vacation cartoonIn the spirit of summer vacations, consider conflict as a journey to regain something we feel has been lost or taken from us. In the final chapter of The Joy of Conflict Resolution, entitled “Tips for the Traveler”, I asked a number of valued and respected colleagues to share tips on how they integrated conflict resolution skills in their lives. Here are a few:

Writing yourself a scriptperson writing

One of most helpful things I did was to create a self-talk script to replace my gremlins. I picked a particular situation in which I found myself triggered by my supervisor’s constant use of the word “but” in conversations with me. To avoid reacting, I told myself “Breathe. She’s trying to tell me her needs. Listen for them. Be curious. This will pass.” I repeated this mantra chant over and over until I was able to genuinely respond productively to her in conversation. Although she didn’t change, our working relationship did.

Raj Dhasi, mediator/trainer/coach


Don’t be afraid to make a mess

muddy peopleAfter over fifteen years of professional conflict resolution, I would advise people new to this approach to “ignore perfection.” It’s annoying and unrealistic. Conflict is supposed to be messy. If the clashing of opposing interests is too neat and tidy, there’s something that hasn’t surfaced yet. Let yourself get dirty. Then help each other clean it up.

Roy Johnson, mediator/psychotherapist

Taking risks and trusting your gutcliff jumpers

Learning conflict resolution skills does not elevate us to sainthood or perfection. I give myself permission to be a human being instead of a human doing‑to feel, get angry, and take risks. To be courageous for me. This gives me permission to escape “doing it perfectly by the book” and supports me to try something different. More and more I find myself trusting my instinct and intuition and bringing more creativity to conflict resolution.

Jory Faibish, certified mediator/trainer/architect


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The Opportunities of “I don’t know”

ziplining gary big daddy 5  My wife and I recently returned from a wonderful three weeks in Costa Rica. The people were warm, peaceful and very helpful – sometimes too helpful. If they didn’t know the answer to a question, for example, they would make something up rather than disappoint us. Expats told us stories of contractors being so eager to please that they would make unrealistic promises with respect to completion dates or budget. It seemed that in Costa Rica, as elsewhere, “I don’t know” was not an acceptable response. This is unfortunate, as “I don’t know” can be serve us in many ways.

man shruggingAs a fledgling conflict resolution trainer some 23 years ago, I felt I had to have the answers – after all, wasn’t that what participants were expecting? This changed for me when I was fortunate to sit in on a colleague’s class. During the class, a participant asked a challenging, subtle question. As I mentally rehearsed my answer to the question, my colleague shocked me by saying “that’s a good question – I don’t know – let’s talk about it”. He then engaged students in a dialogue that tapped into their cumulative wisdom and experience. And no one thought the less of him. In modeling curiosity he removed his ego from the equation and created “safe space” for productive dialogue. I began to give myself permission to say “I don’t know”, and felt a weight lift.

dont know pie graphConsider how the need to “know”, or be seen as knowing, impact organizational life. When receiving an ambiguous request from a coworker, someone will assume they know what the other person wants. It’s only after the fact they may learn otherwise. Other times, in the absence of clear communication about corporate strategy or direction, the rumor mill will churn, as employees squirm with the uncertainty of “not knowing”. This is the currency of the “water cooler” culture of rumors, assumptions and gossip. “I don’t know, I better check it out” can prevent misunderstandings and minimize rumors and gossip.

question marksThe need to “know” will also handicap our efforts to understand and resolve conflict – and can actually fuel conflict. When someone else’s behavior feels like an affront, we tend to ascribe a sinister motive to the other person. We judge our actions by our intent; we judge the actions of other based on how those actions impact us. And because we are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty, we feel the need to “make stuff up”. We can take a simple incident, fill in the blanks with judgments and assumptions, and create an entire drama – usually featuring ourselves as the hero and the other person as the villain).

So next time you find yourself scrambling to figure out someone’s motivation or intention, allow yourself the luxury of saying “I don’t know”. Your curiosity may be the crack that lets the light in.

Stay curious.

