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February 2005

Happy New Year! I hope this newsletter finds you well and already launched into a creative and prosperous 2005!

If you are like many of the people I work with, some of the toughest challenges you face in the new year involve handling conflict -- in your personal as well as your professional life. Maybe you even made a New Year's resolution to address a particularly tough situation you are facing?

My experience has been that few of us seem to be able to master the art of successfully managing conflict. Because conflict is so important to achieving creative results, I am devoting this entire issue, and part of the next one as well, to the topic.

What does conflict have to do with creativity and innovation? Read on....

in this issue
  • Creative Collaborative Conflict
  • Conflict... The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Five Winning Strategies
  • Conflict -- A New Beginning

  • Conflict... The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

    Conflict -- sometimes just the word causes your teeth to chatter or an ache in your stomach to form. Conflict arises when there are perceived differences of opinion, discrepancies, incompatible wishes, and irreconcilable differences. These perceived differences and incompatibilities can result in major wars, such as what's going on in Iraq, or smaller disagreements over budget allotments, who's in charge of a project, or even who gets the car on Saturday night.

    Ineffective management of conflict disrupts the organization or the community or the family. In business, studies indicate conflict -- or the issues around it -- consumes over 40% of a manager's time, causing confusion, distraction and poor morale. Yet, these very same differences of opinion and perceived irreconcilable differences can also become ingredients for the most creative solutions.

    To start to look at conflict more creatively, let's first set the stage with a brief discussion about major causes of conflict and typical responses to it. Then, using some exciting research, I will lay out some strategies for reaping the benefits of conflict!

    Causes of conflict

    The reasons we have conflict are many. We start off with different goals and different ways of looking at or even defining the problem. Lack of real communication and a mindset of "I win-you lose" often contribute to the problem. At the same time, more often than not, conflict is frequently rooted in deeply held values, unconscious assumptions, and disguised fears. The emotional baggage, or issues that we have long forgotten or tried to dismiss that conflict frequently brings up, makes the situation even worse. In the heat of the moment, we don't have time or are unable to deal with those underlying issues so our frustrations, angers, or other pain come out in weird ways. Conflict seems to have the power to reduce us to acting like children, even if we're members of AARP!

    Impact of conflict

    Because conflict often brings out the worst in us and because we are too often ill equipped to effectively turn conflict into a creative activity, unresolved issues lead to a loss of productivity in the workplace or at home (think about the secret discussions, talking behind people's back, time lost trying to figure out what is really going on, or loss of sleep you've experienced). These issues can also lead to confusion, resentment, or suppressed anger. We put off dealing with tough problems because we fear unpleasant repercussions. We deny there's a problem, laugh it off, or blame it on others or "the system." Or we attempt to bully others and dominate the situation in a way that can result in even greater polarization of the parties involved. Our inability to deal with the issue can even lead to lethargy, depression, high blood pressure, or other forms of illness.

    Yet, differences of opinion can also be seeds that breed creative energy -- not only in coming up with more creative solutions. Working together and finding ways to fix the problem, especially in a win-win manner, can lead to greater teamwork and trust, as well as be a fun and enriching experience!

    Three types of conflict

    How can we break the hold of these forces to reap the benefits of diverse views and new perspectives? Perhaps we need to look at conflict from a different -- more creative -- perspective! Researcher Karen Jehn and her colleagues have studied conflict for many years and have discovered that conflict actually comes in three different forms.

    The first type is emotional conflict, the kind that arises over interpersonal tension, hurt feelings, friction, and personal fears. This is the type of conflict that is often accompanied by temper tantrums (from children and adults!) or name-calling. At work these reactions may or may not be masked. They can instead come out as sarcasm or perhaps as withdrawal from the conversation or a facade that "nothing's wrong" or other strange forms of disguised feelings.

    The second is process conflict, the kind that comes from differences over purpose or goals, or who is in charge, or how the project or task is going to be accomplished, or even the very purpose of the activity. We've seen this type of conflict in a team that bickers over the politics of the leadership issue. Or a team that wastes time figuring out the reason for the project they are working on. Or the team that can't agree on a task plan because they can't all agree on what they are even trying to achieve.

    And finally, there is task conflict, or issues over the actual task that has to be achieved, the idea, the problem that needs to be solved, the real issue at hand, the pie that needs to be divided, or who actually gets the keys to the car on Saturday night.

    Five Winning Strategies

    Understanding these distinctions are important because each has its own causes and each should really be handled differently. While the lines separating the three aren't always distinct, this classification can help us figure out ways to resolve conflict most creatively and constructively. These distinctions form the basis of the five recommended strategies for dealing with conflict:

    1. Pay attention and recognize when conflict is coming up.

    Don't ignore the first signs of conflict or try to hide from it, because the situation will only get worse. You will usually feel some discomfort -- a sense that something is wrong. Maybe there is a twitch in your stomach or your nose starts to itch. Somehow you pick up a signal from a facial expression or tone of voice. But you know something is not quite right. Then there will be a minor incident that you ignore. That unresolved discomfort leads to misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication. Finally the situation blows up with emotions bursting onto the scene, nasty sarcasm, irrational words and gestures, and possibly even violence. Instead of letting the issue get out of hand, address it the first time around. Try to determine if it is emotional, task, or process conflict and set your strategy accordingly.

