Re-Post: Creative Strategies for Handling Conflict

With all the conflict going on at the moment, politically, over Wall Street, with China, in the Middle East, I thought it might be a good moment to re-post the Creative Conflict Model that lies at the heart of this blog. It may not solve all conflicts, and I offer no guarantees as conflict is complex. But using a systematic approach is probably better than winging it.

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 conflictEnsuring 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

And personally I have always found dogs throw light on good conflict handling:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Re-Post: Creative Strategies for Handling Conflict

  1. Great tips. At the moment I keep wondering if an obstacle to us looking for resolution when we are in conflict is a reluctance to face our own ‘wrongdoing’ (whatever shape that might take) – it seems to become more vital to avoid facing this than solving the problem – almost in an adaptive, survival-based way. I can see this everywhere but the main issue for me is that I can’t work out why it would be the case that this avoidance would seem to be worth the pain of conflict? How could avoiding responsibility have more adaptive ‘weight’ than solving conflicts (that could – and do – endanger life)?
    Any ideas?

    • Trish. I struggle with this every day. And in professional life it used to drive me nuts. I could see trouble coming down the road. I used to say: there’s trouble brewing: I could almost smell it when I walked the assembly lines and no one would pay any attention because they would have to figure out what we had done wrong….And I agree you would think there would be a survival advantage in admitting and learning from our mistakes. Anyway, all will be revealed in Jon Haidt’s new book ‘The Righteous Mind’ which I was fortunate enough to be asked to read in manuscript. It comes out in January. In small groups of hunter gatherers there is survival advantage to having a good reputation, and we need to believe in our own righteousness to convince others of this. So our Elephant (Jon’s name for our unconscious self righteous pattern recognizing and not thinking too much mind) does what it feels inclined to do and leaves our rational mind or what he calls Rider, as a sort of attorney to justify what we have done. We don’t use the rational mind to decide but only to defend our unconscious decisions. At least that’s what Jon and Howard Margolis before him have found. See also the nice image on my posting:

  2. Kyrie Eleison says:

    “I don’t like you.”

    How would you propose resolving conflict based on something as irrational as this?

    A hypothetical: Let’s assume I hate asparagus.

    What is it about asparagus that causes me to feel this way?

    It’s not a poison, in fact it is quite nutritious.
    I’ve never had an allergic or other adverse reaction to it.
    I’ve tried it many times in different ways, so it’s not in the preparation or presentation.
    It’s not a “texture thing.”
    There are plenty of other vegetables, some of which are very similar, that I enjoy.

    I know that lots of other people enjoy it, but the best marketer in the world would never be able to find an angle that would make me want to buy it. There is not a celebrity, academic, deity, etc. nor any social situation or activity in existence that would make me want to consume it in emulation.

    If I was in a highly unlikely situation where I had to eat it otherwise I would starve to death, I’m not entirely sure that I would eat it to save my own life. If it ever comes up, I’ll get back to you on this one, however I feel it would be Kitchen: Impossible with a very sad ending.

    To make a long story short (too late) I can’t really tell you why I don’t like it, I just don’t! Asparagus can try to change itself in an effort to make itself more appealing, but it would be an exercise in futility. Besides, I think it would be very unfair to asparagus anyways, since I don’t really have a reason for not liking it to begin with. So how would I resolve this dilemma?

    A not-so-hypothetical: Let’s assume that my spouse’s boss is the same way, and draw on some parallels from the previous example. I’ve tried to put myself in the same situation, and ponder over what I would do to resolve this, but I’m at a total loss.

    It’s not like I’ve had my share of managers and execs who have hated me, but (for the most part) they did not let this cloud their judgment so bad that it was blatantly obvious or unprofessional. Then again, I was always a direct-hire and never had to work a position that was the result of a merger where the person I was working under didn’t choose to have me on “their” team.

    I’ve tried to assemble a rough list of things to support my findings, that my spouse, while not perfect, is more than likely an above average employee, but is consistently rated as below average and it’s hard for me to come up with any solid reason for this aside from “I don’t like you.” I’ve seen the work, read the e-mails, and have even made an on-site visit.

    I’m not asking you to work for free, and I hope you do not feel I am imposing on you either, I’m just curious about what your thoughts are on this. If you need more examples to support my hypothesis, I can provide them, hopefully without bias.

