Conflict is an important part of a growing organization. Organizations are a collective sum of many ideologies and methodologies huddling together to make the common good. While conflicts are inevitable, our way of handling them to get a progressive outcome is critical for the positive outcome.

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, author of Optimal Outcomes, has a lot to say about this topic through his book. Let’s dive in.

What’s the number one mistake people make when faced with a conflict?

Dealing with a conflict situation the same way they have before, and expecting a different result. There are four common conflict habits that get us into trouble: blaming others, avoiding others, blaming ourselves, and relentlessly trying to collaborate even when others refuse to cooperate. We engage in these habits with the best of intentions, but when we use them habitually, regardless of the situation we find ourselves in, they become warped and unhelpful.

In your new book, Optimal Outcomes (Harper Business; February 2020), you place a priority on conflict freedom over conflict resolution. Would you clarify the difference?

Conflict resolution says that conflicts can be resolved by meeting your own and others’ interests in ways that allow all parties to win. But some attempts to resolve conflict have failed so many times, trying to “solve” them becomes futile. Conflict freedom helps us stop trying to resolve something that has shown itself to be unresolvable.

Instead, it shows us how to methodically free ourselves from the mindsets, emotions and behaviors that have gotten us stuck. It helps us achieve optimal outcomes, which take into account the reality of the constraints we face, as well as our imagined best-case scenario. Optimal Outcomes are often different from what we thought we wanted, but more satisfying than we ever imagined possible.

What’s wrong with always striving for “win-win” solutions?

Always striving for “win-win” solutions can sometimes be a waste of time, energy, money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere. This keeps you stuck in conflict, unable to move forward.

Anger typically escalates conflict, as most of us know from painful experience. How can anger and other underlying emotions also be used as tools to break out of conflict?

Anger, and any other emotion, can be used destructively or as a catalyst for constructive change. The leaders of nonviolent protest movements, including Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela didn’t ignore their anger; they used it to inspire constructive social change. But you don’t have to be an activist to use your anger, or any other emotion, in your favor. You simply need to acknowledge it, ask what message it is trying to send you (anger typically says: “This is not right!”), and take constructive action based on its message.

How do values play a role in conflict? Would you shed light on shadow values and the power of honoring them?

It’s become increasingly popular for individuals, teams, and whole organizations to identify what I call our “ideal values”– those pillars that tell the world what we hold dear. But we rarely identify our “shadow values”: those things we care deeply about, but would never admit, not even to ourselves.

For example, deep down, you might care about gaining recognition for your work. But when you don’t admit this, it drives your behavior anyway, often causing conflict with others without your understanding how or why. When you honor your shadow values by acknowledging their presence in your thoughts, words or actions, you have greater power to achieve the results you’re looking for.

In Optimal Outcomes, you state that freeing yourself from devastating conflict starts with a vision of your ideal future. Why did you choose Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to exemplify this practice?

If you’re stuck in conflict, you’ve probably already exhausted a long list of rational solutions. It’s time to stop thinking, and start imagining instead. The best way to do this is to use all of your senses, plus your emotions, to imagine an ideal future. In Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he says, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” He helps us imagine how the ground will feel beneath our feet, moving from “quick sands” to “solid rock.” When he calls out, “This will be the day when [we will] sing…‘[F]rom every mountainside, let freedom ring,’” he helps us hear the tune of the song and the chime of the bells of freedom ringing.

Would you share an example of how your method works for managing conflict in the workplace? Can the practice of creating a conflict pattern-breaking path apply to an entire team?

Let’s say you are the leader of a team that is stuck in a “Blame/Blame” pattern, where people are constantly attacking each other and tearing down one another’s ideas. It’s negatively impacting your work process and product. First, draw people’s attention to the pattern. This takes courage, but is powerful. Your goal isn’t to call out any one person for bad behavior; your goal is to point out the team’s pattern. Ask if others notice it too. If they do, help the team develop a pattern-breaking path. Ask, “What new, surprisingly different actions can we all take to consistently break the pattern?” The new actions don’t need to be complicated; in fact, the simpler the better. Reward people when they take those new actions.

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