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Picturesque Landscape

Conflict as Catalyst


The Printing Press. The Internet! Airbnb. 3-D Printers! A New Hairdresser!! Some changes are not so big and others are big enough to cause pain, disappointment, fear and even illness.


Most of the time, we remember the arguments and disagreements about change, the not-knowing, the concern over our futures, and forget the creative energy that change can spark. The arguments and disagreements force us to think differently, to look at situations from another perspective, to put the present into a different context, and all that helps us find new ways of doing things. Conflict becomes the catalyst for creativity.


To use that creative energy, you have to look for and nurture it. In two areas now, I am experiencing all these aspects of change, and yes, I get discouraged. In the long run though, I know the outcomes will be better than where I was when we started because the important issues evolved slowly and were addressed through disagreements. (Why can’t the disagreements and concerns all just appear at the beginning? It would be so much more efficient.) The end results, which are still not clear to me, will be better for the forced examination, increased knowledge, and changes that strengthened the discussion. Nobody said this would be easy, so I sometimes step back and take a break, because the alternative is quitting, and I’m not ready to do that.


To get through the change process we have to focus on the creativity and potential of change. How do we do that?


First, keep an open mind (especially if you think you’re right) and figure out why the change is happening. Look at the bigger picture and find the underlying reasons: technology, customer preferences, changing economic conditions, new competition, a new boss with new ideas, kids growing up with sophisticated technology made simple especially for them. If you know the reason, you can figure out how to respond to it.


Then, share information right from the beginning of the process. Clear, timely information reduces the potential for conflict or misdirection. Be sure that goals and processes are clear and uniformly understood. Establish ways for disseminating information often, in some kind of communications campaign, so everyone has the same information at the same time and no one feels left out.


Third, take a look at your responses to the proposed changes and consider them objectively. Are your responses thoughtful or automatic? Ask yourself: Are you defaulting to a response or have you thought about the issue and actually found serious fault with it? Are you trying to use old conflict resolution systems to address new conflict problems? Change isn’t satisfied with “how we do things around here.” It’s looking for a new way to do it. If you’re an avoider, sharpen your conflict resolution skills so you are more confident during the process and can express your thoughts persuasively.


Fourth, encourage fierce debate and establish a safe way to talk about proposed change that both includes conflict and unleashes its creativity. Remember the first rule of brainstorming: don’t criticize a new idea. Think about it and discuss it. See where it leads. And the first rule of conflict resolution: respect the position of the other person and don’t dismiss it just because a) it’s not yours, or b) you might have heard it before (especially if you think you’re right). This time the concern or opinion might point to a new way to discuss the potential change, and creativity might follow.


At some point, perhaps when it seems that nothing is being accomplished, shift from dialogue to discussion, from exploration to decision-making. You will never know how well something will work until you try it, so decide to try something and see what happens. Call everything a developmental model and create the expectation that things will change as needed, that nothing is written in stone. George Balanchine, the genius and founder of the NYC Ballet, was asked how he choreographed a new ballet. He said that he tried a combination of movements and if he liked it, he kept it. He might even repeat it. If he didn’t like it, he changed it. But something has to be tried and a few decisions have to be made or change will never happen; it will remain only anticipated.


In addition, continue to monitor and reinforce the changes being implemented so that people don’t revert to the past practices and old behaviors that give rise to new conflicts. It’s so much easier to do what is familiar than to practice what is new, so frequent reinforcement and re-examination of the new processes are necessary to ensure that they continue. This will take years, and that communications campaign will come in handy, especially to remind people of the goals. Tell the success stories and create more of them.


Most important, don’t be afraid of the potential conflicts and disagreements. They are frustrating, time-consuming, and distracting, but necessary to finding the best solutions. The lessons in thoughtful listening, reframing, and conflict resolution will come in really handy.


Maybe all change processes should start with a mini course on dealing with conflict. Establish a safe process for airing disagreements and disputes, and then expect great outcomes.

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