Some Guidelines for Developing a Creative Approach to Conflict
By: Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Deutsch, Morton and Peter T. Coleman. "Some Guidelines for Developing a Creative Approach to Conflict" in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000, pp. 355-365.
Drawing on the work of Howard Gruber, the authors discuss the relation creativity and conflict, and offer suggestions for fostering creative approaches to resolving conflicts.
Gruber maintains that creativity requires conflict. Conflict can be a source of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and provide motivation to acknowledge and address problems. The authors note however that situations of conflict are unlikely to lead to creative change if they are threatening or tense. "To entertain novel idea that may at first seem wild and implausible, to question initial assumptions of the framework within which the problem or conflict occurs, the individual needs the freedom or courage to express herself without fear of censure."(p. 356)
Creativity requires adopting a novel point of view that stimulated new questions. Conflict theorists, for example, stress the importance of a point of view that sees conflicts as mutual problems of conflicting parties. Reframing conflicts in this way is both an exercise in creativity, and tends to promote further creativity by fostering a less threatening collaborative resolution process. Reframing, or more generally adopting a novel point of view, requires various cognitive resources and skills such as a breadth of experience, the ability to make remote associations, and most especially, intellectual playfulness. Conditions that support these skills and abilities also support creativity.
Gruber stresses that, contrary to popular opinion, creative insight does not come in a swift flash. Creative thinkers typically devote significant amounts of time and effort to the creative process. This is certainly also true of creative conflict resolution. Many complex conflicts require extended time and effort in order to be resolved.
Gruber has also found that groups do not necessarily have an advantage over individuals in terms of creativity. Individual creativity is exercised by imagining different perspectives. Groups act creatively by cooperating to share their members' different perspectives. The authors conclude that "individual work is apt to be more creative if it is difficult to establish effective cooperation, while collaborative work is apt to be so if there is effective cooperation and the collaborators have more resources available to them than are available to an individual."(p. 358)
Deutsch and Coleman formulate seven general guidelines for fostering creative conflict. The first thing to do is challenge common myths that block creativity. These myths include notions that creativity is a rare, inborn talent, that it is too mysterious to be learned, that it is a kind of insanity, or that equate creativity with being artistic. The second suggestion is to create a space-time oasis for creativity; pick a new environment and set aside enough time for the parties to open up, and then work persistently on their solution. Third, cultivate a serious but playful atmosphere. Parties in conflict may be serious to the point of being grim. Explain that people can be playful while still recognizing the importance of their task.
Another suggestion is to strive for optimal tension: enough that the parties are motivated to work on a problem, but not so much that they become defensive and rigid. It is particularly important for conflict managers to learn to assess tension levels, and learn skills for adjusting tension levels. The fifth guideline is to foster people's self-confidence. Confident people are more willing to take risks, and consider novel, even outlandish ideas. Next, structure the creative process so that it alternates between open and closed modes of thought. Open thinking generates a variety of options. Closed thinking tries to narrow the field of options. People in competitive conflicts tend toward closed thinking, and so conflict managers may need to reorient them toward more open modes of thought. People in cooperative conflicts have a lesser tendency toward closed thinking. Finally, the first task of creative thinkers is to adequately define their problem.
The authors also suggest techniques for stimulating novel ideas. Brainstorming is a common technique. Thinking in terms of metaphor or analogies can be fruitful. Parties can rearrange, add and subtract, magnify or reduce various elements of the situation to generate new options. Parties may be asked to imagine their desired future. Third parties may introduce new ideas.