[Opinion] When Do You Pay The Piper?

The person who pays the piper calls the tune. Except when payment doesn’t come, then the piper takes revenge.

The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is about a politician reneging on a promise to pay a vendor who rendered a service. In essence, the politician broke a verbal contract and then forgot about it. The vendor returns to the town sometime later and takes his payment (in the form of luring the town’s children away).

The legend is so deep and enduring, it has become almost a myth, its lessons enshrined in our language and even our proverbs.

When we call the tune of responses and behaviors in our conflicts, the questions for us are the same ones there have always been:

When do we pay the piper?


How much will the payment cost?

We only ask (or think) about these two critical questions when the cost of doing nothing to resolve the conflict in a way that benefits both parties, seems to be the only way for us to risk nothing and gain everything. Then, when the answers to these two critical questions don’t work in our favor, our behavior in a conflict situation begins to resemble that of the politician in the town of Hamelin long ago: We attempt to avoid paying the piper.

Going back on promises, risk avoidance, ignoring the impact of emotional residue, finding reasons to not put in the work to get to a resolution, and withholding reconciliation (or even forgiveness) are all ways we attempt to avoid paying the piper of conflict.

And eventually, if we keep it up long enough, the things of emotional value—relationships, trust, respect, accountability—begin to leave our own internal emotional towns.

Be sure the tune you’re calling in your conflict is a price that you are willing to pay to the piper.

[Strategy] The Deep End

The deep end of the swimming pool is the best place to be in order to change through conflict.

The deep end is where no one wants to go. It’s at the edge of the conflict universe, far away from the shallow center and a place for pioneers, adventurers and a place where safety is not a primary concern.

The deep end as an idiom describes all the ways that people used to respond emotionally to being put in situations that didn’t conform to the status quo, and that required a level of rebellion and non-conformity to confront and overcome. The idiom comes directly out of the last century, a time when personally, professionally, academically, and in every other way that mattered, challenging the safe, right, and easy path wasn’t as profitable as it is now.

We use the phrase “off the deep end” to mean that we have been involved in a situation, or trapped in a behavior, that we have no previous experience in handling, and that we feel so uncomfortable in, that it feels like death.

Of course, out on the edge of the universe, out in the deep end of the pool, we might drown. Or we might just decide to suck it up and persevere, gaining grit and resilience in the end.

Bringing up the importance of swimming in the deep end is somewhat problematic these days, in a public culture that’s built around filing down the rough edges and hammering down the nails that insist on not being hammered down. This is an interesting phenomenon, because there have never been more opportunities to be weird, to stand out, to go to the end of the emotional universe, and to jump willingly into the deep end of the pool of emotional experience.

There are few strategies for managing getting into the deep end:

Realize that you won’t die—the pool of conflict is deep on purpose, so confronting your boss, your co-worker, you parents, or someone else who you think has power over you about their conflict behavior and choices, won’t result in death. Just you being uncomfortable for a while.

Realize that the deep end is where real changes happen—getting excited about the new Iphone or Samsung phone is not a change. Going to the deep end with another person on their behavioral choices that have impacted you negatively is a change. And change always happens at the edges of confrontation and away from the safe, chunky middle.

Realize that, of course you can’t handle it, that’s why you’re doing it—just responding to a conflict (i.e. with accommodation, avoidance, confrontation, collaboration, or compromise) in the ways that you’ve always been comfortable responding is what you’ve always been able to handle. Moving away from that safety emotionally and behaviorally will feel scary, uncomfortable, and will yield results that you couldn’t have imagined. Because you had no basis from which to imagine them in the first place.

If you’re not doing something every day, to change how you address conflict behaviors in your life, you are placing yourself in the shallows of life. And when a real storm comes, and it always does, the deep end of life will come and visit you, instead of the other way around.

[Strategy] Managing the Conflict You’re In

There are ways of managing conflict that involve using the weight of the other party’s assumptions, expectations, and emotional residue in order to create different conflict outcomes.

