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Creative Conflict: Working To Find The Pass In The Impasse

By Mark Gorkin

When you read the word "conflict," what's your first association: anger, tension, avoidance or power struggle? What about diversity and creativity or honesty, intimacy and organizational growth? Conflict ... we seemingly can't live with it; we surely won't survive without it.

Let's start by defining it. Conflict is the friction that builds when two or more people clash over facts, short-term goals, enduring values and the status of their relationship(s). It's also the struggle over resources and methods for defining and achieving these contested facts, goals, values and status positions. But conflict is not just functional; for the pioneering American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, it was also inspirational:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving... Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

Clearly, conflict is vital for today's "lean and mean" times. It can be the imaginative and interactive energy source firing purpose, passion and the sharing of power three key "p"s for productivity. Conversely, all "all or none" conflict resolution style or climate means one person or group is on top and in control; the other party is perceived to be incompetent, subordinate, dependent, or powerless ... and/or a threat to the established order.

This "win/lose" concept of conflict is forged by an aggressive nature, cultural socialization or from extremism in the pursuit of the Coach Lombardi ideal: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Also, unresolved emotional hurt or humiliation breeds mistrust, which often compels this "dominant or defeated" ideology. Yet, even long-standing or rigidly competitive behavior, if not basic beliefs, can change dramatically with creative intervention and good timing, i.e., 'strike when the ego is hot!"  For more information on conflict resolution, look into mediation training online.

Disarming Dueling Egos
Let me tell you the story of Murray, a salesman with a mid-sized company in New York City. My parents' friends, Murray and Lorraine, were visiting when I happened by. An experienced and successful salesman, Murray was fuming. The old company president had recently retired and put his abrasive, domineering son-in-law in charge. Murray, a classic "Type A" competitor, wasn't taking orders from anyone, especially from "some jerk" half his age.

After listening to Murray's harangue, the young boss seemed inexperienced and anxious. I suggested Murray tell his that, "I miss the old man, and while I'm not always crazy about your leadership style, I must admit you're keeping me sharp." Murray, of course, exploded: "Forget it. I wanna murder this kid. I'm not doing anything that gets him one up on me!"

Two weeks later, I again bumped into Murray. He was still quite disgruntled. This time, Murray dismissed me with a backhanded sweep when I recalled my strategy. Two weeks went by when Murray's wife unexpectedly called: "Mark, you won't believe this. Murray finally did what you suggested... and it worked." Not only had the young boss eased up on Murray, but he put Murray in charge on long-range planning and sales. (Lorraine shared that Murray, before the overture, had grown increasingly depressed. I can just imagine Lorraine saying, "Enough already," and threatening Murray with eviction if he didn't do something.)

Why did the Murray gambit work? Let's analyze this conflict resolution process:

Need To Grieve
In order to let go temporarily of his dominance-submission mindset, Murray had to release his rage then, ironically, "hit bottom." Murray was still grieving the company changes and likely displacing some anger for the departed "old man" onto "this kid." Until one is at a loss and in sufficient pain, new approaches are often rejected. Cumulative pressure can be an ally; so too Lorraine's dose of reality.

Play Up Or Open UP
Did Murray play up to the new boss! While initially feeling humiliated, I say Murray took the high road. First, he did express genuine frustration with the changing-of-the-company-guard. And, while Murray fell more wounded than "sharp," by cutting the "win/lost" cord the real challenge and opportunity was unleashed: transforming Murray from cider salesman to company statesman.

Position Vs. Interest
Initially, these ego-driven men were trapped in their self-defeating power positions. Each was depriving not just the other, but themselves. Clearly, this inexperienced boss needed an ally with historical perspective and the big picture.

It was in his interest to rely on Murray. It was also in Murray's interest to provide mixed feedback that could be received as a begrudging (hence more believable) compliment. Recognition helped defuse youthful anxiety and aggression. And, Murray's initiative was certainly paid back with "interest." Finally, while Murray would not admit it, I'm sure he enjoyed the role of mentor - a one-up position.

No need to worry about this process fundamentally changing Murray. When I saw him again, and mentioned hearing that things were better at work, Murray didn't give an inch. His only reply: "Yeah, the jerk's finally off my back!"

Good (Croup) Grief!
Now let's explore a group's passive-aggressive response to an imposed change process. In this example, a conflicted operational area is transformed into a theater for poignant absurdity and the discovery of cooperation. A department manager from a federal government agency was lamenting that her employees were resisting using a new administrative form. When this form would run out, employees invariably returned to the old standard.

Verbal exhortation and a stream of memos had not stemmed the countervailing tide. And like a stormy tide, tension was rising; undercurrent frustration was gathering strength.

In a brainstorming session with the manager, it was clear that employee input on form design, especially among those directly effected, had not been solicited. Further discussion confirmed my suspicion that resistance had more to do with the process of implementation then the form itself. An idea popped into my head: "Why not have a 'forms funeral'?" While sounding absurd, it does make sense. Effected employees could write eulogies to the old form while raising both positives and negatives regarding the new. I also recommended using the funeral forum to bury a unilateral decision-making process and preach a new day of team collaboration. To cut to the creative chase, the funeral strategy worked. With some minor modifications, the new form prevailed, and team morale was strengthened. Consider these strategic methods:

Advocate Anger
Allow another party to justify their position while criticizing your argument. Research shows this has the paradoxical effect of making the oppositional party more open to your viewpoint. Remember, people don't just argue facts, but often fight openly or covertly for status and a sense of control. They want to be heard and, at least, have the freedom to disagree or poke fun.

An open air funeral laid to rest the passive-aggressive resistance. To prevent is resurrection, use the last fifteen minutes of task-oriented team meetings as a stage for human relations issues - from the serious to the humorous. Become the humble leader of a passionate "morality play."

Conceive and Commune
Perhaps the most potent creative problem-solving tool is analogical thinking - discovering a partial similarity between like features of two things on which a comparison may be based. And if the comparison finds unexpected likeness or yields a surprising connection... the result is not only imaginative, but may be amusing as well. In fact, the renowned humorist, Mark Twain, cleverly captured a conceptual kinship between analogy and wit: "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation." Do I defect something more than just "ha-ha" humor? Connecting the involuntary retirement of a familiar form with underground anger, diminished input and control, along with resistance to change... the parallels converged to a state of loss and grief. While surprising and amusing, the "forms funeral" was also a conceptual call to action. Marking a significant event or transition with ceremony can evolve vital healing and bonding. By creating a collective ritual that sanctioned open lamentation and aggression in a constructive and humorous form, a spirit of communal catharsis, change and cohesion was reborn.

In conclusion, while often frustrating, the tension and struggle inherent in conflict sows its own seed for innovative resolution and growth. Are you ready to reap the creative pass in the impasse?

Updated 5/18/2012