Business Success: Conflict Resolution: A Living Systems Approach

Apr 29, 2013 @ 08:30 AM

Conflict is a natural by-product of the tensions that arise in dynamic organizations. Although it is often perceived as negative, conflict that is handled effectively has the potential to inject new, creative energy into the system.

communicationConflict can be dealt with in a variety of ways. The use of mediation along with the practice of effective listening skills detailed in Chapter 3 is often successful. Organizations are discovering that by inviting individuals to work through their issues in new positive constructive ways that tap into the energy of the group, these techniques deepen the connections within and across their teams.

Eric Brunner, manager of Human Resources at Temple University and his colleague, Marie Amey-Taylor, director of Temple’s Human Resources Department, use a variety of training techniques that provide content in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic formats. They also design their trainings to be active, using both inductive and deductive activities to transfer learning to the participants.

For over 10 years, Brunner and Amey-Taylor have been practicing a combination of improvisational theater and sociodrama to demonstrate appropriate and inappropriate conflict resolution skills and ways to work through conflict and build trust. Sociodrama is a form of improvisational theater based on the “shared central needs and issues” of the audience or participant group and involves dramatic enactments of real-life situations or conflicts so that participants can observe and develop interpersonal skills.

It is presented using trained actors, occasional volunteer audience members, and a highly trained facilitator. In practice, Brunner and Amey-Taylor found that participants became very engaged in the action, would dialogue with the characters in a scene, and might even jump in to take the place of actors to “correct” inappropriate or ineffective behaviors. This unique combination of improv and sociodrama is a powerful technique and has become a staple in their work with employees at all levels within a wide variety of organizations. In the next section, Brunner shares his experience with the process.

Conflict Resolution with Sociodrama

Recently, we were asked to partner with a professor from Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater who was presenting on the topic of cross-cultural communication at a women’s leadership conference at Bryn Mawr College. In attendance were about 80 women, all high-level administrators, from a wide range of institutions of higher education.

Because the group was all women, there was a content piece based on the work of Deborah Tannen, an expert in the different communication styles of men and women. Prior to the presentation of this content area, the theater troupe presented a scene designed to introduce the content and invite participants into the presentation. Because of the actors’ familiarity with the participant group and the program content, they were able to anticipate a scene that would have relevance for the group and introduce content. There were four actors on site for this session, two men and two women.

The scene started with actors playing the four people responsible for planning an event on a college campus. During the enactment, the male actors began acting in ways that were illustrative of how Tannen described men as communicators. And the women in the scene began acting in the ways that she described as typical of women.

As the scene played out, the session participants were able to see the connection between cross-gender communication and the possible conflicts that could be generated. As the group saw themselves and others with whom they work in the characters, they started to react, most with laughter. A few exhibited a heightened desire to rectify the situation depicted by the actors. After watching the enactment for five minutes, the group participants were engaged and eager to explore the topic more fully. The use of theater also allowed the women to release some of the feelings they carried related to the topic and their own experiences. This purely experiential format for generating discussion and learning about conflict has proven to be an effective training technique and a tool for building trust and strong relationships.

Business Success: Collaborating for the Future

Cisco, the world’s largest provider of Internet networking and communication equipment, is powered by collaboration. With 22 current worldwide initiatives, chief executive John Chambers claims that it would be impossible to manage his company using his old style of command and control. Collaboration enables Cisco to foresee changing trends and act quickly.

Management of changeAccording to Chambers, one of Cisco’s strengths is its ability to foresee impending market transitions. “Cisco is able to predict trends six to eight years ahead even in the highly volatile technology market by recognizing early-warning signals its customers unwittingly put off. To capitalize on these ‘market shifts,’ Chambers gave up his command-and-control style and made decision making highly collaborative.”
Cisco organizes for collaboration in several ways.

No Hierarchy
Chambers claims that he found it difficult to let go of his usual command-and-control style, but he disciplined himself to change his behavior. Specifically, in meetings, he gave his team time to think. He began to see that his team often made decisions that were just as good, if not better, than his. And because they were involved in the process, the members of the team were much more invested in the execution. However, not all managers were able to make the adjustment. When this collaborative leadership style was implemented throughout Cisco, 20 percent of the top management team went elsewhere.

State-of-the-Art Technologies
Among Cisco’s offerings are several technologies that enable collaboration. PC software for online meetings is powerful and efficient. But the real collaborative power comes from the company’s next-generation videoconferencing that connects customers and team members world wide.

Collaborative Teams
Cisco has a highly matrixed structure of cross-functional teams called councils and boards that collaborate on projects. Because of the highly sophisticated conferencing software, Cisco employees collaborate in real time much like social networking groups. “The power of collaboration is not in adding more people to the process but in getting immediate input from smart people and thinking through the problem as a group.” This is critical to the success of the company. Individuals and teams from anywhere in the world can gather quickly for an intimate virtual meeting using their state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology.

