Creative Conflict

First off, there are many reasons to be angry at this point in history. We realize we are mad as hell, feel distressed, because in this country, these United States of America, the status of women and children is important to us. So let’s start there: country-wide conflicts educate and inform us of who we are and what we value.

I find myself thinking about my values because last night I attended a seminar on Navigating Conflict in the Workplace for NYU alumni, led by Erik Yazdani.

Here were some strategies I learned and then I dive into greater detail below:
1. Get on the balcony to see the dance floor
2. Collapsing vs. Opening Up Your Thinking
3. Know Negotiation Theory
4. Use Systems Thinking
5. Identify Your Core Identities

1. You have to see the bigger picture. Make sure in your mind’s eye, in the film of your story, you shoot the establishing shot. This is tough for me. I am someone who does not always see the forest for the trees. As a writer I am exquisite at getting lost in the details. When I paint, I can get into the smallest of brush strokes. But composition? Setting the scene? Not so much.

2. Yazdani demonstrated the idea of collapse vs. opening up by showing two images — one of two people facing each other in a heated exchange. The other, two people on a park bench staring off together into the distance. This is a good image for me. As one of the world’s greatest bench sitters, I love the vista and relaxation of a moment on a park bench. I love to look outwards at a body of water towards the common good.

3. Negotiation theory is that idea of Getting to Yes. Ask open-ended questions. Find wiggle room. Find the places where there is more than one possible answer or way out. We discussed the example of the car salesperson who may not be able to negotiate on price but may be able to negotiate on the timing of the car payments.

4. Systems Thinking involves recognizing that there’s a whole back story to each of us. And we may have to compromise. What a radical concept — compromise. We are all coming to our own understandings and conclusions, given our own habits, styles, personal histories.

5. Core identities refers to our values. Conflict calls these into question. When I am in conflict, I definitely become sensitive, withdrawn and, yes, emotional. Because I care! But my heated emotions may trigger your defensiveness. And the goal is to NOT EVER trigger the other person’s defensiveness, because then, we have just begun a tug of war. We are not able to listen empathetically to one annother. We are only listening to win.

Conflict helps us identify our core identities, so we ask:

  • Am I competent?
  • Am I a good person?
  • Am I worthy of love?
  • Am I able to stand up for myself?

Other take-aways from last night’s session about difficult conversations include the advice to:
1. Start well — set a tone of curiosity rather than certainty. (Love this!)
2. Imagine you are speaking from the place of a third-party party mediator. I have said this to my kids: imagine you are your own lawyer. Yes, speak up for yourself, but do so factually, rationally. Be a self advocate. Be lawyerly. Self-advocacy is a tool that takes practice.

Yazdani recommends these books: Difficult Conversations and Leadership on the Line.

I also remind you of the amazing The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. For women and especially for us at this moment in history, this book explains why we cry when we are angry. Back when it came out, this book changed my life. I was able to see that there were some people to whom I could speak up to when I felt injured or hurt, but there were others for whom I could not (and should not) i.e., my boss or my teacher.

Lerner also taught strategies for not blaming someone else but using your “I” statements — like a broken record, if necessary. State your emotions — from the “I” point of view — again and again, if you are not heard the first time. Stay empathetic and thoughtful. (Yes, curious, too.)

I have also always loved the book Getting to Yes. When I led the middle school debate club at school, I wanted to use this text, but it is a little advanced for preteens. I love the idea that in conflict negotiation, all parties can win.

“Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert on the self and less of an expert on others.” – Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships 

“People listen better if they feel that you have understood them. They tend to think that those who understand them are intelligent and sympathetic people whose own opinions may be worth listening to. So if you want the other side to appreciate your interests, begin by demonstrating that you appreciate theirs.” – Roger Fisher, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In

Central Park Bench
There must be a story behind every plaque on every Central Park bench.
Reservoir park bench
Near the reservoir you have flowers, tee shirts, shorts, coffee, and citibikes galore.

For more information from Erik Yazdani on Navigating Conflict, check out:

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