In the Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes explained to Watson that he abhorred stagnation, that he needed problems and work to feed his brain. His mental curiosity drives him seek solutions and find patterns. His curiosity enables Holmes to amass an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge. All of which assist with his famous deductions.
In conflict, curiosity is one of the greatest skills. For some people, when in conflict their natural curiosity shuts down. In its place is absolute certainty, even infallibility. In reality, we are all flawed and we are all able to contribute to a conflict or to its resolution.
Using our innate curiosity about what is driving the other person (i.e. need, fear or concern) can help to unlock possible options. In mediation, we seek out interests (the need, fear or concern) which underlie the position (i.e. the tangible, concrete demand). it can be difficult. Positions are loud and clear. Almost everyone in conflict can access their position, it usually begins with "I want...".
The reason why we have decided we want this is usually more opaque. The interest that is driving our position may be obscured by emotions including fear, anxiety or anger. It can be difficult for the other person in our conflict to determine what underlying need we are trying to meet. If we can understand our own interests and those of the other person then we can design more responsive options for resolution.
When I was studying at Pepperdine, one of my professors, Jim Craven, explained that as mediators we need to "harvest interests". Maintaining curiosity about the why of people asking for something, as well as understanding the what. Being naturally curious is a gift, it prompts further questions, it enables a deeper understanding. In conflict curiosity is a real asset.
The game is afoot..to a Sherlock Holmes fan the words are instantly recognisable. Even without being a devotee it is hard to escape Sherlock, he is the most widely depicted fictional character in history and the number continues to grow (latest Henry Cavill). As a child I graduated from Nancy Drew to Sherlock Holmes with ease. Holmes may seem like an unusual topic for a blog about conflict resolution but stick with me.
Like all of us, Holmes is flawed. He is heroic and yet we can see the challenges he faces and creates for himself. He is exceptionally capable and yet can barely function in some settings.
Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at one aspect of his character and considering how this aspect can help or hinder us in conflict. It may also be that the onset of autumn makes me want to immerse myself in the stories and novels of Conan Doyle.
What is Holmes' most defining characteristic? although, I think you could make a good argument for his obsessive focus, his single-mindedness; his courage or his curiosity, for me it is his clarity of thought. From pieces of information, some seemingly irrelevant, Holmes is able to construct a picture of what is going on.
In Silver Blaze, Holmes considers the "curious incident of the dog in the night". This information is seemingly meaningless and is ignored by other characters. Holmes is able to focus on the implications of this small fact. He is able to consider the fact and then consider what this means and construct a hypothesis. He is driven by the information and then works to create meaning.
In conflict, people often work in reverse. We assign meaning to other people's behaviour and then we work backwards to seek out the words / actions which justify our assigned meaning. In this way we may feel an emotional truth and then use our rational brain to justify our beliefs. In conflict, this ability can become magnified. It can lead to entrenched views and flawed thinking. It can lead us to rationalise our negative beliefs - the other person is selfish, thoughtless, a narcissist, etc.
Leon Festinger was a pioneer in the field of cognitive dissonance. I have written in an earlier post about one of my favourite books, "Mistakes Were Made - but Not by Me". This book explores the way in which we use our cognitive powers to justify decisions we have already made. An error in thinking, of which I am sure, Holmes would steer clear.
In conflict, being more like Sherlock Holmes and working from data to theory can be more productive. Next week more Holmesian thoughts - including my favourite screen Holmes. Do you have a favourite Sherlock Holmes depiction?
If you are in a conflict or negotiation with someone who has a fixed and unyielding time perspective, what are some ways you can try and shift them to a more balanced time perspective? As a mediator, we are always seeking tools to help people to shift their perspective and to be in a position to consider all of the options. Based on the Zimbardo Time Perspective, below are some tools that may be useful to help someone shift appropriately to a more balanced time perspective:
What are some ways you may adapt your approach to other people in conflict or negotiation to take into account time perspective?
As with so many frameworks, there is no correct perspective, however for parties in mediation, it may be an issue to have an excessive focus on any one orientation at the expense of other orientations. In mediation, you can see how this may work in the room.
We cannot administer the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory on everyone we meet, but we can formulate a hypothesis which may assist us to support the parties in their mediation, or as a party to formulate options and proposals.
What time perspective is helpful to a party in mediation/conflict? Boniwell and Zimbardo suggest that a balanced time perspective is optimal for human functioning.
What does this mean?
A balanced time perspective is one where a person is able to shift flexibly between time perspectives depending on the task features, situational considerations and personal resources – as opposed to being biased towards a specific time perspective which is not adaptive, or even maladaptive.