    • Kyrie. I love handling this sort of problem. I guess one way to unpick or even reverse ‘I don’t like you’ would be to figure out what is in someone’s interests. What are they trying to get done? What is the boss trying to achieve? Now, they may not know or may be trying to achieve something really dumb (I have known that), but it is likely that they are trying to make themselves look good to their boss, or the organization in general, and maybe even trying to serve the best interests of the business. So one could work to helping them on those two goals and even in making clear how to do that. And then maybe contributing somewhat to achieving them, thereby countering any negative attitude they have towards you or your spouse indirectly.

      Of course, I know bosses who would react to this with paranoia that I was after their job. Another way if they are not total assholes (Rule 1 try never to work for assholes and Rule 2:never employ assholes) ask them for feedback on how you doing? What could you do better? Can they give you any tips on this? I give that fairly automatically to anyone who ever works for me; not just the formal stuff, but day by day tell them what was good (catching people doing things right is not only motivational though it has to be authentic not bullshit; but it helps people repeat the good stuff) but coaching them on things that could have been better. Why not try this…What do you think caused the problem here? All done with a combination of respect and high standards. I also ask anyone who works for me, what their longer term goals are: what is their ambition and how can what they do in their current job help achieve that? Anything that they could work on that connected to that end. But this is fairly rare.

      But ultimately, I can’t make you like Asparagus. And I have had perfectly good people work for me that I didn’t like, and I think it is sometimes hard to hide that. People pick up on it, even though I did my best not to let it show, people sense ii. One guy even told people I drove him into early retirement. Well I certainly didn’t intend that, but it was probably good for him. And ultimately I think he left more because he hated me than because I hated him. 🙂 Hope this helps.

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        “Be not afraid of assholes: some are born assholes, some achieve assholishness and some have assholes thrust upon them.”

        I think Shakespeare said that, but I can’t source it.

        I like your intuition in your response. Paranoia is an understatement. Not only is the boss actively trying to make people look bad (to which I suggested CYA), but also is impeding attempts at training in any system or field that could threaten the boss’s hegemony.

        Sadly, neither party had much of a choice in the matter regarding who they were “stuck with” after the merger. Simply abandoning your post after a considerable amount of investment in time and development at the company just because someone decides to purse up their face at the prospect of working with a team member they did not choose and then be an asshole about it is not only bad for the company, but it also avoids the conflict instead of resolving it.

        There is a difference between offering guidance and negative feedback, and being a straight-up indignant bully. Besides, it’s the company’s interests that matter. NYPA, right?

        I’ve worked in law enforcement for nearly a decade, and while I may not have shown it at the time, I have grown to appreciate some of the benefits a paramilitary management style provides.

        In essence, with all personal feelings aside, what it boils down to is a lack of true leadership skills. The boss likes the title and (perceived, even if only in their own mind) respect of being “in charge” but is not willing to do what it takes to be a really good leader.

        An example:

        Suppose I am on the field of battle. An enemy pill box on the horizon is a problem, and must be overtaken to advance. What do I do?

        I could:

        1) Draw upon my experience and training, gather as much intelligence as possible, assess the capabilities of my platoon, draft up a reasonable plan, give them clear instructions, and execute. Maintain communication, and adapt as battle conditions change. Debrief by sharing what worked and what did not to apply on the next mission.


        2) Draw heavily upon assumptions, overestimate or miscalculate my resources, give ambiguous or conflicting instructions, and execute. Wing it with no clear provisions for any contingencies, micromanage the ones that come up, then express frustration and dissatisfaction with how much of an unorganized, grabastic crew I’m forced to put up with. Debrief with telling everyone in hindsight what they all should have done.

        Which plan do you think will have a better chance of success? Under Plan 1, everyone had a clear idea of what they were supposed to do and we either failed or accomplished the mission as a team. If, by some miracle, Plan 2 worked, it’s because my platoon carried me through the engagement and, well, I guess they didn’t really need me now did they?

        Again, this is just a hypothetical, but metaphorically this is happening. A lot. We are talking about a worldwide leader in electronic parts manufacturing. It’s a household name. It is starting to have an effect on my confidence in their products if this is the management style they choose to employ. An e-mail leaked recently where a customer called one of their employees a “dipshit”. Whether the person really is or not is debatable, but wouldn’t you think that some intervention in the form of good leadership is beyond necessary in this case?

        I am constantly biting my tongue and advising against breaking the chain of command, because not only does it (again) avoid the problem but it exacerbates the tension in the work relationship. Judging from my own observations and from what I’ve seen happen at Penn State et. al. they would most likely circle their wagons and suppress, discredit, or terminate the complainant.