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The Joy of Intolerance

Like most of us, I viewed the term  “intolerance” as negative and divisive – a source of conflict. But I recently re-thought my views after being introduced to the concept of a “toleration”. A toleration is something we find to be a nuisance or minor inconvenience, though not serious enough to warrant the time or energy to deal with. I believe that inconveniences can clutter our lives and  relationships – and may blossom into full blown conflicts if left unaddressed.

This strugarbled wiresck home recently when I simplified our home’s audio-visual system. The system, which included the normal array of a television set, a DVD player, a receiver/speaker system, etc. had become somewhat complicated. To switch the sound system from the normal cable input to watch a DVD required me to manually disconnect the sound inputs from the cable box (located behind the television) and re-connect them to the DVD player. Specifically, this required me to don a headlamp (it’s dark behind the television) and fiddle with the connections. This was a bit inconvenient, but only took 30 seconds or so.

That was the problem – it was easier for me to put up with the small inconvenience than av switch boxto invest the time and energy required to simplify the system. I “tolerated” the existing set-up for years. When I finally decided to undertake the task (for the benefit of other users in the family), it took me less than 15 minutes to install a switch box that allows us to change the audio feed with a simple push of a button. Hundreds of adventures with my headlamp behind the television (and the odd profanity) could have been eliminated years ago by the investment of 15 minutes. When I completed the task and proudly examined my handiwork, I couldn’t help but think “what took me so long?” to get around to fixing this.

I believe this applies to relationships – both personal and professional. “Tolerations” could include being interrupted, receiving inadequate lead time on an assignment, being left of of loop, having someone check their email during a meeting, etc. These are not earth-shattering problems and most of us can live with them, yet over time they can foster resentment and erode relationships.

Most people tend to avoid conflict – especially with minor annoyances. It’s easier in the moment to let things slide than risk a confrontation. It many cases, avoiding conflict is an appropriate conflict management strategy. Any conflict “instrument” (such as the Thomas-Kilmann) recommend avoidance in situations in which we view neither the issue nor the relationship as important. When the relationship is important, or if the issue is one that persists, however, avoidance can result in frustration and resentment. 

And in many cases, what we fear will be a confrontation turns out to a routine conversation. People we find “difficult” seldom set out with the intention of making our lives miserable. They are usually so focused on themselves that they are unaware of the impact their actions have on us – unless we let them know. I have sometimes raised an issue fearing a defensive response, only to hear “sure – no problem, I didn’t realize that.” And even if you do receive a defensive response – at least the issue is out in the open, the other person is aware of our concerns and we can take pride in the fact that we had the courage to speak up for ourselves.

I’ve also found that small successes are accompanied by a sense of relief and build my momentum to tackle other tolerations.

fram oil filter

Years ago, Fram Oil Filters ran an ad campaign to encourage people to use their product as preventive maintenance. Their the tag line: “You can pay me now or pay me later”.

Consider doing yourself a favor – choose one toleration and take the time, energy and risk to raise it with the other person – directly and respectfully. You’ll likely find yourself asking yourself “what took me so long?”


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“Wicked”? or Simply Misunderstood?

wickedOne of the highlights of a recent trip to New York was seeing the Broadway production of “Wicked”  – the story of the Wizard of Oz from the perspective of Elphaba, the (Wicked) Witch of the West.

Without revealing details of the humorous and touching production, its magic lies in the empathy we quickly develop for the Elphaba character as we learn her back-story. I belief the same applies to interpersonal conflict: knowing someone’s back-story could not help but foster empathy for those with whom we are at odds.

As I’ve outlined in previous blogs about the “drama triangle” of conflict, the roles of hero and villain are often two sides of the same coin: one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. When we position ourselves as the (righteous) hero in a conflict, our claim to the moral high ground can justify behaviour that would otherwise be seen as aggressive or inappropriate – after all, “they had it coming.” This simplistic view that “I’m right, they’re wrong” blinds us to the broader perspective and hampers our ability to empathize or understand those we deem to the be villain in our conflicts.

