We can’t tell from the outside

When we're in conflict with someone, we think we know them, at least enough to know what we need to know. Our certainty about their motives and their flaws -- this certainty flourishes and makes us feel better about ourselves. Yet it is fantasy, this certainty. It can be nothing else, for we cannot possibly know them fully, even loved ones. We don't live in their heads. We don't live in their hearts. We don't live in their souls. I was reminded of this by author Howard Mansfield and … [Read more...]

The surprising way to ask better questions in conflict

When we're stuck in conflict, sometimes it's the questions we're asking ourselves or our sparring partner. To ask better questions in conflict, try this surprisingly useful trick... Evolutionary biologist David Carrier was stuck. The jackrabbit he was dissecting just wasn't making sense. Instead of what he expected to see, he was seeing the belly muscles connected to an apparatus that acted like a Slinky — it compressed when he pushed his finger on it, then sprang back out. What the heck … [Read more...]

Walk it out to work it out

If you want to boost creative problem solving or get a fresh perspective, then get up from your conference room table and climb out of those comfy living room chairs. Walking is better. Years ago, I took two mediation clients on a long walk through city streets when they were very stuck and frustrated in the conference room. I've done it dozens of times and I'll do it dozens more. Not only is there no rule that conflict resolution should take place seated, there's an argument to be made … [Read more...]

Bearing witness to suffering: Mediating in the shadow of pain

Philosopher Simone Weil wrote, "Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough." I'll be exploring this capacity in an upcoming workshop for the New England Association for … [Read more...]

Control your emotions better by labeling them

If you want to control your emotions better during difficult conversations, do something counter-intuitive: Give up trying not to feel them. Instead, put a label on them. Recognizing and naming an emotion can have a powerful effect on quelling it. Psych professor Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, calls it "affect labeling." You can use affect labeling to help yourself and others. Instead of trying to push an emotion away, the idea is to draw it … [Read more...]

Conflict resolution activities: The fist press

When I'm mediating, coaching, or training, there are moments I want to illustrate why resistance builds up. There are moments I want to help someone understand in a quick and visceral way that pushing their agenda relentlessly is contributing to getting things good and stuck. In those moments, I often turn to one of my favorite conflict resolution activities, the Fist Press. It's a 60-second exercise with an enduring message. I first saw a version years ago in a Tom Crum video and it never … [Read more...]

Just be reasonable

When a person is very angry, the part of their brain associated with being reasonable and articulating reasonable thoughts more or less shuts down. Closed for business. Sign on the door -- go away, can't do this right now. Yet in the midst of an argument, we still think to ourselves (or even say out loud), "Just be reasonable, can't you?" Or maybe they say it to us. In a mediation, we may still want to say to a client, "Why can't you be reasonable?" Or, more judgmentally, as one frustrated … [Read more...]

Conflict resolution workshop for leaders and managers: Registration now open

Registration is now open for my upcoming conflict resolution workshop, Breaking the Conflict Cycle: The Leader and Manager as Conflict Coach. Every organizational leader and manager has the experience of dealing with a steady flow of conflictual situations landing in their lap. They become expert at offering good advice and efficiently solving problems only to have similar ones come back through the door. This conflict resolution workshop is designed to help business/organizational … [Read more...]

The fine line

"What's Dad doing?" said my sister, a note of concern in her voice. The other three of us turned to see our father making his way through the back yard. He was heading to the corner of the garden that served as our little pet cemetery. He had a shovel over his shoulder. And in his hand was the container holding our mother's ashes. My brother said, "He's not about to do what I think he's about to do, is he?" My two older sisters, my brother and I were sitting on our parents' bed, … [Read more...]

How to be a problem-solving superhero without fixing it yourself

Years ago, a student came to my office with a problem. I was a dean at the time and I had many appointments like this in an average day. Sometimes they were problems with a professor, sometimes they were problems with a parent, sometimes with a boss at an off-campus job. Not uncommonly they were problems with a roommate, a friend, or someone in campus administration. Most of these problems involved conflict. To give you a sense of what it's like to be a dean, I'll tell you that when I left … [Read more...]