Imagination as a tool in conflict resolution
More options for win-win situations
Disagreements escalate into conflicts when people come to a dead end. This might occur when a mutually reached agreement fails to happen or on account of failing to understand each other, or not being able to agree or to disagree. Regardless of how difficult a conflict might seem, it must be always observed from different perspectives in order to search for new inventive and imaginative solutions.
There is a common way of escalating disagreements. In the beginning, it starts as a simple difference in opinions. People talk about how they see things differently. Depending on the topic and how much personally involved are the sides, it might escalate to open disagreement, where both sides are defending their positions and cannot progress further. The escalation of the differences leads to a conflict, which is a collision of two opposing needs, values or interests. If many people get involved on each side, the disagreement can escalate into a national or international conflict.
Conflicts normally appear because two or more sides believe that they know the right answer to the dispute. They believe that their offer is reasonable and should be adopted depending on the position, the resources, the situation, the needs and so on.
One of the main problems in finding a mutually acceptable solution is that the sides are negotiating over in a linear manner – more for me is less for you, and vice versa. They observe the conflict as one piece of the pie. And this is what in most of the disagreements can bring the sides to a dead end, escalation of conflict or even potentially ‘’living the table’’. The sides are not observing a potential solution where each of the sides gets 1/3 of the pie and they trade the last third to create fruits, nuts and chocolate flakes, so everyone takes what they need.
In this article we will reflect on how to get out of that vicious circle in negotiations to come to more options, which prevents people to observe all possible scenarios.
In the book Getting to yes, (Ury, Patton, Fisher, 2011) that is one of the widest accepted books on negotiations and conflict resolution, the authors present some of the major obstacles and common mistakes that people do.
- Premature judgement
Many times, there is a situation, where the other side is not even finished with the presentation of a solution, and (in your mind), you immediately start judging that solution and listing the reasons (in your mind) why it won’t work, even before the person is finished explaining. How often does this happen to you? How often do we interrupt the person that is talking, already having reached an opinion, instead of keeping an open mind till the end?
Premature judgement is preventing the constructive approach, keeping an open mind, and brainstorming to a new imaginative solution. Stress, previous failures, and time pressure also seriously hinders the ability to keep an open mind to new and imaginative solutions.
It is difficult when you have a crisis, a steep disagreement in the team, but not enough time and no obvious solution in sight, to avoid just shooting down ideas of why things won’t work.
2. Searching for the single answer
Most of the people, when they think of disagreements and how to solve them, they think of narrowing the gap between the differences they have. The most common phrase I have heard is that the solution lies in the middle, wherever that might be.
You have a few participants on the training course that are really difficult to handle. They disagree with everything you say, they are disrespectful in times, and make additional stress to the whole environment. After talking to them face-to-face didn’t work out, and you are already very late with the agenda, and people are disgruntled because it feels like a waste of time and the group cannot move forward and there are already disagreements between them and other participants, what do you do next? Where is the middle then?
One of your fellow trainers believes that you should continue as planned for the most of the group and if they continue with the same attitude, just give them the option to leave. The other trainer believes that you should take that into consideration, adjust the program and just go much slower. Both sides have valid arguments, so the solution should be somewhere between those two i.e in the middle?
Why do we always think one-dimensionally? Why do we always go towards the linear?
3. The assumption of a fixed pie
We explained in the opening the concept of the fixed pie – my gain is your loss and vice versa when in most of the cases it should be oriented to a win-win situation.
4. The approach of “solving their problem, is their problem”
One of the most common mistakes in the disagreements is to think that they are solely responsible for their problems as we are for ours. The sides don’t often think about the implementation of the “agreement”, about the next stages, about the feeling that the other side has about the agreement and the potential pressure that it is not voiced out. Even if we reach an agreement on a solution, but these things are not taken into consideration, the agreement might fall apart on the next challenge or there might not be results or they might slow down the whole process.
These are major and common mistakes that we do. But what are the solutions for those situations, how should we approach to have a constructive attitude?
Brainstorm, don’t talk about the decision
This is one of the most useful tools that I use repeatedly. Regardless of how some ideas may seem unrealistic and impossible, as far as the brainstorming goes, it might lead you to a direction that you didn’t expect and you will get ideas that you would never have thought about by yourself.
The brainstorming atmosphere has to be set up too, and depends on several factors:
Environment – if you were brainstorming in your office and you got stuck, stop and go outside for a walk and after continue with the brainstorming. If you had a formal atmosphere with flipcharts and notes, leave the notes and go for a drink or lunch. If you were brainstorming during the day, try brainstorming first thing in the morning. It will allow you to get a fresh perspective, a different approach and energy.
Time – if you feel stuck and you have a lack of options, stop and continue some other time. People might come with fresh ideas after sleeping on it. Put a deadline if you didn’t have one or remove it if you had it. It might cause people to be more reasonable because they would feel a sense of urgency, or it might depressurize the environment and the need to find the “one solution”. Take a break. If you are not comfortable with the options that are on the table, and if the situation allows it, take a break to reflect. Some new perspectives might come in a few days or a week.