I recall attending a lecture by motivational speaker Zig Ziglar years ago, in which he addressed the topic of compassion. He told us that if we assumed that another person (especially those we found to be difficult) were in pain, we would be right 99% of the time. He said that if we knew the struggles they had faced and the suffering they had endured, we could not help but admire their courage.

While we will never know the full story of those with whom we are in conflict, we can still remain mindful that they are doing the best they can to get what they think they need. By bringing curiosity and compassion to our dealings with them, we can shed the labels of hero and villain and connect through our shared humanity.

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Integrating Conflict Resolution Skills: More Tips for the Traveler

Following up on my most recent entry, here are some tips from colleagues in response to the question “how did you integrate the skills and concepts of collaboration?”. These tips focus on practicing the communication skills necessary to defuse situations and build understanding.

One a dayone a day

Most importantly, I made a deliberate decision to incorporate these skills into my life. To do so, I picked a skill to practice each day and used it at least five times in conversation. Monday was open question day and I consciously asked at least five open questions of people I was with, even when I had to force myself to be curious. Tuesday was listening day and I would practice paraphrasing or empathy with whoever I came across. Wednesdays were for pausing‑I deliberately slowed my conversations and paused between sentences to allow room for silence. Over time, I managed to replace my old habits with ones that facilitated understanding and communication.

Raj Dhasi, mediator/trainer/coach

Training your earear listening

I liken learning conflict resolution skills to learning music. Along the way, we need to develop an “ear” for the skills we want to employ. I developed by ear by picking one skill on each day on which to focus (paraphrasing, empathy, “I” statements, for example.) I not only used these skills myself, but listened and looked for them in conversation, on television, in radio interviews and even when reading a book or newspaper. I forced myself to listen more deeply by writing down examples of the “skill of the day.” Like a musician who develops an ear for various sounds and instruments, this helped me familiarize myself with the skills‑and made it easier to use them in conflict.

Donna Soules, mediator/trainer

Keeping it on the front burner

To keep conflict resolution front and centre in my daily life, I’ve developed an ear for communication skills and an eye for conflict. I listen as top-notch interviewers on radio use questions to deepen understanding. When I observe others in conflict, I use them as case studies to determine where things went off the rails and how communication skills could have been applied. With stress levels in the workplace, I find no shortage of conflict from which to learn.

Clare Connolly, mediator/trainer/coach

Creative ways to practice

To integrate my conflict resolution skills, I practiced continuously. I would pick a skill each week and use it everywhere‑especially with my family. Because they knew me so well, they provided direct and immediate feedback, especially when they didn’t perceive me as genuine (“Did you take another course, Mom?”). I could also tell from their reaction when my skills were becoming more natural. As a break from the intimacy of family, I would turn to the anonymity of television, where I played off soap opera characters to practice my empathy and open questions.

Most importantly, I was willing to jump in and try it. I made a lot of “mistakes,” but was gentle with myself, learned from them and tried again.

Nancy Baker, mediator/trainer/mom

I hope you find these tips helpful in building your communication toolbox. For more tips, see Chapter 15 of The Joy of Conflict Resolution (Tips for the Traveler).

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Making Collaboration a Way of LIfe

Resolving conflict collaboratively is a way of life. Some have likened it to learning a new language. It does not  happen overnight. It requires compassion, courage and perseverance to venture beyond the familiar roles of victim, villain and hero.


Collaboration falls into the “simple, but not easy” category. The concepts are simple; human being are not. Here are some excerpts from my book, The Joy of Conflict Resolution.  asked colleagues the question “how did you integrate conflict resolution into your life?” and compiled their answers in a chapter entitled Tips for the Traveler”

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Bilbo Baggins in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

Observing ourselves

In conflict, our subconscious often triggers automatic reactions. To develop new responses, try spending a week simply observing yourself. Notice how you feel, what you think and how you respond in conversation and especially in conflict. Avoid judging yourself, especially when you respond defensively. Instead of criticizing yourself, simply notice (“Wow, I really got triggered there”). When we let go of judgement, we no longer need to defend or justify ourselves. We create room for curiosity and opportunities for learning. We can shed automatic reactions and deliberately choose more productive responses in conflict.