There are three things to understand in considering how to use the “throw” weight of another party in conflict:

Which quadrant are you in, and which quadrant are they in? Parties in opposite quadrants (i.e. accommodator/controller or collaborator/avoider) rarely interact productively in conflict scenarios, particularly when stress levels are high, mistrust is rampant and miscommunication is the coin of the realm. Knowing your own preferred conflict management style is critical to understanding what kind of assumptions, expectations, and emotional residue from past conflicts you are going to have to manage in yourself before beginning to manage the other party’s.Managing the Conflict Youre In

What is in their quadrant? Accommodators think of managing conflict as a process where being unassertive and cooperative is the way to manage others, and themselves. Competitors think of managing conflict through behaviors that tend to be viewed by others as assertive, but not cooperative.

A person who chooses competition is always going to be frustrated with an accommodator and eventually, a party who baseline is accommodation will either get stressed in the conflict because of do too much of the emotional work; or, they might decide to stop engaging in pointless self-sacrifice.

Avoiders (and many parties in conflicts in business and in life self-identify their behaviors as conflict avoiding) manage the process by being both unassertive and uncooperative with others. In the opposite quadrant are conflict collaborators, who view the process of conflict as one that increases the pie of value and options. Opposite from avoiders, collaborators are both assertive and cooperative.

A party that has collaboration as their baseline is going to be constantly frustrated by the lack of cooperation between themselves and a conflict avoider. And the avoider is going to go out of their way to avoid collaborating—or engaging with any of the other conflict management styles, until there arises an opportunity to work the conflict in their favor.

Then there are the “ditches,” areas between the conflict management baseline styles where interesting things happen. This is where the jiu-jitsu begins in earnest, because these are the spaces where parties can recognize elements of other behavioral styles and use these elements strategically.

This use will be to either maintain the status quo (the ditch between an accommodator and a collaborator or between an avoider and a competitor) or to challenge the way that the conflict process is happening (the ditch between the accommodator and the avoider or the ditch between the collaborator and the competitor) and try another way.

How deep into compromising do you want to go? For a party with a baseline conflict management style defined by competition, compromise will feel like defeat. For a party with a baseline conflict management style defined by avoiding, compromise will be scary and tempting. For a party with a baseline style defined by accommodation, compromise will seem like gaining the Holy Grail, but at the expense of losing something else. For a party with a baseline conflict management style defined by collaborating, compromise will also seem like gaining the Holy Grail, and not losing anything at all in the process.

Going deep into compromise is a strategy, not a tactic. And preparing the parties to “go deep” into an area they don’t understand (and view through their differing frames and lenses in differing ways) is a risky strategy at best. But getting them to cross the ditch toward each other—a ditch filled with assumptions, expectations, and emotional residue from past attempts and failures to cross the ditch—is the second hardest work of managing conflict.

[Opinion] Trend Lines

There are monumental shifts happening everywhere, from politics to religion.

There are very few people really able to understand and analyze two things that happen at the same time:

  • The trend lines in culture, society, economics, and religion are moving in a certain direction.
  • The trend lines in technology, jobs, and employment are moving in a certain direction.

Trend lines tend to overlap, but the overwhelmingly human tendency in reaction to the feeling of overlapping, is to hunker down and protect, rather than to be open and collaborate, when the obvious end point of the direction of the trend lines becomes…well…obvious.

Emotionality confines us in our reactions and responses, and our human tendency is to react in the short term to maintain the status quo and to not worry about the future. The hard work is getting humans to shift from short-term thinking to practicing long-term empathy.

However, trend lines are not inevitable.

Neither are the goals that trend lines seem to lead to.

But they can become inevitable through our own macro inaction.

[Strategy] The Wisdom of Solomon Matters

There was once two women, who both claimed ownership of one child.

In an attempt to determine to whom, the baby actually belonged, (or who was the biological mother) the king decided to physically threaten the child in the presence of the two women through proposing to bisect the child.

The women who was the child’s mother protested. The other women kept silent and the baby was returned to its biological mother.

This story is ancient and hails from a time before lie detectors, biometric scans, and even neurolinguistics; which is why, it cuts to the heart of two human truths:

  • The women who claimed ownership of the children were both driven by ineluctable inner needs.
  • Threatening to bisect the baby focused the women’s attention on those things that matter.