    2. If it's emotional, first take a deep breath and recognize the emotions.

    Emotional conflict often arises when feelings have been hurt or when there are personality clashes. Thus acknowledging the emotions with an "I-Statement" are the first step. ("You" statements often sound like blame and can make the situation worse!) Try to agree that you need to deal with the disagreement. Pick a good time and place to have a private conversation -- just don't wait too long. (For example, "I'm uncomfortable with what's happening. Can we meet later this afternoon and talk about it?") Do your best to stay focused on the importance of maintaining the relationship. Try to see the problem from the other person's point of view. Assume you are both right and mutually resolve to work to come up with a new and different answer that meets both of your needs. Use the conflict to better understand the other person and their points of view and priorities.

    3. If it's process related, take a deep breath and agree to talk about your perceived differences and the best next steps.

    Lack of clarity over who's in charge or over the charter of the team and its boundaries often produce major conflict. Set some groundrules on how you want to work together as a team, agree on a charter and purpose for each new project. Decide how decisions will be made, which ones can be made by the team members and which ones are reserved for the team leader or others. Define what you will and will not try to accomplish. Determine how you will deal with differences of opinion -- hopefully openly and directly. Clarify your assumptions and make sure they are aligned. Be sure that roles and responsibilities have been clearly defined. Create meeting protocols to be sure that all issues are given the discussion time they need and that everyone is heard. Use this type of conflict to better manage the project and make sure the team is aligned.

    4. If it's task related, take a deep breath and look forward to the challenge of finding a creative, win-win solution!

    This type of conflict is where creativity can produce great synergy and breakthrough solutions. The first step with task-related conflict then is to be sure you are clear about the task to be addressed. Spend time defining the problem clearly so you are both working from the same set of assumptions. (A problem well-defined is often half-solved!) Treat the conflict as a joint problem and work together to find its solution. Think win - win. Begin by making costless exchanges: what is essential for the other party may be unimportant for you. Then apply the steps of creative problem solving and brainstorming, or other creativity techniques to reframe the issue. (For more information on the use of a creative problem solving technique, see below!) Move outside the boundaries of the problem and avoid taking the perspective of an either/or or mutually exclusive solution. Maintain an open mind, and be inventive. As you look at the problem with fresh eyes, a solution that meets your respective needs will start to emerge. Resolving opposing contradictions and finding a new and better solution require keen perception and discrimination and a brilliant inventiveness. It isn't necessarily easy or quick. It takes patience. But it challenges you and can be lots of fun!

    5. Apply your own creativity and creative talents to the effort.

    Identifying your own creative style and relying on your own creativity can help you resolve conflict -- whether it's emotional, process or task -- not only in the actual development of a solution. Greater awareness of your creative nature brings a sense of self-esteem, and heightened self esteem brings a confidence that you can handle anything life tosses your way, including conflict! With greater self-confidence, you are able to relax, ask good, reasonable questions, and be able to listen to provocative answers. Your ability to depersonalize conflict, disagree without being disagreeable, and create innovative solutions will grow and flourish.

    When you are using your creative talents to achieve creative results and make creative contributions, you often challenge the status quo and ask lots of questions. So you may actually generate more conflict! However, knowing how you are creative will give you a better idea about your cognitive processes. You are more aware of the assumptions you are making about the situation and the values, needs and drivers that are framing the position you are taking in the conflict. Thus being in touch with your creative style brings greater self-awareness, higher self-confiidence as well as a greater ability to generate more creative ideas -- all of which are important paths to more inventive solutions!

    Conflict -- A New Beginning

    Sometimes in the heat of the conflict, it is difficult to sort through the issues and remember the best strategy. That's why taking a deep breath should always be your first reaction! Then you can decide what you need to do in the particular situation. Often there are not clear distinctions between the three different types of conflict. Unresolved emotional issues can often cloud a process or task-related conflict, for example.

    However, by stepping back and getting in touch with your creative core, you'll be better able to assess the best strategy to adopt. You'll find you have a more positive attitude that you can deal with any -- or at least many -- of the problems you face. You'll be better able to step outside the box the conflict put you in and see debate as healthy and productive. You will discover a capacity to be open, flexible, and buoyant. Seeing yourself as creative is thus vital not only for a healthy and productive life, but also to help you turn the conflict you once loathed into a truly creative, collaborative and fun experience!

    "What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature. Fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned." -- Mary Parker Follett

    Creative Collaborative Conflict

    Welcome to this special issue of the Practical Innovator newsletter. In this issue we will examine common causes of conflict and typical responses and then explore five winning strategies for turning conflict into a competitive advantage. In the next issue, we will investigate the role and impact of the eight creative talents and conflict.

    To provide this background and the five winning strategies, I am drawing on the work of several women. The first is Mary Parker Follett, a management consultant who lived right here in Boston from 1868-1933. The second is Karen Jehn, a professor now at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands, who has extensively researched the nature of conflict. And two women in Australia, Helena Cornelius and Shoshana Faire of the Conflict Resolution Network, whose book "Everyone Can Win" provides some important perspectives on conflict management.

    I am also soliciting your feedback as to how you have learned to manage conflict productively so that it produces deeper relationships and more creative results. Please send your comments and ideas to me, at lynne@breakthroughcreativity.com, and I will share them with our readers.

    For more information about conflict and creativity, stay tuned for the next newsletter!

    "... conflict consumes over 40% of a manager's time."

    "Differences of opinion can also be seeds that breed creative energy......"

    "Don't ignore the first signs of conflict....."

    "Acknowledge the emotions.... try to see the problem from their point of view...."

    "Set groundrules for working together as a team...."

    "Be sure you have defined the problem correctly and then find a creative, win-win solution."

    "Greater awareness of your creative nature brings a sense of self-esteem, and heightened self esteem brings a confidence that you can handle anything life tosses your way, including conflict!"

    "Getting in touch with your creative core ... will help you turn the conflict you once loathed into a truly creative, collaborative and fun experience!"

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