Navigating Conflicts for Harmony

Several years ago I came across a business guru by the name of Eli Goldratt (an eccentric guy), who started a movement called theory of constraints.  One of Goldratt’s key insights was that most problems stem from what he calls conflicts.  He means something specific when he says conflict, namely: two competing needs that are equally important and valid, but seem diametrically opposed.  In my experience, almost any intractable problem is solvable if the conflict can be identified, clearly articulated, and the assumptions around the conflict can be found.  In fact, you can diagram these conflicts called “Evaporating Clouds” to help visualize the issue and find the assumptions. 

To Zip One’s Jacket or Not To Zip One’s Jacket: Four Year Old Battle Royale

Last winter I had the hardest time getting my son Finnian to zip his jacket.  No matter what I did, the boy simply wouldn’t do it, or would unzip the jacket as soon as he was out of my sight.  I live in Michigan and it gets cold up here.  Jackets are necessary for little boys to stay healthy, even if they think they are invincible.  Of course, my assumption was that my child was crazy, illogical, stubborn, and disobedient.  If only the child would listen to his all knowing father, this problem would go away.  In my business I’m always training my associates  about how to identify and dissolve key conflicts to help us perform better and just generally be happier.  Maybe it was time I applied this to my personal life.  So I did the analysis and got my four year old to explain himself and this time, I really listened to him instead of tuning him out.  He had a fascinating rationale for his behavior…and…he was doing the right thing.  We both had the goal of staying warm and healthy, my position was obvious: You need to keep your jacket zipped up so you don’t get cold.  His position, less obvious, was that he shouldn’t zip up his jacket, lest he get sweaty and catch a cold.  What I didn’t realize was that while I thought he could zip up his jacket entirely, it turns out that the jacket was too small and he couldn’t zip it up all the way.  He would run around, get sweaty, but then catch a chill because the jacket wasn’t zipped up all the way.  By keeping his jacket down, he stayed cold, but never got sweaty, thus never catching a chill from being wet.  Wow….not only is this kid not disobedient, but he’s pretty smart!  It’s his Dad that needs to eat some humble pie.  Suffice to say, we got one of his big brother’s old jackets out of the closet and the problem was solved.

Figure 1: Finnian vs. Dad Jacket Zip Up Conflict

What I’ve learned navigating conflicts and using the conflict cloud:

First, People are good.  Finnian wasn’t some crazy illogical four year old, he had actually thought about how to solve his problem and came up with something that was uncomfortable, but worked.  Whenever I get to thinking negatively about another human being I stop myself.  If my basic assumption is that people are good, but experiencing a conflict, then I need to think constructively about the needs they’re trying to satisfy.  Negative thoughts about other people lead to tautologies:  Why doesn’t my son zip up his jacket?  He’s a disobedient child.  Why is he a disobedient child: Because he doesn’t zip up his jacket.  Classic tautology.  This is an especially effective way to think in organizational life. If your co-worker or associate is not bad, it forces you to take their concerns seriously and really try to understand where they are coming from. It leads to greater harmony with the people in your life. **Caveat, every now and then you run into a person who is totally crazy…you should not try to understand their craziness :)**

Second, every problem can be solved.  If I can identify the right conflict and clearly  articulate the competing needs, and identify and challenge the assumptions, then I can solve the problem.  A good solution will satisfy everyone’s needs and make your dreams come true :).  I know it sounds hokey, but I’ve seen it happen in my business that seemingly intractable conflicts between partners or employees can be solved by affirming everyone’s needs and then checking the assumptions behind the conflict.  There is always an assumption we can challenge and change to get better results.

Three, solutions are usually exceedingly simple, but not always obvious.  People like complexity and our first reaction is to take a complex problem or complex system and add complexity.  My experience is that good solutions usually help simplify our thinking and focus action.  They are the opposite of overwhelming.    

Published by niklaus30

I'm an Iowa State grad with degrees in agribusiness, now living in Michigan. I like food science, grazing, and selling things, not necessarily in that order.

7 thoughts on “Navigating Conflicts for Harmony

  1. Thank you for this post. I love the insights you surface here through a story that is relatable to many.

    I’m curious how you think about listening differently based on this experience., and whether this connects to your sense of power in any given situation?


    1. Power to me, generally speaking, means you don’t have to try to understand. You can use force or coercion to get what you want, which is what I was trying to do with my son. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but I’ve always been struck by quote from St. Francis “First seek to understand, then seek to be understood.”


  2. Nick–I’m impressed: there’s no better way to de-escalate the emotions around your conflict with a 4-year-old than to diagram the conversation and uncover the underlying assumptions! I often find my assumptions are in my emotional or cognitive “blind spot.” What suggestions might you offer on how to get to those assumptions? Similarly, what assumptions get so “crazy” you can’t proceed further? (I have found that regrouping for a conversation a few minutes or hours later can help).

