Posts Tagged ‘perspective’

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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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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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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Corporate conflict management employs a wealth of tools and instruments to assess and analyse conflict, to support decision-making processes and to engineer change.  These grids, charts, flows and spreads all named after their various creators (and often franchised by them) promise a wealth of revelatory data on everything from leadership styles to risk assessment, strategic thinking and creativity and are state of the art  for corporate clients today who expect value for money and ROI.

Many of these instruments are unaffordable for private conflict management use but just as many of them are free so that there is no reason why such tools or the idea of using such instruments of assessment should remain the privilege of corporate clients only.    The best of these tools are those that require nothing more than your imagination and pen and paper to jot down the great ideas they generate.

One of my favourites  stems from the father of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono and is his Six Thinking Hats tool:  easy, creative and playful on the surface and yet once you know how, a wonderfully accessible instrument for breaking out of our habitual thinking patterns, gaining a more complete picture of a problem and uncovering aspects and options which would not otherwise have been apparent.   It is a great exercise in perspective-taking that works just as well for problems involving a number of stakeholders as for individuals tackling challenging problems alone.

The tool is based on six different (metaphorical) coloured hats, each standing for a different mode of thinking.  Imagine them however you like – from pointed wizards hats to baseball caps – whatever you feel most powerful in! The idea is that while wearing one of the hats, you think only in that mode.  Once all the possible information is gathered in that thinking particular mode, you remove the hat, put on the next and start the process again until you have as thorough and full a picture as possible.  The colour and thinking modes are as follows:

  1. White:   purely factual information
  2. Red:   emotion, gut reaction and instinct
  3. Black:   negative, pessimistic thinking
  4. Yellow:   positive, optimistic thinking
  5. Green:   unleashed creativity
  6. Blue:   process control (applicable to facilitators or chairs when working with groups)

So for example, the White Hat collects all the necessary information to a problem, identifies what information is available, what is missing and what is still needed.  The Red Hat then invites pure gut reaction to step in and invites the parties to explore how they feel, what they fear and how they are reacting to a situation.  The Black Hat provides negative thinking around the problem allowing for the more conservative perspective, warning of possible weaknesses in the plan or of short-cuts and potential dangers that could lead to disaster.  The Yellow Hat then steps up with the best-case scenario – what if we’re in luck, what if everything turns out well, what if things go our way?  The Green Hat then pulls out all the creative stops and imagines how the edges could be smoothed and the difficulties overcome, the gaps closed and the worst and best-case scenarios provided for.  The Blue Hat manages the process in a group situation.  In an individual situation, it can step in as a balancing force and return you to one or other hat to dig deeper or explore further.

What a great way of thinking!  Imagine the wealth of information you’d collect even in small-scale problems.  Practising the Six Hat tool regularly also attunes you to your inner voice allowing you to realise at any given time, which hat you’re wearing, which thinking mode you’re in and what aspects of a problem are yet to be explored for a solution to really be constructive and complete.

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Parents of teenagers who are dealt a cursory “whatever” in reply to a request or a reprimand (accompanied usually by your teen leaving the room in a huff), will know what stonewalling is.  In the workplace, unreturned phone-calls, unanswered emails or communications that mysteriously never reach their designation are further examples of this challenging conflict response.

A metaphor for a wilful shutting down or sabotaging of communications, the term “stonewalling” is perfectly descriptive of what happens when one party decides to stop interacting with another.  It is a communication inhibitor equivalent to someone building a wall of stone around themselves or between themselves and their partner.   For interpersonal dealings, this is the equivalent of the go-slow,  strike and   lock-out tactics of industrial action all rolled into one.

Stonewalling presents most commonly either as a form of conflict avoidance or a tactical ploy used to gain a desired advantage.  In personal relationships, men have a greater tendency to stonewall or withdraw either as a flight-response to conflict or to escape perceived nagging or their partner’s need to “talk things through”.   When women stonewall in relationships however, it is considered to be more damaging and indicative of relationship breakdown.   Within the workplace, stonewalling is often an expression of power or an indicator of undisclosed misbehaviour.

Why stonewall?

  • to prevent the aggravation of a situation
  • to prevent disclosure of information
  • to control the conduct of a situation
  • to obstruct a process or development
  • fear of conflict
  • lack of conflict communication skills
  • an expression of disdain or indifference
  • an expression of personal power

Examples of stonewalling range from refusing to continue a conversation to being obviously “absent” or disengaging during a communication, changing the subject to avoid a specific topic, evasiveness or excessive vagueness in responding, constantly raising the bar as regards further information/action required before progress is possible, physically leaving the field of interaction or giving someone the silent treatment and refusing to talk or communicate for days on end and not replying to formal attempts at communication as is the case with phone calls, letters or emails.

To be at the receiving end of stonewalling is to experience frustration, disrespect, humiliation, confusion, aggression and provocation.  Since constructive communication thrives on engagement between parties, stonewalling is its very antithesis.  It fosters mistrust by stopping the flow of information that we require for the settling of disputes and keeping us in the dark as regards the other’s intentions.  Used constantly, stonewalling is a strong indicator of a relationship in demise and is understandably the final horse in John Gottmann’s Apocalyptic Four.

Despite this poor prognosis, how best do we deal with stonewalling and how do we respond to it constructively?

