At the heart of this blog is a disciplined process for handling your personal conflict not to mention the world’s. And what may be more surprising, is that it suggests that creativity is the secret of good conflict resolution. Indeed that conflict well handled is inherently creative.
I will be posting more detail on the approach in future postings, but here is an overview of an approach that can be used for an almost instant preparation for a simple personal conflict through all levels of conflict up to the most complex which obviously take more time and focus. There are seven steps:
1. Getting Real about the conflict you face: is there conflict, who is involved, what is it about and what data exists?
2. Getting Clear about your interests. Find out what we really want, rather than our positions: our postures or what we demand
3. Getting Empathetic about the other side’s interests. Uncover and understand the other side’s interests, rather than their positions or demands, while keeping clear about our own
4. Getting Creative about possible solutions. Brainstorming all the possible ways to meet our and the other side’s interests initially without commitment.
5. Getting Stereoscopic and seeing both sides of the conflict at the same time. In really difficult conflicts, seeing both sides simultaneously to find a breakthrough perspective and solution.
6. Getting Specific about the deal to resolve the conflict. Ensuring we know what we are agreeing to and checking if it meets our interests.
7. Getting Wise by learning from the process of conflict: learning from the process: using After Action Reviews to get better each time we are in conflict by seeing what went well, what didn’t go so well and what would be do differently next time.
The neuroscience underlying these seven steps will also be discussed, as they are not simply the extension of existing interest based bargaining or built on my own personal experience, though I have used both extensively. They also have a wide range of conflict toolkits associated with them that will be available here and on an associated website in due course. Let me know what you think? And your experience of using such an approach in your conflicts.
While this blog roams far and wide on all aspects of conflict, its real core purpose is to help you handle your personal conflict better. Now if you happen to the be the leader of a nation or a political party; so much the better. This blog thinks that in practice, our political leaders need to improve their personal conflict handling, as much as steep themselves in data, flex their muscles and develop supposedly rational strategy.
I have used variations of this approach myself over many years in fairly heavy duty labor relations. Also, if you have a particular conflict in mind, why not post its broad details and we will see if the process can shed any light. Of course, I cannot be responsible for the outcome: conflict is too unpredictable for that, but you may find fresh perspectives helpful?
I will now walk you through the above model a little less formally:
So let us assume you face a real world conflict.
1. Getting Real about the conflict you face. The first step I suggest is to open-mindedly gather relevant data. What do you know about the conflict? What don’t you know? What do you know, but have missed the significance for the conflict? And finally, the really sneaky question: what is it you don’t even know you don’t know? Only by relatively objectively setting this out, can you begin to decide if you even want to go into this conflict. And what would happen if you walked away without reaching any agreement? You certainly shouldn’t settle for anything worse than this. You don’t have to share any of this with the other side; but at least you have got some reality about what you face. You will be very tempted to distort reality to make it more like what you wish would be the case: note this tendency and resist it.
2. Getting Clear about your interests. Now you have mapped the reality, the ‘conflict landscape’ you face, you need to understand what exactly you are trying to achieve. Typically, once we get into conflict, we take a position: I want X or Y. What I am suggesting is that for every X or Y we come up with, we ask ‘why?’. Why do we want that? How will it make us happy? Meet our long term interests? So we drill down using the question ‘why?’ repeatedly, from our often rigid positions to our real underlying interests, which are what we are really trying to meet. It is wise to write all this down so you don’t lose sight of your interests. Though, of course, once in conflict, there is no harm in revisiting your interests, adding to them or reshaping your understanding of them. And if strong emotions arise, note them too: they may help tell you what is more or less important to you. Interrogate your feelings about your interests.
3. Getting Empathetic about the other side’s interests. Clear about your own interests? Then either in conversation with the other side, or simply unilaterally, and privately, repeat the process for your own interests, for the other side’s interests. See if you can take their rational perspective, and how they feel about the issues empathetically. Now it is a fairly tough minded empathy that does not lose sight of your own interests; of if it does, then it returns to your own interests before you think of making any agreement.
4. Getting Creative about possible solutions. As any negotiation progresses, you have a very clear idea of the data of the conflict, of your interests and the other side’s interests. Now is the time to get creative. Without any commitment, using the rules of brainstorming, start either privately or jointly with the other side asking ‘what if’: explore all the possible ways to resolve the conflict without commitment or criticism.
5. Getting Stereoscopic and seeing both sides of the conflict at the same time. If this process does not seem to yield a good solution, you might even use what I call the conflict stereoscope and step above the conflict and try to see both sides at the same time and see if that throws up a really ‘outside the box’ approach? How could you see the conflict from both side’s simultaneously? Scott Fitzgerald famously said that: ‘The test of a first class mind is the ability to hold two opposing views in the head at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ This is just such a situation: trying to see both sides of a conflict at the same time to help in the process of becoming really creative about possible solutions.
6. Getting Specific about the deal to resolve the conflict. If any of this creativity/divergent thinking gives rise to some good solutions that seem to meet both side’s interests, then you will need to become more analytical, more convergent in your thinking. You can compare each possible solution or aspect of a solution with your interests and also with the other side’s interests. There is not much point in agreeing a solution that is great for your side but not the other side. The deal would not be very stable if the other side were foolish enough to agree to it and might feel you had tricked them.
Once the likely deal emerges, you can check if there is way to make it better: ‘is this the best we can do?’ And also check that it is clearly and unambiguously understood by both sides, and preferably written down as a formal agreement for future reference.
7. Getting Wise by learning from the process of conflict. Finally, once you complete this process, you should reflect on what you have learned, using the US military After Action Review: asking what went well, what could have been better and what would you do differently next time about the whole process by which you have handled conflict. This is a vital and often neglected step if you are to get better at handling conflict. You should look at these lessons before you are involved in any future conflict or the process is pointless.
I have set this process out rather informally. I will explore it in future posts, both in more depth, with examples and also from time to time as a quite disciplined set of questions/processes. It is work in progress in the sense that I need reader feedback to help me both improve how I communicate the process AND to improve the process itself to make it more useful to you.
And as a final thought: think about some leading political leader actually using this approach in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, on climate change, on deficit reduction or whatever. Do you think this is how they operate today? Do you think they work through steps like this? Do you think that they try to be creative? Might it help, this more disciplined process to get above the locked in thinking and content of the conflict? And then even more challengingly: how about your own personal conflict at home, with friends, at work? Think about it?
Copyright: Ann Arbor Synergies LLC June 2008/July 2010
Footnote: Personally I always find the dogs here very good for encouraging more reflective conflict handling: