Difficult conflicts are typically caused by multiple interconnected factors, but our tendency is to view the situation in much simpler terms. Our minds are always searching for certainty and clarity, causing us to see things in black and white rather than to remain aware of the many detailed nuances of a situation. This evolved over millennia as a way to enable us to successfully adapt to a world of overwhelming data, but one of its drawbacks is that it can severely limit our ability to see complex situations clearly. For example, we typically see complex conflict as occurring between two people or between two groups when it actually involves many more people and groups than that. Because of this limitation, in order to master conflict, it helps to start by not doing anything at all. It helps to simply observe who the players are, how they’ve behaved and how they’re connected to one another.
To create your own map, use circles to represent individuals, groups, teams, communities, events or ideas that have been involved or that have influenced the situation. Use solid lines to signify strong relationships, dotted lines for weaker ones, and put an X on lines where conflict is currently present. You can even put hearts where good will or love is present, or put question marks where you’re unsure about how people feel about one another.
Allow yourself to put on your map whatever you think is relevant to the situation. Challenge yourself to put at least one new person, group, event or idea that might be influencing the situation on your map. For example, think about people outside the immediate sphere of the conflict, such as employees in other departments at a company, or a third sibling who is being asked to choose sides.
By mapping the conflict in all its complexity, we usually see that what may have seemed like a simple conflict between two people is actually much more complex. Taking a step back to observe the situation before we do anything helps us see possible levers for change that we might not have noticed before. It enables us to develop approaches to the conflict that are more nuanced—and helpful—than we could otherwise create if we were still stuck looking at the situation in a black and white way.
Try it. The next time you’re faced with an ugly conflict, before you do anything about it, map it out and see what you notice.
Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D. is the Founding Principal of the NYC-based consulting firm Alignment Strategies Group and the Director of Coaching at the global transformational leadership development company Mobius Executive Leadership. She is also Adjunct Professor at the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.