  • don’t shout, don’t pursue and don’t focus on the stonewalling as the issue
  • step back, take time out and allow your emotions to settle
  • try to see the situation from the point of view of the stonewaller:  what is it he/she is protecting, is fearful of, is afraid of disclosing or is trying to avoid?
  • return to the topic constructively bearing in mind the vulnerabilities of the stonewaller; if possible build him a bridge to make communication easier
  • in a workplace situation, go over the head of the stonewaller and seek a response at a higher level or get another party involved to whom the stonewaller is more likely to respond

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I often think of a little girl who spent just a term at the boarding-school I attended while her parents travelled abroad (in the days when “travelling” was not last-minute and low-cost  but an investment and an experience to be savoured).   She was small, robust and boisterous, was immune to reprimand and,  Pippi longstocking-like,  seemed never to have heard of rules or discipline.   But more than her feisty spirit, I remember her deep and effervescent laugh and the way it bounced off walls and infected everyone around her, adults and children alike.

Whether she was pulled up short for misbehaviour, admonished for not doing homework or required to keep silence, she simply laughed out loud and in that vibrant moment, diffused trouble in the nicest and most magical way possible and gave everyone’s feel-good factor a tremendous boost.  In retrospect, an amazing display of what is increasingly recognized today as a powerful and effective tool of conflict resolution.

The physiological benefits of humour and laughter are scientifically well documented and include:

  • muscle relaxation
  • lowering of blood pressure
  • strengthening of the immune system
  • pain reduction
  • improved oxygen flow to the brain
  • decrease in the production of stress hormones

In short, humour fully reverses the body’s chemical and physical responses to conflict.  In addition it brings about:

  • a lifting of mood and boosting of spirit through the release of endorphins
  • a sense of connection at a deeper level between parties in conflict
  • a change in perspective allowing for a more playful point of view
  • a drop in defensiveness
  • a shift in focus away from conflict and towards resolution
  • the generation of goodwill and positive emotions that increase the readiness to cooperate constructively

But be warned: what has me rolling on the floor, need not necessarily amuse my neighbour.  To avoid humour backfiring, it needs to be well-timed, appropriate, culturally relevant and understood.   Taking a dig or making a jibe at someone else’s expense is not humour and is guaranteed to escalate rather than to decrease conflict.

As a rule of thumb, topics such as age, sexual orientation, physical appearance, culture, politics and religion are taboo and will only serve to alienate and increase hostility.  Apart from the appropriateness or type of humour, the efficacy of this conflict resolution tool further depends on the seriousness of the conflict and the power relationship between the parties.

We laugh progressively less as we age, but the opportunity of exploring a conflict resolution tool that is second nature to us and has enormous physical and emotional benefits in addition to furthering intelligent conflict management,  perhaps explains the worldwide growth in recent years of laughter yoga, laughter clubs and the success of organisations such as Clowns without Borders.  Apart from keeping us healthy, laughter and humour unite, heal wounds, build bridges and resolve conflict.

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I love a good story and there is no one I know who doesn’t.    This is because we as human beings, have since time immemorial been accustomed to hearing and to telling stories, to receiving information in narrative form and to making sense of it.  Narration is quite simply second nature to us and arrives on our doorstep almost hand in hand with speech and the ability to communicate.

The best storytellers are gifted weavers of magic who ignite our imagination through the creation of intriguing characters, complex plots and challenging moral issues.  And yet, it is not only storytellers who tell good tales, we tell them too:  packing everything from our life-journey down to the smallest daily interaction worth relating into narrative form as a way of transmitting it to others, of making sense of it to ourselves and of preserving it as part of our personal history.

We are in short, the best storytellers of our own lives and consequently the best storytellers of our own lives’ conflicts since conflict after all is the magic ingredient that makes stories come to life.

There is however a danger to this natural storytelling ability of ours:  as is the case with many an ancient tale passed down through the centuries, the lines between truth and fantasy easily blur in the re-telling and before we know it,  fiction acquires the status and the weight of truth and history.  The more we tell our conflict story, the more we believe our particular version of events and the more written in stone the villains and the innocents of the piece become.

In searching for ways out of this narrative trap comes one form of modern fictional writing that warrants closer examination –  that of telling a single story from multiple viewpoints.  As each of the characters in this narrative form tells his or her version of an event, a rich matrix of interweaving experiences, unexpected responses and differing outcomes presents itself to the reader.

From a conflict resolution point of view,  this form of narrative exploration of a conflict situation is a goldmine of knowledge for both the practitioner and client.  Inviting the client to retell a conflict narrative from the point of view of each of the characters in the cast  allows them

  • to define the conflict for each of the parties
  • to uncover an individual’s true interests and concerns
  • to explore one’s own wishes and fears as well as those of  the others involved and
  • to develop a larger number of viable alternatives to solving a problem   

In  coaching or mediation settings this narrative tool allows clients to examine the likely stories of all of the actors to a conflict rather than simply their own.  In this way storytelling reveals itself as untapped resource for creating understanding for the other side as well as an easy-to-use instrument for generating creative solutions.

As individuals we are invited to take this wonderful storytelling skill of ours seriously as we engage in the telling and re-telling of our own conflict yarns.  So, the next time you find yourself relating a conflict narrative old or new, step back for a moment and try telling it from the point of view of the other party to the drama.  You might be surprised to find the supposed villains of your piece portrayed as misunderstood knights or damsels in distress in their own version of events and furthermore, that seen through their eyes,  you are perfectly able to understand how they got there.   What a great starting point for solving conflict!

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