Verbal and Financial Motivation
To begin a project, Cisco puts people together who speak a common language and engages them in reaching their goal. The leader then drives the team through execution. People are motivated to engage with strong leadership and compensation tied to team performance.

Clear and Consistent Communication
Chambers states: “Clear and consistent communication was and is very, very important to making this whole thing work.” Top management has developed a clear and consistent vocabulary to ensure that information is dispersed and shared consistently worldwide.

Quick Alignment of Resources
When resources are low, flat management and collaboration may save the day. Team members are encouraged to help each other and reallocate resources. Risk taking is also necessary to make a quick change of direction. Team members must be tolerant of failure.
Chambers claims that the new challenges keep him motivated and competitive. His passion for collaboration and willingness to share decision making infuses the whole system with new energy to fuel the vision and stimulate innovation.

Business Success: Instilling a Culture of Collaboration

Many organizations spend large amounts of money on state-of-the-art collaboration software. However, success is elusive if the culture does not support collaboration. Here are some approaches for instilling a culture of collaboration.

• Establish a mentoring system. A natural complement to collaboration, mentoring helps support team effort by providing assistance to members in learning and development. A formal structure with top-level commitment and participation goes a long way to support system-wide collaboration.

• Invite constructive confrontation. Disagreement and conflict in a safe and trusting environment infuse the system with energy, leading to innovation within and evolution of the system.

• Integrate collaborative tools into work styles. Technology that facilitates collaboration is transforming the workplace. System-wide support and advocacy that consider individual styles as well as organizational goals ensure high adoption rates and collaboration

• Facilitate cross-functional brainstorming. Bringing diverse individuals together in a safe, informal environment to share ideas and concerns taps into the wisdom of the organization, leading to expansive thinking and breakthrough solutions.

• Reward people for collaborative behavior. Effective collaboration leads to efficiencies across the organization. Discouraging internal competition by rewarding individuals who collaborate helps to ingrain the behavior. The goal is create a new norm where collaboration is the natural tendency.

• Reward people for gaining broad input. Evaluate and reward individuals for seeking input and advice from others.

• Reward people for sharing information. Evaluate and reward individuals who share their knowledge and resources freely.

• Reward people who use collaboration to innovate. Evaluate and reward those who initiate and inspire cross-functional teams that innovate.

• Promote collaborators. Promote individuals who demonstrate their understanding of that concept that considering multiple perspectives leads to better decisions.

• Practice collaborative leadership. Modeling behaviors such as engaging people, asking questions, listening, and building consensus sends a powerful message that encourages similar behavior at all levels. Using positive nonverbal communication such as an accepting tone and curious tone elicits trust, sharing, and consensus.

I would love to hear your comments about ways you are implementing and encouraging collaboration in your organization.  If you like what you are reading, please share it with your network!

Business Success: Principles of Dialogue Part 2

The past few weeks we have focused on communications and dialogue.  If you missed the articles, you can read them here.  Today we will finish up the practice and principles of dialogue. 

Business Leadership

The Practice of Suspending: “The Principle of Awareness”

• Suspend opinion and judgment, and the certainty that lie behind them.
• Acknowledge and observe thoughts and feelings as they arise without being compelled to act on them; avoid “shoulds.”
• Access your ignorance; recognize and embrace things you do not already know.
• Be courageous in the face of fear.
• Understand what is happening as it is happening; you do not hear and know by turning up the volume.
• Put on hold the temptation to fix, correct, or problem solve. Suspension allows us to inquire into what we observe.
• Question; one good question is better than many answers. Tolerate the tension to not knowing. Ask “What are we missing? What haven’t we said?”
• Resist holding onto positions that polarize. Be willing to expand the conversation to hold beliefs other than your own.

The Practice of Voicing: “The Principle of Unfoldment”

• Notice your reactions, suspend judgment, honor your intuition and cherish your choices. Listen to yourself.

• Be willing to be still.

• Be confident that what you are thinking is valid and relevant.

• Choose consciously before you speak. Ensure that what you say is related to you and not a directive to diminish, change, or dismiss the other.

• Be patient with your self and during silences. Trust the emptiness, the sense of not knowing what to say or do. Sometimes just beginning to speak without determining the words brings forth opportunity.

• In speaking you can create. Give yourself permission to voice what is in the moment.

Maintain the Relationship: Look for the Similarities in the Differences

• Clarify intentions.

• Acknowledge each participant’s uniqueness, perceptions, beliefs.

• Create a container, an intentional space for safe communication.

• Hear and understand me. Identify what you want.
• Even if you disagree, please don’t make me wrong. Support dreaming. No one gets to     be wrong.
• Acknowledge the greatness within me.
• Remember to look for my loving intentions. Deepen the listening.
• Tell me the truth with compassion.