Implications – when people are brainstorming, they often keep in mind and assume the implications that might be affecting themselves, their work, or the organization they represent. You should always try to diss-attach the implication of the solution from the actual solution. For example: I think that the “wild idea” will only bring additional work to me, which I don’t have the capacity for and don’t want to do it at the moment, so we will disregard it and don’t even put it on the table. What if we bring another person to implement the “wild idea”, and we focus on how to get that new person on the team? Or we address the idea another time?
Outcomes – in brainstorming for solutions, often people are too much focused on the outcome. A+B=C. That kind of approach limits people to consider only potential solutions that directly lead to the “final” solution. Keep all options open, don’t be afraid to explore and keep an open mind. Small steps or step in between, might be just what the negotiations need.
Roles – it’s good to change the roles in the brainstorming, so reset the dynamics. We change who is the facilitator, we change who is taking the minutes, we change the person who is leading the meeting. In brainstorming you can go even further of assigning roles – one person to be the prudent one, another to be the optimistic one, one person to be thinking out of the box. You can as well rotate those roles.
People – I often change the people who are in the brainstorming or involved in the whole issue in order to get more options. I either invite someone else who wasn’t present until then, or break down in smaller teams, or I rotate the people in those teams. The change of the people gives totally different perspectives and potential options that it resets the dynamics.
Broaden your options
Effective teams normally don’t focus on solutions but on a general path. Limiting yourself even if you have the right solution, might prevent you from potential opportunities that might arise in the future.
In) Getting to yes, the authors are proposing the Circle chart as a way of creating more options:
Look for mutual gain
Sometimes, when people have disagreements, they focus on convincing, arguing, manipulating or pressuring the other side to agree with their opinion. That “technique” often works, although, it depends on the situation. However, the agreement not necessarily means that you will reach your goals. If the sides don’t feel comfortable about the agreement, they might ask you to renegotiate. They might slow it down, refuse to implement it, not reach the intended quality, or they might simply quit.
That is why a forced agreement is never a sustainable one, and they are mostly short-termed.
When negotiation talks are going on, over a dispute or a conflict, for the utmost importance is to look for mutual gain.
Identify their interests – even if they are not sharing them. Put yourself in their shoes and think what might be the drive for their position, for their decisions and behavior. You might realize something that you didn’t know before. That might lead you to a win-win solution.
Ask the right question and listen without judgement – what do you want to achieve with this? What is your goal? How do you see the whole situation playing out? Asking the right question is not such a problem. Listening to the answer without judgement is.
Keeping an open mind even if you hear the most unexpected and unreasonable thing, accepting something that goes against your beliefs and understanding their point of view, is easier said than done.
Being able to understand the other side (not accept their position) is going to exponentially increase the chance of striking an agreement.
Make their decision easy
There are many approaches that different authors take, on how and why to make their decision easy. My approach, based on a partial blend of those theories and my personal experience, is the following one:
Think of a situation when you had to reach an agreement, but afterwards, you didn’t feel comfortable with the decision. Something was missing. That will temper your dedication to the agreement and will without a doubt influence the outcome of the agreement. You won’t give as much as you normally would.
Now put yourself on the other side. If you make sure that the other side gets a little bit more “benefit”, that feels really good about the made agreement and how are they seen. They will increase their respect for themselves, but also will respect you because you gave a bit more when you didn’t have to. This should make them appreciate the approach, give in more during the implementation and would want to give back more than they are supposed to and therefore maintain that mutual respect and appreciation.
Additional added value are all of the potential projects and activities that will come of out that approach. The positive effects can be multispectral and long-lasting. Some authors refer to as “negotiating in good faith”.
How does this relate to being a trainer?
Working as a trainer or youth worker means that you will have disagreements with a variety of groups – participants, fellow trainers, coworkers from your organization or bosses who are not involved in the project, external authorities such as your national agency or the youth services in your city.
Knowing these tools will help you manage the disagreements better. The disagreements will have much better outcomes, which will make you more satisfied with your job, because of the better working atmosphere and the pleasure of finding better and more effective solutions in different situations. This will also influence the quality of the learning experience for your participants.
The challenge here is that we work in an environment that is fast changing as it happens in real-time and therefore it is unpredictable. The tools should be used as “instruments” that help “flying the plane”
Not just knowing these tools, but mastering them can help trainers and youth workers to “fly the plane in autopilot mode” and manage disagreements much more effectively on everyday basis.
Think about concrete situations from the past, break them down, and list suggestions about what you could have done, to make it better?
Make a note with tools that you find useful from the text above, and write down in which situations you might need them. The next time you face any of those situations, take the note out and start following the steps you chose.
Talk with your team and choose some of the tools that you find useful. Write them down on a flipchart and hang them in your office.
Am I too quick on jumping on the first few solutions?
Do I prematurely judge the solution from the other side?
Am I thinking about the other side, when trying to overcome a disagreement?
Am I annoyed when I cannot easily reach an agreement with the other side?
Am I looking for solutions that are not on the table and can be seen as “wild” or “crazy” ideas?
Am I looking for a middle ground or am I looking for the right solution?
Do I make some choices up, because there is a lack of choices?
Do we rotate the positions when we are in disagreements?
Are we listening to each other without judgement and with empathy?
How can implementing these tools help our team?
If these tools can help us, which areas would they influence?
What is the potential outcome of our work?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” ―Albert Einstein
“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” ―Gloria Steinem