In conflict, I think this means that people need to be able to accept the past has happened, be grounded in the reality of their present and be able to project into their future.
We can all think about conflict situations, where people, can appear to be cemented in the past and blame. However, much you try to shift them to a future focus they insist on returning to the past.
The challenges of this past oriented approach are apparent. Firstly it may stop some one from being able to consider options for the future and to move forward. They may continue to exist in a past negative orientation. It can easily derail a mediation or negotiation process. In extreme cases, it may antagonise the other party.
Next week, how can you help someone shift into a balanced time perspective?
The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory originally set out 5, then 6 time orientations -with future negative added by Carelli to take us to 7:
For the present oriented they may focus on concrete factors in the immediate, sensory present while minimizing abstract qualities relevant to a decision that exists only in an anticipated future. It can be difficult for them to delay gratification and they may be easily distracted. They may be uninterested in considering the impact of their decisions today on future consequences.
For the future oriented the focus will be on reasoning, abstract ideas and a clear concern about consequences. They may be better able to focus on the importance of long-term goals e.g. how well adjusted their children will be following separation. They may be very focused on efficiency and micro-planning.
Next week, what does this mean in conflict and mediation?
Whilst you may experience a sense of relief following a difficult conversation it is worth taking some time to reflect and assess what happened.
We can helpfully prepare ourselves to do better next time, by asking ourselves some simple questions:
In a difficult conversation, we know that our emotions will be engaged. The question becomes how to manage them. In the next few posts, I will examine some of the ideas that may be helpful in regulating and understanding our emotions.
For today, here are my top five ways to regulate your emotions:
in his highly successful work, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann described how our brains work using two systems. A fast intuitive System 1 and a slow, rational System 2. In combination they work to help us navigate the world and stay alive.
The challenge is that System 2 is very energy expensive to run. As a result we make many decisions, below our level of consciousness with System 1. So far so good.
Unfortunately, System 1 is vulnerable to cognitive biases. We can use System 1 to create a story about what is happening and how we feel which may be based on biases. We then compound the problem by using System 2 to rationalise the 'emotional' decision we have made.
In conflict, people feel under attack and often find it difficult to engage System 2. It feels comfortable to rely on their System 1 intuitions and biases. There are ways to de-bias ourselves:
In and earlier post, I had recommended "How Emotions Are Made" by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She describes the Theory of Constructed Emotion, in which our brains predict what we need to do based on information they receive, models they have made and our past experience.
This seems counter intuitive. How can our emotions be constructed by us? when we feel as if we are reacting to what is happening around us? How can we be responsible for the distress and pain when the other person's behaviour has caused it?
These ideas can be challenging to accept. One way to think about it is considering how we feel based on the same stimulus. For example, imagine you are driving along a quiet road when out of nowhere a sports car swerves in front of you and disappears into the distance. How do you feel? Now imagine that instead of a sports car that was an ambulance? same stimulus but different emotional reaction. We are not passive receptors of emotion, we actively construct how we feel.
If you are heading into a difficult conversation, then you can help yourself by constructing more helpful emotions. For example, rather than feeling the tightness in your stomach and deciding that you are anxious and worried, tell yourself that you are excited. If you are excited the chances are that you will perform better than if you are anxious.
Communication is challenging at the best of times. In a difficult conversation it can become impossible. Whilst there are many skills which can improve communication, there are two which I would like to focus on for this series, this week: acknowledgment.
Acknowledgement is a quiet superpower. We can all think of times when we were communicating something emotional / difficult and where we were acknowledged by the other person. It makes us feel heard, as if they understand what we are trying to communicate. it creates a sense of connection and rapport. In a difficult conversation, it can seem counterintuitive (or even impossible) to create rapport, however, the chances of creating a learning conversation are enhanced if the other person does not feel under attack. If we want to have a constructive conversation rather than a chance to blame / judge then one step is to acknowledge the other person's feelings.
Acknowledgement does not mean agreeing with everything they are saying, or agreeing that we are fault. However, it is a way of acknowledging that we have heard the underlying emotional content of their communication and that we accept this is how they feel.
Acknowledgments do not need to be lengthy or complicated. A simple statement such as "I can hear that you are ..." / "It sounds like..." can start to build the bridge of communication. If you are mistaken and the emotion is not correct, they will tell you. That's great - keep trying. I use acknowledgment in mediation all the time to let the person speaking how that I have received the message. You can see people visibly relax when they feel that you are trying to understand them and acknowledge how they feel.