Conflict Coaching Fundamentals
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Conflict Coaching Fundamentals

Working With Conflict Stories

Samantha Hardy

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eBook - ePub

Conflict Coaching Fundamentals

Working With Conflict Stories

Samantha Hardy

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About This Book

We naturally create stories to help us make meaning of our world, but in conflict situations the kinds of stories we typically tell ourselves can actually make it harder for us to manage and resolve the conflict constructively. This book provides an accessible framework for understanding why people tell their conflict stories the way they do, and how to help them move away from conflict stories that prevent them from understanding and responding to conflict in an effective way.

Presented using highly engaging and accessible cases, the book is designed to help people working with others in conflict to fully support them by understanding which areas of the conflict story to focus their attention on, and using practical techniques to support people to rewrite their story into a more constructive one to better manage the situation. The book also provides practical strategies to help people who are themselves in a conflict scenario to rewrite and enact a version of their conflict story that helps them to more constructively manage, and often resolve, their situation. A conflict management coaching system is introduced that is designed to address the particular problems created by dysfunctional conflict stories.

This is a book specifically for those who work with people in conflict (mediators, conflict coaches, managers, lawyers, HR staff, teachers) and also for anyone who wishes to better understand their own experience of conflict.

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Part 1



DOI: 10.4324/9781003128038-1
Human beings are predisposed to creating stories as a way of making sense of the world. In fact, Jonathan Gottshall (2013), author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, suggests that our addiction to stories is the defining attribute that makes us successful as a species. Sharing stories is a way for people to form community and cultural bonds. Stories also provide a way for us to practice social skills and rehearse our responses to real-life challenges. They encourage us to behave ethically, by teaching us about good and evil and the consequences of our choices. However, our tendency to default to certain kinds of stories can also create problems, particularly in situations of conflict.
Human beings frequently create stories, even if information is limited or there is no story there. We invent one that provides some meaning to what may objectively be an abstract collection of phenomena. This story creation habit was demonstrated perfectly in a famous experiment conducted by two psychologists in the mid-1940s. Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel (1944) conducted an experiment in which they showed 114 people a short, abstract, animated film with some geometric shapes moving around a screen. An image from the film can be seen in Figure 1.1.
Figure 1.1 Image from Heider Simmel experiment
They asked their subjects to describe what they saw. Almost all of the viewers (111 of the 114 participants) described what they saw in the form of a story: doors slamming, courtship dances, the foiling of a predator. Their responses not only described the movement of the shapes but also gave each shape a human character with a personality and motives to explain its movement on the screen.
When it comes to human interactions, we have the same tendency to script stories that create meaning far beyond our actual observations. In many cases, this story creation is useful and leads to shared understanding without the need for complex communication. For example, when I say to my friend, “Gosh my head hurts, I had a big night last night!” she is likely to understand that I went out with friends, had a few too many alcoholic drinks, and have a headache because I’m hungover. I don’t need to provide all of the graphic details for her to understand the story. It’s a familiar kind of story that she recognises and she can join the dots. The context in which I tell the story, and my chosen audience, may also impact the “standard story” that is used to interpret my abbreviated version of events. For example, if I was talking to another parent in my new parents’ group, their interpretation of my statement may be that my baby didn’t sleep well and neither did I!
However, our tendency to create stories based on incomplete information is more than an academic exercise or a fast-tracked way for people to communicate. In some situations, our tendency to create stories from limited information can lead to problems. Frank (2010), in his wonderful book Letting Stories Breathe, explains that stories give form to lives that inherently lack form. In other words, stories provide us with a way of organising our experiences into a coherent structure providing temporal and spatial orientation, meaning, intention, and boundaries. Frank cautions that how stories inform lives can be a gift or a danger. This is because stories have the power to affect what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. Frank describes how people can become deeply caught up in one version of a story, even though the same events could be told to a very different effect, and how people may feel compelled to act out what the story requires.
Gottshall (2013) gives the example of conspiracy theories as one kind of problem story. He describes a conspiracy theory as a fictional story connecting real information and imagined information into a coherent and emotionally satisfying version of reality. Gottshall (2013) says:
Conspiracy theories offer ultimate answers to a great mystery of the human condition: why are things so bad in the world? They provide nothing less than a solution to the problem of evil. In the imaginative world of the conspiracy theorist, there is no accidental badness. To the conspiratorial mind, shit never just happens. History is not just one damned thing after another, and only dopes and sheeple believe in coincidences. For this reason, conspiracy theories – no matter how many devils they invoke – are always consoling in their simplicity. Bad things do not happen because of a widely complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables. They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness. And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. … (116)
He notes that conspiracy theories are not just about grand topics such as aliens, or 9/11. We all have our own personal conspiracy theories about things that happen in our daily lives.
In many ways, the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about conflict typically have the attributes of conspiracy theories. They tend to connect real and imagined information into a form that seems coherent and emotionally satisfying. They blame others (the bad guy) for causing our suffering, and they lead us to believe that a certain kind of justice (usually based on the bad guy receiving his comeuppance) is right and available. The problem is, however, that these stories are not complete, they are not “true” for everyone involved, they are based on many assumptions, and they often make it more difficult to improve our situation by narrowing our thinking and our options.