Donna Soules, mediator/trainer

Cleaning up our own act

Somewhere along this journey, I realized that the most important conflict resolution work we can do is to clean up our own act. In my experience, most conflict is “intra-personal,” that is, it lies within ourselves and has nothing at all to do with the other person. If we manage ourselves and our own emotions effectively, there will clearly be problems to solve and differences to deal with, yes. But we are increasingly less likely to be triggered, reactive or contribute to the negativity in conflict as we continue to do our ongoing personal “cleanup” work. A life’s journey, for sure!

Jill Schroder, author of Becoming: Journeying Toward Authenticity

It starts within. Have fun observing yourself. More tips to follow.

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Conflict Resolution Lessons from Lord of the Rings: I Will Take the Ring (Getting Started)

frodo taking ringConflict resolution entails a journey into the unknown. No matter how much we prepare, we can never know for sure how another will react to us or respond to our message. Not surprisingly, this uncertainty leads many to avoid conflict rather than venture into the unknown. Conversely, one of the hallmarks of those successful in dealing with conflict is the courage to begin.

frodo leaving rivendale (2)A lynchpin moment in one of my favourite movies, The Fellowship of the Ring, occurs at the Council of Elrond – a meeting convened to decide what to do with the “one ring to rule them all” and how to confront the growing threat to Middle Earth. As various factions bicker, Frodo steps forward and declares “I will take the ring. But I do not know the way.” Faced with this act of courage, the bickering factions pledge their support and unite around Frodo and his quest – the “Fellowship of the Ring” is formed.

In his life-changing book, Warriors of the Heart, Danaan Parry calls on us to become “warriors” in the cause of positive change. In defining the term, he draws on varied cultural references. He refers to the Buddhist tradition of a warrior as “one who has the courage to know oneself” – including our “dragons” or dark side. Rather than slaying their dragons, warriors transform that energy into positive power. Danaan also cites a Tibetan definition of a warrior as “one who faces one’s own fear.” Tellingly, neither definition refers to other people or circumstances, but define the Warrior path as “inside your own being”. This is echoed in yet another culture: the Yaqui Indians of northern Mexico, whose concept of a Warrior was one “who brings newness into the world” – one willing to venture into the unknown and bring their vision back to the tribe.

WOTH colorDanaan also states that a Warrior is one “who has and needs no place to stand, no position to cling to”. This is exactly the opposite to the role of Hero on the drama triangle of conflict (along with the Victim and Villain). The Hero is fueled by a sense of righteousness – a belief that they have staked out the moral high ground and that their behaviour, however injurious to others, is therefore justified.  The definitions of a “Warrior of the Heart” provide an alternative approach for those any who would engage in collaborative conflict resolution.

I was reminded of the way of the Warrior recently when I received an e-mail from a student who had attended one of my workshops. During the workshop, she used a personal conflict with a (former) friend as a case study during which we practiced “observation without judgement” and explored the motivations of the “villain” in our story. While the student didn’t agree with her friend’s actions, she was able to understand what motivated the behaviour and to depersonalize the conflict. Following the class, she contacted her former friend (with whom she had not spoken for a year), listened with curiosity to her friend’s needs and was eventually able to resolve the long-standing issue and resume the friendship. I was gratified and impressed on several levels, not the least of which was the courage the student demonstrated in contacting her friend with an attitude of curiosity. She needed “no position to cling to” (i.e. no need to be right). As a result, she opened herself to another perspective and uncovered a new path on which to move forward in the relationship. She was truly a “Warrior of the Heart” in that moment.

So when confronted with conflict, demonstrate the Hero’s courage, but let it be the courage to remain open to the newness, understanding and growth that the conflict may provide. Draw inspiration from Frodo and engage the conflict, even if you do not “know the way”.

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Who Am I? Part 2: Jean Valjean and Inner Conflict

fierce conversationsIn her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott writes that “all conversations are with myself and sometimes involve other people”. The same can be said of conflict – that all interpersonal conflict is accompanied by internal conflict, in which our values appear to be in opposition to each other. Until we reconcile such internal conflict, we are unlikely to be able to resolve our external conflicts.

