whether the irritations of the day will matter in a week, a month or a year and create distance to the small irritations that so easily trip us up.  If visualisation is your thing, take a bird’s eye view of your festive setting and distance yourself mentally from the conflict encounter.  Take “time-out” in whatever way works for you – it’s often all we need to deal with tricky situations more constructively.  By engaging with conflict you become part of the problem; by stepping back you become part of the solution.
  2. Listen:  there is no greater gift than being well and truly listened to.  If you want to be remembered as someone  special this Christmas  – listen to those around you.  Whether it is your wife complaining that she’s been on her feet all day or your father-in-law discussing the markets, listen consciously, ask questions that show your interest and allow them the space to feel heard and understood.  Deep listening creates an expectation of understanding and a true willingness to reciprocate. In addition, the enormous physiological benefits of feeling listened to,  calms waters and creates natural harmony.
  3. Speak for yourself:  preface your statements by using the “I” word and only speak about how things make you feel.  If you assume to know what the other is thinking or feeling without them telling you so expressly, you’re way off track and heading for trouble.    Make a gift of inviting and opening up discussion by allowing others the space to speak about their own feelings or thoughts and observe how your conversational skills put everyone into a feel-good space.
  4. Change your perspective by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.   Allowing yourself to imagine the unbridled excitement of a child or the exhaustion of a parent takes the edge off any irritation at their behaviour that you might otherwise feel is inappropriate for the season.  Walking in someone else’s shoes is a sure way to soften our expectations and to open the door to compassion.
  5. Give the gifts of acknowledgement and gratitude. Say thank you for all you receive – not only physical gifts but the effort that has gone into preparations, the wonderful meal that has been laid out, the time that has been spent searching for a gift or the effort that someone has taken to be with you on this day.  And remember to say thank you for the gifts of companionship, sharing, support and love that are made to us by our friends and family throughout the year – acknowledging these everyday acts takes your connection to an even deeper level.

And if, despite our best efforts, we do fall prey to holiday conflict, remember the value of a well constructed apology and the power of forgiveness and make this holiday season one in which we surprise ourselves and those around us by meeting their deep-seated needs for connectedness, compassion, understanding and respect in a way that exceeds all expectations.

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I recently heard of a girl whose mother – formerly a highly acclaimed scientist –  suffered from disposophobia, the pathological hoarding syndrome in which the affected compulsively hang onto every little thing that comes into their homes – including the household trash.  Carrying that burden of shame so deeply within her when she was growing up altered the  daughter’s behaviour in ways directly related to the shame that she must have felt living in that highly dysfunctional environment. Her body language and social behaviour said it all: she kept her head down and her eyes downcast, was withdrawn and reserved, always on the edge of playground happenings and yet compliant, willing, quick to return a smile, friendly when called upon but just as ready and able to disappear into the woodwork.  She made no waves and kept herself unobtrusive and low-key, never invited anyone home and was not invited in return and in that way, managed to keep a tight lid on her shameful secret for many years.
“Hot”, “burning”, “dark” and “secret” are adjectives that we commonly attach to the concept of shame.  This opposites of “shame” are “pride”, honour” and “respect”. Shame can be imposed on us through the “shaming environments” that are sometimes part of certain models of upbringing, we can “be shamed” publicly because of our beliefs, religious or political affiliations or we can become contaminated by shame because of early experiences such as those generated in dysfunctional settings like the disposophobia described above, abuse, neglect, abandonment, addictive surroundings to name but a few.

Unlike guilt, shame does not attach to a wrongdoing on our part but to the essence of who we are and in that way, defines and shapes our very identity. Guilt allows us to make a mistake, to admit it, to face the consequences and to move on but for a shamed person who feels not that they’ve made a mistake, but that they themselves are the mistake, there is always a heightened sense of vulnerability and a deep-seated fear of exposure. Coming out is not the answer to the shamed– it’s the problem.

From a conflict practitioner’s point of view, shame is a debilitating emotion, generating feelings of deep embarrassment, inferiority and guilt, forcing sufferers to hide, preventing spontaneity, discouraging intimacy and creating deep-rooted insecurity and loneliness.

