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Are You Feeling Lost?

Feeling Lost in Conflict?

Conflict can be a truly disorienting experience. You might feel confused and unable to figure out what's actually going on. You could feel stuck, feeling hemmed in by details of the problem. There might be so many factors involved that you don't know here to start. You may have a gut feeling that there's something unspoken at play, but you just can't put your finger on it. Or worse, the situation is a hopeless product of a personality clash and it's doomed to remain unresolved.

You Need a Map

The good news is, even the wildest terrain can be navigated with a good map. So before you strike off blindly into the battlefield, take the time to create a conflict map. Psychologist Helena Cornelius and Conflict Professional Shoshana Faire invented this mapping process in 1986 (a great year for many reasons), and it's been applied across fields, industries, and disciplines ever since. You can make a conflict map any time, anywhere, and with anyone.

Mapping puts a spotlight on the motivational factors driving a conflict, and combines that spotlight with a method for creating a common vision.

You'll create a clearer picture of the issue, illustrate how different elements connect to each other, and help you discover motivations you might have missed. Maps do a masterful job of helping you get back to needs and fears in order to find win/win solutions. Their strength is their orderly, systematic approach, which brings method to the madness, and helps you see things more clearly so you can navigate them effectively.

Mapping the Conflict

A conflict map allows you to step away from the "conflict and solutions" in order to get down to the "needs and fears." This shift in focus instantly transforms the conversation, the tone, and the goals.

Clarify The Issue: Label the issue in a general statement, using neutral and unemotional language. Don’t focus on or analyze the nature of the problem. Keep the problem definition open-ended.

Identify The Parties: Decide who the major parties are - you might list individuals, teams, groups, or organizations. As long as the people involved share needs on the issue, they can be grouped together.

Uncover The Needs: For each party, list the significant needs that are relevant to the issue. This could include wants, values, interests, or the things you care about.

Identify The Fears: For each party, list the significant fears that are relevant to the issue, including concerns, anxieties, or worries. Don’t debate whether the fear is realistic or rational. In fact, bringing "irrational" fears to the frontlines enables you to navigate them with empathy.

Mapping With "Prickly" People

There are frequent conflict maps where the issue is with a ‘difficult person’. But this isn’t a particularly great term. Everybody is somebody’s ‘difficult person'. We label them ‘difficult’ because we are having difficulty with them.

Having a “personality clash” usually just means “I don’t know what makes this person tick, and my standard methods of dealing with people are not working here.”

But realize that behind any bad behavior, there are unmet needs or hidden fears that the person is defending in clumsy and often unwitting ways. As you realize how little you know about what the prickly person really needs, you’ll be motivated to get more information from them.

Mapping opens you up to discovering why prickly people are doing what they’re doing, and how your behavior might be affecting or exacerbating that. People often show bad behavior if they feel psychologically vulnerable.

If you focus on discovering their needs and fears underlying that vulnerability, you may start getting a totally different response from the ones you historically have. There may be ways of meeting their needs that you hadn’t previously thought of. Your map can help you see new solutions and forge deeper bonds.

Reading Your Conflict Map

Once you've got a gorgeous map, you'll want to read it by: looking for new perspectives and insights; discovering existing common ground; building new areas of common ground; and looking for special concerns.

Look for New Perspectives & Insights: Once you’ve drawn up your map, consider the individuals’ needs and fears you had not taken into account before. Mapping helps you see what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. You might come up with new perspectives on the issue, and become aware of factors you hadn’t seen before.

Uncover Existing Common Ground: Create a common vision: point out those values and ideas that are upheld by all. Look for similar needs or interests. They may already appear on your map. They may need more discussion to bring them out.

Build New Common Ground: Ideally, the united goal should be broad enough to include the individual values of each party; for example, a parent cares about homework being done, while their child cares about having fun. The common vision should contain both homework and fun.

Look for Special Concerns: Identify the areas of difficulty that most need attention. Most often, they are unmet needs or unaddressed fears, acted out in clumsy, aggressive, or unwitting ways.

The Magic of Mapping

Mapping with the whole team - including a “prickly” person - can actually create an amazing shift. Maps put a spotlight on the motivational factors driving the conflict, and combines that with a method for creating a common vision.

As people combine their visions in the mapping process, and consider all the issues that must be incorporated into the solution, you start to transform opponents to partners.

Mapping provides a forum where people can say what they need. It structures the conversation and usually keeps excessive emotion at bay. People can lose their tempers any time, but they do tend to keep them keep them under control while mapping. They unconsciously redirect their energy away from attack, and start pointing at the relevant spots on the map.

Mapping shifts the tone from confrontation to exploration, and moves parties from judgement to curiosity. It creates a group process so that the problem can be aired appropriately and solved cooperatively. Mapping builds empathy and acknowledges people who may feel they were not being understood before. It allows you to see your own and other people’s points of view more clearly.

Mapping makes common ground obvious and creates the opportunity to structure a common vision. It organizes everyone’s views on an issue. Mapping also points out new directions. When you analyze your map for new insights, common ground, and common vision, you'll focus on key issues and design solutions or manage strategies that support as many needs as possible for all the people involved.

This is the stuff that trailblazers are made of. And a great way to blaze new trails is to make new maps.


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Giving Due Credit: We didn’t make this stuff up. The skills in this article are based on over 30 years of experience in conflict resolution and psychology. We've been inspired by the work of Helena Cornelius, Shoshana Faire, and the Conflict Resolution Network (CRN), a resource center that offers high-quality free and low-cost training materials for educational programs on conflict resolution. For more information and access to their absolutely incredible (and extraordinarily accessible) resources, we recommend you visit

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