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?
In this new series, I will be exploring the work of Philip Zimbardo and his Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.
You may recognise the Zimbardo name from the Stanford Prison Experiment. In 1971, in an experiment structured by Dr Philip Zimbardo, college students were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment was abandoned after 6 days and attracted controversy.
During the experiment, Zimbardo says that he noticed that the students who were prisoners ceased to have regard to their past or future and in that short time began to focus on their present alone. Although the experiment was prematurely stopped, Zimbardo began to study time perception.
In his work, The Time Paradox, Zimbardo explains that time perspective has cognitive, emotional and social components. The formation of an individual’s perspective is influenced by various factors including: family of origin, cultural and social influences, personal experiences, professional training, etc.
Time perspective is a coherent framework we each use for living. The framework has been shown to impact attention, perception and importantly for mediators decision-making. Whilst this may be a personality preference it can also be influenced by situational forces.
Next week what are the 7 time perspectives?
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.
You gave too much rein to your imagination. Imagination is a good servant, and a bad master. The simplest explanation is always the most likely.
In family conflict, parties often have wild imaginations. The breach of trust which leads to the end of the relationship throws all certainties into doubt. Even if there has been a long history, the parties can feel as if they no longer recognise each other. This is also typically when communication breaks down. Into this vacuum, imagination pours fears, interpretations and dire prophecies.
Some of these beliefs are related to the changes in behaviour/actions/choices of each party as the relationship disintegrates. However, many of them spring from allowing our imaginations to run wild. As Agatha Christie, notes imaginations are a bad master. If there is a concern, much better to raise constructively. Through mediation, we can work to create a new paradigm for communication and a world without assumptions.
I was reading a NYT article today about how separated parents are coping with the challenges of Covid 19. The author, Hannah Ingber explains that when social distancing in the US started she was worried about how co-parenting would work. Ingber and her ex-partner were in conflict over many parenting decisions. She is surprised and relieved to find that the petty differences between them fall away as they grapple with how to manage risks for their children. Perhaps in years to come it will become common practice to include pandemic arrangements in mediated agreements between separating parents. At present this is not the norm.
What is part of normal mediation practice is working to help parents to child-focus and to strengthen and re-imagine a co-parental alliance. The shared common value of keeping children safe can be a bridge for parents to adapting and changing. Adapting to the new circumstances; and changing established views of the other parent as the 'enemy'. The relative unimportance of that additional extracurricular activity, or whether handover is at 6pm or 7pm, is highlighted when parents must work together for basic health issues. this bridge can lead parents to shift from the negative views and beliefs about the other person as an adult, to a new vision of the other person as a co-parent. In the role of co-parent there is a chance for redemption and trust.
This ability to adapt and change is one Miss Marple has in spades. In "A Caribbean Mystery" she encounters Jason Rafiel, a rich and highly cantankerous man whom she wisely decides to avoid. However, through a series of circumstances, it becomes clear that Mr Rafiel has hidden depths of empathy and kindness. They become allies and work to solve the spate of murders at the resort.
If Miss Marple had held strong to her original beliefs about Mr Rafiel she would have lost the chance for his support and wisdom during her investigation, and his friendship thereafter. Without doubt, Miss Marple is justified in her negative opinion of Mr Rafiel's behaviour. What becomes apparent though is his intrinsic worth as a person is obscured by some of his behaviours. For many people in conflict, the behaviours are synonymous with the person. We observe the behaviours and weigh the worth (or otherwise) of the person themselves. As Miss Marple knows, people contain 'multitudes' (thank you Walt Whitman).
Being open to adapt and change, gives Miss Marple the edge in her investigation. In conflict, being open-minded can enable a shift in mindset from warring enemies to co-parents who can put their children first. Miss Marple knows that the charming host may conceal the murderer, the gentle lady in the next pew may be the poison pen writer. We need to be just as open to change and adapter as Miss Marple.