Adults shamed as children are often slow to form friendships and are cautious and feel excessively vulnerable in relationships. They can be highly sensitive to criticism or negative feedback all of which play  into their sense of worthlessness.  As a result they might tend to blame others before being blamed themselves or at the other extreme, assume responsibility for whatever goes wrong, feeling constantly guilty. And of course the shamed may also use shaming acts to control others:  bullies have field days on other people’s shame and are highly skilled at sussing out exactly where that vulnerable spot is. From a behavioural point of view, shameful adults may also present with addictive or obsessive compulsive behaviours such as substance abuse, workaholism, shopping addictions, eating disorders or gambling.

Shamed individuals bring with them not only shame and its shadows but often further strong emotions such as anger, rage and depression and this is where shame becomes dangerous both for the individual involved and for their environment.

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When William Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth sleepwalk the dark corridors of Cawdor Castle trying in vain to wash her hands of the bloodstains she imagines she sees there after the murder of Duncan –  that’s guilt.  That cold and dark emotion that gnaws at conscience so relentlessly gradually robs her of her sanity and finally leads to her death.  What Shakespeare so perfectly evokes in Macbeth is the tortuous and consumptive nature of guilt, turning the details of our wrongdoings round and round in our minds, forcing us to revisit the scene of our misdeeds time and again and robbing us of any hope of inner peace.

Guilt is an emotion and a state of being that is as much at home in the fields of psychology and psychiatry as it is in philosophy, in ethical and religious discourse and naturally, in the law.  It ranges in scope from individual or personal guilt to the collective guilt of nations and to social guilt towards generations yet to be born.

From a personal point of view, we have all at some time in our lives experienced guilt – the sick feeling at the pit of the stomach that is evoked when we do something that we later wish we hadn’t – an act which we believe violates a moral framework and causes us to feel regret.

But it is the way in which we choose to respond to guilt that decides its trajectory for our peace of mind.  In the workplace, this choice is of great significance for us as individuals, for colleagues and management and for workplace resources.

There are four common responses to guilt – repression, denial, projection and acknowledgement, each of which brings with it consequences and opportunities for conflict resolution:

  • Repression or the hiding or ignoring of guilt not only prevents the discovery of a wrongful deed but more particularly hinders its resolution and in doing so prolongs the effects of the wrongdoing; repression leads to anxiety, depression and anger for the guilty, to sick-leave, absenteeism, the sabotage of projects or company property and to heightened inefficiency
  • Denial of guilt prolongs the pain and the consequences of the misdeed, creates intrigue and suspicion by necessitating the search for a guilty party, occupies large amounts of work-time in seeking resolution and similarly leads to anxiety and depression and its consequences for the workplace.
  • Projection, a common response to guilt that involves blaming another for one’s own misdeeds goes even further in that it attempts to lay a false trail to another and exculpate the actual culprit from the offending act.  This response fosters destructive behaviour, opens the door to bullying and victimisation, leads to absenteeism, high staff-fluctuation and non-productivity all of which require increased company resources and result in a loss in productivity and in profits.
  • Acknowledgement of guilt enables the wrongdoer to transform the emotion and to constructively approach resolution. Acknowledgement involves the admission of responsibility, the expression of apology and the attempt to restore the status quo ante as far as possible, by facing the consequences and if possible, making good the damage done.    Painful as it is, this act of taking responsibility for one’s actions is the only response that truly breaks the prison of guilt and allows the wrongdoer to regain peace of mind.

The invitation that guilt brings us is to take responsibility for our actions.  As difficult as that may often seem to be, living with guilt is never a happy or an easy alternative.  From a conflict resolution point of view, dealing with guilt responsibly is a sign of emotional intelligence and opens the door not only to new opportunities for creative problem-solving but also to a deepening of self-knowledge and to an increase in self-esteem.

What would have happened had Lady Macbeth acknowledged her guilt?  Would Macbeth still be the quintessential tragedy on greed, power and evil or a great Shakespearean story of human redemption?

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