    Occam’s Razor reminds us that simple solutions are usually the best; this could be a great shared goal no matter what the conflict is. I love your model. How might you apply it to break down the immigrants’ needs and lack of rights vs. the context of federal laws and industry norms? Happy to do a 1:1 to explore this if you like!


    1. Jon, I don’t think that the assumptions can be too crazy, but I find that when you surface them, sometimes the assumptions you identify can have implications for a solution that can be … crazy :).

      I’ll shoot you a text on our slack channel about your second question.


  3. Niklaus, thank you for sharing this! In my previous job, most of my (unofficial) work was untying what I thought of as gordian knots–similar, seemingly intractible workplace conflicts, that often “evaporated” if we explored underlying rationality of individuals. I didn’t realize there where a school of thought on this and will investigate further!
    I’m curious what you think the broader applications of this are in social movements? I am a big believe in change on the level of the individual, and you provide a framework for evaporating conflicts there.. do you think movements, organizations, and structures are able to adapt this approach as well? Does the work fall on a few “cool heads” to negotiate policy at the top, or can a movement realistically embrace the outlook “people are good” and dissemble conflicts at scale?
    Do you have experiences observing how this approach plays out over time? ie, you find an elegant solution with someone from the “other side” — does the goodwill stick? Is it contagious? Do people backslide into their loggerheads worldview?
    Lastly, I’m curious what you think about the power dynamics of facilitating this approach? On its face, there is an equalizing, humble-pie eating element at play. EG your son feels heard, and actually gets a common problem solved. I’m curious if there are barriers to implanting this at a strategic social level, where people recognize the instigator as assuming a position of power, which undercuts their buy in to get vulnerable and diagram their assumptions?


    1. Kyle, thanks for your comments. I’m glad this struck you. If you’re interested in learning more, you might want to check out a book called “It’s Not Luck” by Goldratt. It’s pretty good (and a quick easy read) and goes into developing evaporating clouds and discovering core conflicts. It’s a business novel, and a strange genre, but if you can get past the weirdness, its a valuable book. If you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, I would suggest “The Logical Thinking Processes” by H William Dettmer.

      In terms of organizations, movements and structure applications, the conflict cloud will definitely work. We use it all the time in my business. But fair warning, its hard to push interventions in big systems where you have relatively little power. As a business owner, I can give my associates the decision making authority to solve the problem themselves or come to me for help if they can’t. When I worked in a larger University system where I was a worker bee, it was super difficult to get any change enacted. My feeling is that part of the problem in a larger system (A University, A State, A Society) is that you don’t have a full view of the system. So the pain points or the problems you see might be caused by a deeper conflict from another part of the system. One thing to keep in mind, Theory of Constraints hinges on the idea that there is a such thing as.a “core conflict” which is what Donnella Meadows would call the “leverage point”. The core conflict has the potential, if it is surfaced, articulated, and solved, to solve a whole host of problems or issues (otherwise known as symptoms). Often times, if you’re a worker bee in one corner of the system, your problems are actually the symptoms of a core conflict. For example: Nick (me) the worker bee at State University sees a problem, but doesn’t really realize the deeper conflict underneath. His boss knows Nick is experiencing a problem, but doesn’t know what to do, because if he solves Nick’s problem a bunch of other bad stuff will happen due to the core conflict. Nick ends up hating his boss, but never realizes that his boss might be a victim of a larger conflict that Nick has no context for. To me, this is the conundrum of big systems and a lot of this goes outside my pay grade :). That said, a good manager with some power in the system who thinks clearly about competing needs can do a lot of good.

      I have a lot of experience with how the approach plays out over time. It’s great, because everyone is having their needs satisfied. If it’s not great, then the wrong problem was solved or the competing needs weren’t correctly identified.

      You question on the larger strategic power dynamics: This is a tough one. You’re right, often times the core conflict is being caused by an artificial rule or policy that a manager or politician had a hand in enacting. We see this all the time in organizations and getting this done is …. delicate to say the least. I have to say, I’m much to blunt to be any good at it (which is why I sell meat :)) but I’ve seen people do it skillfully, and it is a sight to behold.

      One addendum, I had trouble viewing my graphic of an evaporating cloud, but I think I fixed it. I’m not sure if you had a chance to see it, but it’s showing up now. If you’re curious, you can see how they look graphically.


  4. I leaned a lot from your post and your answers to others questions! I don’t have anything to add, just want to thank you for a new resource and that wonderfully clear example regarding your son!


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