Both of these truths are self-evident in a negotiation scenario. But here’s the thing: Sometime, it’s okay to let the baby be bisected.

Sometimes, parties need to experience the shock and trauma of loss, but not on their terms, in order to return to the table and negotiate for a better outcome.

When dealing with human lives (and “baby splitting” happens all the time in preparations for warfare) parties often count the cost and then decide to go ahead with a disastrous action. And out of that disaster comes new opportunities to focus parties on what matters, rather than getting trapped in the weeds of irrelevancies that may have previously dominated the conversation.

Parties in conflict can be lazy, deceptive, self-serving, myopic, and greedy. Clarity of purpose, drive, focus on attaining tangible outcomes that matter, and developing a relationship with the other party often stall in the real world.

And it’s in the real world, outside of the theories of how human beings should and ought to work, that the wisdom of a mediator matters the most.

[Advice] Evolving Cultural Sensibilities and ADR

As the economic, cultural, and spiritual forces that used to bind us together continue to refragment from overarching macro-cultures to indispensable micro-cultures, alternative dispute resolution practitioners must take notice.

Overarching macro-culture was driven by communal events, television, economic stability, and overarching cultural “norms” that allowed people to engage in conflicts and disputes with the same regularity they always have, but also allowed the impacts of those conflicts to be dampened.

Indispensable micro-culture is driven by technology, network connections that defy geography and notice, a dismissal of the status quo, and a strong identity component. People still have conflict in these micro-cultures (what used to be called “sub-cultures”). But the impacts of those conflicts are like wildfires that catch the masses attention for a moment, but without a “there” there, there is little sustained effort mounted to ameliorate the effects upon people in those micro-culture conflicts.

Conflict resolvers, conflict coaches, conflict engagers, mediators, arbitrators, and others have watched this evolution occur over the last fifty or so years, with greater acceleration, but the response to the evolution through providing access points to conflict resolution has not been as quick. This is mainly for three reasons:

  • Indispensable micro-culture is still seen as “niche” and not really enough to build a business model on by the entrepreneurial conflict resolver. This is a terrible fact, but except for some people doing some great work in resolving conflicts in specific areas with specific groups in conflicts (i.e. with parties in churches, with divorcing or separating pet owners, etc.) there is more focus by ADR professionals on how to gain credibility with the courts—still standing as the last guardians of a passing away overarching macro-culture.
  • There are still enough parties in conflict participating in the remaining civic life of a formerly overarching macro-culture. This is something that will pass away over time, but right now, there are enough of the “masses” left around that many professional conflict resolvers look at the problems and conflicts of that group and decide to address their issues first. Both as a way to make a “dent” in the universality of conflict, and to make money from a reliable income stream.
  • Refragmentation is still not understood—or accepted psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually—as an inevitable outcome of the erosion of the twin, post-World War 2 oligopolies of corporation and government. Now, this is not to say that government will disappear either now or later; but the fact is, that as conflicts and disputes between parties in indispensable micro-culture become harder and harder to understand, the overarching macro-culture responses from government entities (i.e. new laws, regulations, taxes, and fees) will be less and less effective. This is because indispensable micro-culture conflicts are driven by esoteric, identity based rules, that require conflict resolvers to engage in relationships with those cultures to resolve—and to go beyond the overarching macro-culture rubric of intercultural communication skill sets.

None of these three areas are that daunting to overcome. And once overcome, the business models to get ideas for resolution to people in conflict begin to overwhelm the entrepreneurial conflict resolver. All that is required to get there is the courage of conflict resolvers to act outside of the “box” they have been trained in.

[Opinion] How Do We Jiu-jitsu Our Own Clients

Mediators, negotiators, facilitators, lawyers, therapists, and analysts do it all the time.

When you understand the nature of the thing, it is almost impossible to avoid doing it.

When you do it, sometimes you feel as though you are manipulating somebody else into doing something that they wouldn’t normally do. But then you realize that kindness, patience, and humility begin to matter.

When it’s done, it’s done intentionally, not by accident, or even in a haphazard way, a reaction to something that another party said or did.

And yes, when you do it, you can still be taken by surprise. It just doesn’t happen as often.