Internal conflict is the driving force behind character development in drama. One of my favourite dramas, Downton Abbey, is so compelling because of the masterful job it does in portraying its characters’ internal conflict. These often pit true love against a sense of duty or pressure to conform to societal norms. The characters’ decisions ultimately define them. That we relate to these dilemmas speaks to the universal theme of internal conflict.

This is also central to Les Miserables. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, has breached his parole and has been pursued by his nemesis, Inspector Javert. One (of several) choice points in Valjean’s story line arises when another man has been mistaken for him, arrested and is facing imprisonment. On the face of it, this is good news for Valjean, as his case will be closed and he will no longer be the subject of Javert’s obsession [as discussed in my previous blog]. Yet Valjean is torn. His sense of justice cannot bear to see an innocent man go to jail in his stead, but to right this wrong, Valjean would need to reveal his identity and risk arrest. The song “Who Am I” chronicles his inner conflict (“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay sjean valjeanilent, I am damned.”) The song climaxes as our hero touches on his inner truth (“I am Jean Valjean!”) as his sense of justice triumphs.

How we reconcile our inner conflicts can be said to define us. Several years ago, a colleague bounced a cheque to me as a result of conflicting views over a harassment investigation [yes, I am aware of the irony :)]. I was torn between my aversion to conflict and my outrage at being unjustly treated. I wavered until I asked myself “am I being the man that I would want my daughter to marry”. As I certainly did not wish my daughter to marry a doormat, I knew that I needed to pursue the matter despite my discomfort.

People are continually cvaljean walkingonfronted by inner conflict: should I speak up when my supervisor mocks me in meetings (my need for respect) or should I “suck it up” to avoid possible retribution (my need for safety or even financial security). People unwilling to make a clear choice end up in limbo: unwilling to act, yet frustrated by the status quo. Even though an interpersonal conflict may only involve two people, each of the two will be experiencing some level of internal conflict. This may reflect a desire to “get this over with ” contrasted with a need to save face. Until the internal conflict is reconciled, the external conflict is likely to persist.

A colleague of mine who has integrated “mindfulness” with her conflict resolution and counseling practice introduced me to a concept that can help us resolve our internal conflicts: “wise mind”. This has been described as the balance between reasonable mind and emotion mind – a “middle way” that taps into a deep sense of intuitive knowing.  For some people, it is that still, small voice within that knows what is best.  For others, wise mind is experienced as a “gut feeling”.

If you find yourself torn by inner conflict, I suggest identifying the values or needs that appear to be contradictory. Once you have determined those needs, ask yourself “who am I?”. Wise mind can provide you with the insight to answer that question and guide you through your inner conflict. Singing is optional.

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Who Am I? Part 1: Inspector Javert’s Suicide and Identity in Conflict.

A recurring theme in Les Miserables is the far from rhetorical question “who am I?” The protagonist, Jean Valjean, is thrice confronted by that question and his decisions define him as heroic. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, jauverthowever, is unable to come to grips with  this same question and ends his life as a result. [Question: is it necessary to give a spoiler alert when referring to a novel written in 1862, made into a movie as early as 1935? :)]

At a pivotal point in the story, Valjean shows mercy to his enemy, Javert. Javert is unable to reconcile this act of forgiveness with his longstanding view of Valjean as a villain (“must I now begin to doubt who never doubted all these years?”). Rather than viewing Valjean’s action as an opportunity for reconciliation (or at least reflection), Javert denies that he has anything in common with his arch-enemy (“There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert.”) Racked by this inconsistency and stripped of his identity as the righteous hero (“I am the law and the law is not mocked.”), he plunges into despair (figuratively) and to his death (literally). (“The world I have known is lost in shadow . . . there is no way to go on.”)