        Still, how do you tell your boss that they suck at being a good leader without being openly confrontational about it? It’s obvious that the boss will not figure this out on their own especially since with no direct negative feedback there is no incentive to improve. It’s always someone else’s fault. Always. Yeah.

        At this point, all I’ve been able to suggest is to just focus on the work, stop offering suggestions, instead opting for clear and firm instructions from the boss so if something goes wrong there is no one else to blame, and to just smile and nod, letting things roll off your back when they go badly.

        Let the spoiled child have a tantrum and move on. The parents might notice, or they might keep ignoring it and watch TV. Eventually the noise will get too loud, they will investigate, notice the mess, and put that baby to bed.

      • Kyrie. I think the Shakespeare was talking about greatness and it is from Act 2 Scene 5 of Twelve Night: ‘Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. Though I think assholes fits quite nicely too….

        The problem with bad bosses strikes me as partly one of selection. During my time working with (not in) the US military, it seemed to me that the Army, Navy and Marines did a good job selecting officers, who could lead other people. I did not meet so many Air Force officers as the other services, so this may be skewed small sample, but the Air Force officers I did meet were all not good people leaders. They were ex pilots or techies and rather bullying, blaming compared with the other services. Maybe it was different training, but I thought it was more likely to be poor selection and/or selection for other criteria than leadership qualities.

        As for the situation you describe, I would keep my head down and focus on the work. I would however also keep a hard copy file at home of emails etc of instructions given on tasks that might be expected to screw up. My experience typically is that people like the manager you describe eventually screw up and you just need to make sure your wife doesn’t get hit by the shrapnel from the implosion. The main thing with assholes is to keep a clear and accurate idea of your self. See if there are indeed any shortfalls/errors but realized that most of crap thrown is about the crap thrower not what has been done…

        And some more thoughts on not liking something. Much of our decision making is automatic and unthinking. It is pattern recognition rather than figuring things out. When we instantly don’t like or don’t trust someone, I think this is something to bear in mind as we often have good instincts. I think I can spot an asshole leader from 50 feet; but I am sometimes wrong. So the key is not to squash our feelings about someone, but to bring them out in the open, and not vent at them, but check out if there really is any basis for our instant reaction to them. Look for some counter data, some good qualities. In some cases, I have come round to a better view of someone, though sometimes given time, they can also live down to my initial reaction too. 🙂 It is really about being open minded, cautious when we feel alarm bells ringing, and only trusting when we have a basis to override our instant distrust. Hope that helps….

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        Yes, you are correct – it is from the 12th Night. I’m glad you appreciate my eccentric sense of humor. 😉

        Duck & cover, as the old Civil Defense films tell us.

        I must admit that I’m guilty of not liking something without thinking it through, much like the story Green Eggs & Ham by Dr. Seuss. (That Sam-I-Am!)

        Your observations about the Air Force vs. the other military branches does strike me as a bit odd. You may be on to something with the pilot/techie idea. People who earn promotions based on technical ability and not on their management skills probably contributes to this more than we realize.

        I don’t have any hard evidence, but the story around the rumor mill is that the boss was given the position by default, with a previous position of specialist – all technical, zero management.

        My spouse has a degree in … technical management! Perhaps the paranoia is not so surprising. It’s still no reason to be a jerk about it.

        Thanks so much for your help! 🙂

      • Kyrie and don’t forget the two relevant adages: ‘Only the paranoid survive’ and ‘Just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.’ And also my Top Ten Tips for conspiracy theorists has a good cartoon on this theme….:)

        My then boss once said to me: ‘we never had a labor dispute you didn’t forecast; but you forecast some disputes that never happened. That’s cos I headed them off I said tongue in cheek….I did get it wrong sometimes and in one case the union heard afterwards that I thought there was going to be a dispute on an issue on a particular shift, and thought on reflection I was right and gave me one on a later shift…. 🙂

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        Great cartoon!

        When it comes to “conspiracy theories” I always ask: Cui bono? No need for me to wear a tinfoil hat, there’s not that much underneath that “they” would want.

        Awesome story about the union members – a self-fulfilling prophecy! Now that’s what I call job security. 🙂

      • Kyrie yeh but watch out for the NSA planting chips in your teeth…. 🙂

      • Kyrie Eleison says:

        I need to worry more about ME planting chips in my teeth. It’s not so easy to lose weight as I get older! 🙂

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