In the past, people used to characterize it as “playing head games.” But really, once you understand that in many ways, individuals change, but the group doesn’t, then it’s less a “head game” and more a “gaming the system” game.

When you do it, you have to be careful to preserve the other party’s autonomy and rights to self-determination. Presenting all the options to get out of a conflict, without presenting the consequences as well (or even worse, allowing the other party’s imagination to ‘fill in the blanks’) lacks human empathy, and dares to challenge your own spiritual growth.

When it happens, it may seem like jiu-jitsu to someone watching from the outside (using the other party’s ‘throw weight’ of their language, rhetoric, ideas, or stories, against them), but the ability to

  • analyze,
  • listen actively and non-defensively,
  • hear a story succinctly,
  • and paraphrase that story back to the teller in the way the teller wants to hear it,

is not jiu-jitsu.

It’s just good form.

[Strategy] Reframing your Organization’s Litigation Strategy

Your organization’s litigation strategy is based on how your organization perceives giving an apology, taking responsibility, or passing around blame.

Your organization’s litigation strategy is based on how the founder perceives conflict, engagement, resolution, and even resilience and grit.

Your organization’s litigation strategy is based on how founders, executives, investors, employees, clients, customers, and others integrate and engage with (or don’t) lawyers, the legal system, and even legal professionals.

Your organization’s litigation strategy is not an accident, or something that “just grew” like Topsy. It is a strategy that is either intentional, or reactive.

Just like your organization’s conflict engagement, avoidance, or resolution strategy.

[Opinion] The Quality of Mercy Doesn’t Scale…and Never Will…

From the Coliseum to Facebook, there has rarely been any mercy from the mob watching the participants in the arena.

The reason the writers of the Constitution favored a Republic over all else, was that they believed the mob was a dangerous, unpredictable force that moved without logic, rationality, reason, or mercy. And then the horrors of the French Revolution proved them correct about human nature.

In modern times, we have psychological and sociological surveys, assessments, and experiments, that show that when it is possible for individuals to stand-by, and watch degradations happen to others, people will. This is called the Bystander Effect.

In modern times, we have psychological and sociological surveys, assessments, and experiments, that show that when it is possible for the mass of people to suffer the injustices of the moment as long as those injustices do not personally affect them in any way, people will. This is called social proofing.

In modern times, we have psychological and sociological surveys, assessments, and experiments, that show that when it is possible to go along with others en masse as an event of any kind happens, because that even happening confirms a belief deeply and long held, people will. This is called confirmation bias.

The quality of mercy comes about when you know someone personally; when you are connected to their story intimately; and when you empathize with their struggle in a real and powerful way.

The quality of mercy cannot scale.

The outcomes of mercy—justice, forgiveness, reconciliation—can scale, but the actual quality of mercy comes along in an individualized process that cannot be scaled, and must instead be seeded, from one person to another.

No matter whether you’re among the mob watching in the Coliseum, or among the mob engaging on Facebook.

[Advice] Stare Uncomfortable in the Face

The part of the conflict process that is addressed the least (and the most) is the uncomfortable part.

Not the scary part, where you’re actually doing the hard work of resolving an issue with people that you may (or may not) like.

Not the uncomfortable part that comes after you’ve decided to do the work and now you have a choice of whether or not to continue forward when the going forward becomes difficult.

Not the difficult part that comes when you decide to take a step back and examine the entire conflict process and determine where your emotions are coming from.

The most uncomfortable part comes at the beginning of the conflict process, when the resistance is at the highest, and the need for assurance is the most critical, and when you are looking into the eyes of the other party and think:

“This isn’t going to work out.”

That’s the most uncomfortable part.

And we talk almost not at all about it because to do so would be to acknowledge that we might not be emotionally, spiritually, and even physically, strong enough to manage the ups and downs of a process we’d rather avoid.

But the uncomfortable part comes before avoiding. It comes before surrendering. It comes before delaying. It comes before confronting. And it comes before engaging.

The people who can stare the uncomfortable part of the conflict process in the face—and not blink—will be the people who will create teams, that will form organizations, that will win the future, by doing emotional work first, and every other labor second.

It all starts with being able to stare being uncomfortable in the face.