In a less dramatic fashion, this theme recurs in many long-standing conflicts. Over time, the precipitating incident or issue is superseded by a sense of identity as a long-suffering victim (or, as in Javert’s case, a righteous hero). Subconsciously, a person in conflict may begin to define themselves through their role in the conflict. In other words, they become their story, and if the story was to change, they would be left asking “without this conflict, who am I?” Like Javert, their identity is dependent on viewing the other person as the villain.

You may hapromise of mediationve witnessed this in people with vendettas against a bureaucracy. They can be seen with hand-painted signs proclaiming conspiracy and detailing the wrongs they have suffered. This is not to say that people are not mistreated. Rather, it speaks situations in which people have become so enmeshed in the conflict that their sense of identity is linked to their role in the conflict. Back to the theme of Les Mis – without this conflict “who am I?”. In some cases, a resolution that would meet their needs would leave them without a sense of identity – without their “story”.

Both the transnarrative mediationformative and narrative approaches to mediation address this aspect of conflict. Joseph Folger and Robert Busch, in The Promise of Mediation, suggest that “disputes can be viewed not as problems at all but as opportunities for moral growth and transformation”. Their transformative approach aims to “improve the parties themselves from what they were before (as opposing to simply improving their situation). Gerald Monk and John Winslade pioneered narrative mediation in their book of the same name. Their approach focuses on the importance of building a story of relationship between disputing parties that is incompatible with the conflict. Both these processes aim to provide participants with an answer to “who am I” by replacing their conflict saturated stories with ones of resolution – by giving the parties a new sense of who they are in relationship to the conflict.

One can only wonder what may have become of Javert, had he had access to Monk or Winslade (below). Sadly, such a scene would likely have been left on the cutting room floor, for “happily ever after” has no place in a tragedy.

Gerald Monk and John Winslade
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Conflict Lessons from Lord of the Rings: Faramir and the Fallen Foe

Faramir_rideOne of the highlights of my conflict resolution career was a national conference presentation entitled Conflict Lessons from The Lord of the Rings. This combined my passion for conflict resolution with my love of Tolkien’s powerful trilogy. The session explored how archetypal themes from the Tolkien’s epic can help us understand conflict.

In one scene, Faramir, Prince of Gondor, stands over the corpse of an enemy soldier and reflects:

“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than ours, I deem. You wonder what his name was. Where he came from?  If he was really evil at heart? What lies or threats lead him on this long march from home, when he’d rather have stayed there? Peace. War will make corpses of us all.”

Firstly, this reflects the “drama triangle” of conflict, in which we view ourselves as an innocent victim or righteous hero and cast our adversary as a callous villain. Our adversary, however, views the mirror image of the situation – they see themselves as innocent and righteous and view us as the villain. Faramir’s short monologue demonstrates curiosity and empathy. By acknowledging his adversary’s sense of duty and remaining curious about his motives and values, Faramir humanizes his fallen foe. In my book, The Joy of Conflict Resolution, I examine the relationship between the roles of hero and villain and conclude that “a villain is a misunderstood hero” in their own story. I encourage us to remain curious as to the motivation of the other person in conflict. This understanding paves the way for collaboration.

Secondly, and more subtly, Faramir speaks to the cost of a win/lose approach. Danaan Parry, in Warriors of the Heart, points out that no one will accept losing and that win/lose will eventually devolve into lose/lose as a cycle of revenge unfolds. This dynamic underlies passive-aggressive responses in conflict, as well as outright aggression. This theme is also explored in Monk and Winslade’s book, Narrative Mediation. They recommend “mapping the impact of the conflict” on each party. This expands the discussion by encouraging each person to share how the conflict has affected them. The parties come to realize that they are both suffering – and sometimes, this shared pain is the only common ground between them. This realization humanizes those involved and allows each person to view the conflict, not each other, as the enemy.

We can also apply this approach in dealing with our own difficult people. Consider that the people who may drive us crazy are doing the best they can to get what they think they want – even though their methods may be inappropriate or unacceptable. They are likely to be as uncomfortable with the situation as we are and may welcome the opportunity to move beyond the pain of the situation towards a new understanding.

In honor of the recent release of The Hobbit this will be the first in a series of Lord of the Rings themed blogs.

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