Conflict stories and narratives

In this book, you will discover that not only are our conflict stories typically based on incomplete information and plenty of assumptions, they are also structured around a common kind of master story or narrative 1 that limits our understanding and possible responses to the situation. Jerome Bruner (2002) notes that it is only “when we suspect we have the wrong story that we begin asking how a narrative may structure (or distort) our view of how things really are” (24). Professionals who work with clients in conflict (and perhaps everyone who hears stories from their colleagues, friends, and family members about their conflicts) will recognise certain repetitive patterns in the many conflict stories to which they have been an audience. They will also acknowledge the potentially dysfunctional nature of many conflict stories and how these tend to perpetuate the conflict. There is a growing interest in the intersection between conflict and narrative, as evidenced by the work of Kenneth Cloke (2000), John Winslade and Gerald Monk (2008; Monk and Winslade, 2012), Sara Cobb (1994, 2013), and Solon Simmons (2020).
For many people in conflict, their reality does not meet the expectations of their story – they end up extremely frustrated, because their desired ending (what they see as justice) seems elusive, if not impossible. And yet, the typical structure of such conflict stories is pervasive and persistent. In this book, you will discover what is common in those repetitive patterns (the underlying narrative that provides the foundation for the individual stories) and develop a framework to explore and break away from the limitations of that narrative.

Genre and conflict stories

For my PhD research, I interviewed people who had suffered an injury as a result of someone else’s actions. In one sense, I didn’t really interview them because I did not ask them a sequence of predesigned questions. Rather, I simply asked them to tell me what happened and recorded their response. Inevitably, my participants told me a story. As I reviewed the stories I had collected, I found that there were two distinct types of stories (two different master narratives), one in which the person told a story of learning and growth and another in which the story was one of injustice and suffering.
Coincidentally, at the time I was trying to come up with a methodology to analyse the two different kinds of conflict narratives, I was studying a university subject on French literature. One of the required readings for the course was the Pixérécourt melodrama Coelina (Holcroft, 1824; discussed further in Chapter 2). As I read the script I was struck by its similarities to the “injustice and suffering” stories of my research subjects. This led to my researching the genre of melodrama in more detail and identifying some very strong connections between that genre and many of the conflict stories that I had collected. My dilemma, then, was to find a genre that mapped onto the other “learning and growth” stories, and after much research, to my surprise I found that the genre of tragedy was the best fit (I know this seems counterintuitive, because tragedy seems like a negative kind of genre to use, but stick with me and later in the book I’ll explain why it’s actually quite useful). Considering conflict stories through these two genres provides a great deal of insight as to where (and why) those stories are more or less helpful in motivating the storyteller to take constructive steps to manage their conflict.
Genre can help identify what Baruch Bush and Folger (1994) call “an underlying orientation to conflict” (8) and can provide a framework for exploring the way in which these orientations are driven by broad ideologies about social relations and social intervention. Baruch Bush and Folger (1994) explain that the stories people tell about conflict “carry implicit notions of what conflict is and expectations about what moves or responses are possible or required in specific contexts, what role third parties play, and what outcomes are desirable” (8). Exploring conflict stories through genre draws our attention specifically to character roles and positioning of the parties and typical plotlines and themes and how these work together to promote coherence. Creating coherence is particularly important because, as Cobb (1994) explains, coherence provides stability and seals off discursive sites where meaning could be contested. In other words, when a story is too neat and tidy, it stops us from investigating the situation further and lulls us into a false sense of righteousness and security.
Genre also provides a tool to examine the process of telling stories in the conflict context. Stories of a particular genre may be told only in certain situations, and certain situations invoke the telling of a particular genre of stories. For example, it may be perfectly acceptable to tell the story of the latest conflict you’ve had with your spouse to your best friend, whereas it’s not so acceptable to launch into the same story with a stranger you happen to sit next to on the bus. Similarly, in the context of your new parents’ group, telling each other the stories of your birth experience is almost expected, but it would be inappropriate at your business networking event. Accordingly, an analysis of the content of a particular genre of story is incomplete without exploring the context in which it is likely to be told. This includes a consideration of factors such as the status of the storyteller, the intended audience, and the purpose for which the story is told in those circumstances.
In the following chapters we will explore the two genres I identified as corresponding to the “injustice and suffering” stories (melodrama) and the “learning and growth” stories (tragedy) that I collected from people in conflict. We will examine how those different genres tend to either narrow or expand our thinking about conflict and how they affect our capacity to manage it. We will then consider ways to support people who are stuck in an “injustice and suffering” story to develop their thinking into a “learning and growth” story, thus opening up opportunities for them to better manage their own future.


  1. Though many writers use the terms “story” and “narrative” interchangeably, in this book I adopt Baron and Epstein’s (1997) distinction between the two terms. A story is “an individual account of an event or set of events that unfolds over time and whose beginning, middle, and end are intended to resolve (or question the possibility of resolving) the problem set in motion at the start” (147–148). Narrative is a broader concept, a kind of cumulative version of the key features of a group of similar stories that represents their aggregate meaning. The concept of narrative also includes consideration of how such stories are produced and received so that what they say about the problems they deal w...

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