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June 04, 2024 Vol. 46, No. 5

Express and Explore: How Can I Improve My Conflict Resolution Skills?

By Rachel Ellett
“Every conflict we face in life is rich with positive and negative potential. It can be a source of inspiration, enlightenment, learning, transformation, and growth-or rage, fear, shame, entrapment, and resistance. The choice is not up to our opponents, but to us, and our willingness to face and work through them.” – Kenneth Cloke 

"Leadership is a Contact Sport"

While it may be a cliche, the aphorism ‘leadership is a conflict sport’ speaks to the inevitability of conflict for people in power. Bar leaders are simultaneously vulnerable as potential targets of attack or criticism; or they may have to step in to mediate or guide the organization through a divisive issue.  

While leadership challenges are not new, today we are operating in an environment of intense affective polarization – positive sentiments towards our own group/position and negative ones towards competing groups/positions. This touches all aspects of our daily life: from professional settings to a neighborhood association or place of worship, and for some, even their own family.   

This year the Center for Bar Leadership wanted to equip bar leaders with skills for dealing with the inevitable conflict that arrives at their door. Alyson Carrel is a clinical professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and the Co-Director of the Center on Negotiation, Mediation, and Restorative Justice. She is an active leader in dispute resolution, who has provided negotiation and dispute resolution trainings for a wide variety of clients. 

Reflect and Express

Carrel started by explaining that when we are faced with someone with a different opinion, we see this as a threat to our self-identity and status, and it makes us question our values. In addition, we are all trapped by our cognitive biases and by our default mode of communication. Some are good at exploring a problem, and some are good at expressing. The challenge Carrel sets for us is to be good at both expressing and exploring. 

Throughout her BLI session Carrel made the case to take time for self-reflection. Indeed, the more work you do before going into an antagonistic conversation the easier it will be: “Exploration of self leaves us able to express more AND explore more.”

First, we should REFLECT and be curious about ourselves. Ask yourself: 

  • Do you default towards the express or the explore side? 
  • Ask who YOU are in this situation? 
  • And how YOU have contributed? 

Once you have identified your own biases and interests, then enter the conversation with curiosity. Who do you want to be in this conversation? How do you want to show up?  

Next Carrel highlighted strategies for EXPRESS: 

  • Focus on you and communicating your own experience or perspective. 
  • Speak to be heard - enter the conversation with care and courtesy. 
  • Create openings for understanding and use open ended questions. Carrel reminds us that even if you are right in your position, inviting the other person to express is a way to signal their value to you and to the organization.  
  • Frame needs as interests and not positions; separate the people from the problem and separate intent from impact.  

Carrel ended with one important caveat, “When a conflict harms a person and that person tells you, express explore works, BUT explore first. Explore the effect that your behavior and words had, even if it was unintentional.” Particularly if there is a power differential at play. Bar leaders are in positions of power and by occupying a leadership position you must explore first because the impact you have can be greater than you ever know.  

Utilizing Carrel’ simplified express and explore framework, you are positioning yourself to overcome your cognitive biases, your cortisol and fear; you are equipped to enter the discussion working both sides.  

Further Reading

Want to learn more? See below a list of resources cited by Alyson Carrel during her session at BLI and links to two academic centers of research on conflict and negotiation. And remember, “peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” – Mahatma Gandhi. 

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