• Attend. Pay attention, observe, be aware.

 Ask. Gather information, withhold criticism, be respectful, honor the self.

• Act. Authentically do something that is consciously determined to be the best of all. Offer support; provide feedback. Maintain connection even if you disagree.

If you like what you have read, please share it with your co-workers and network.  Please consider subscribing to the blog to get free articles once a week delivered to your inbox.

Business Success: Principles of Dialogue Part 1

Last week was discussed what dialogue is and how important it is to business intelligence success. Over the next two weeks we will cover the practices and principles of dialogue. Dialogue can be learned.  A “‘practice’ is an activity you do repeatedly to help bring about an experience.”

A practice based on principles establishes a tradition. It is intentional and designed to create choices.audience-in-classroom-listening-intently-to-speaker-during-meeting_w725_h492

The Practice of Listening: “The Principle of Participation”

• Develop an Inner Silence”; Listen with All the Senses
• Notice the self; “attend to both words and the silence between the words”; be aware of thought.
• Let go of the inner clamor.
• Slow down; be still.
• Stick to the facts; suspend judgment.
• Stay in the present; do not jump to conclusions based on the past; look for evidence that challenges any convictions.
• Find the gaps.
• Listen together; question self and others.
The Practice of Respecting: “The Principle of Coherence”

• Observe, honor, and defer to others. See others as legitimate.
• Honor people’s boundaries; do not intrude; do not withhold the self or distance the self. Imposing is not honoring; sharing personal experience is.
• Accept that others have something to teach us.
• Pay attention to connections in differences; look for the relationship among the parts.
• Look for the whole; find the hub, the center in order to slow down and stay in the present.
• Notice the internal disturbance; suspend the desire to fix it or tell others to change. Find your own center and focus on yourself as part of the whole.
• Look for the elephant in the room and name the feeling. Make deliberate space for those who have a different point of view.
• Hold the tension; do not react to it.

If you like the information contained in this blog, please feel free to share with your network.


Leadership Skills: Dialogue, it is more than just talking

May 15, 2012 @ 02:00 PM

Communication works for those who work at it.
—John Powell, Creator of the Five Levels of Communication

Dialogue goes beyond communication to describe a style of conversation that taps into the energy of an organization through shared intention. Jalma Marcus, executive coach and energy healer, shares her perspective on dialogue.

What Is Dialogue?

Dialogue is “a conversation with a center, not sides.” It is a way of taking the energy of differences and channeling it toward the creation of something new. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater understanding. In essence, it is a means for accessing the innate intelligence and previously untapped power of the organization.

Dialogue is “a flow of meaning.”


Dialogue is “a conversation in which people think together in relationship.” Rather than holding on to their own position, the participants relax their grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities.

Dialogue is “about exploring the nature of choice.”

The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in so doing, form a totally new basis from which to think and act. In dialogue, problems are not just solved, they are dissolved. The goal is not merely try to reach agreement but to create a context from which many new agreements emerge. By unveiling a base of shared meaning, the group’s actions and values come into alignment.

Dialogue seeks to address the problem of fragmentation not by rearranging the physical components of a conversation but by uncovering and shifting the organic underlying structures that produce it.

Dialogue requires thinking, not just reacting. It requires a deep awareness of personal feelings as well as other’s reactions.  Dialogue can be learned. It requires a set of practices based on theory and principles. A “‘practice’ is an activity you do repeatedly to help bring about an experience.”

I would love to hear your comments about this way of exporing dialogue and in the next few weeks we will cover several principles of practice to improve dialogue.

Leadership Techniques: How is Your Nonverbal Communication?

In business, both verbal and nonverbal communication are important.  Many people are visual learners and in fact focus on what they see when spoken to.  If part of your leadership techniques include focus on your nonverbal communications you are on the right track.


Given the role that nonverbals play in communicating, there is a real need for self-awareness. To facilitate understanding and management of each parts of communication, it is useful to look at the three categories: Paralanguage, Kinesics, and Proxemics.

Paralanguage is the vocal or tonal quality and pitch as well as the speed and emphasis of our words. It plays a role in face-to-face communication and in telecommunication. Paralanguage is the “how” of our speaking and can be broken down into several areas:

  • Increasing loudness or softness and high or low pitch can designate a question or convey emotion.
  • Timing variation and changes in pitch can provide emphasize or convey meaning.
  • Vocal constriction versus openness can imply tension or emotion.
  • Drawling or clipping is evident in various accents, where someone either drags out certain syllables or skips letters entirely.
  • Emotion reflects how the speaker’s feelings affects the delivery. Crying versus laughing while speaking will almost always convey a different meaning.[i]


Kinesics is the study of body language. Whether speakers are aware of it or not, their bodies communicate messages. The ability both to manage these messages as a speaker as well as to understand them as a listener is invaluable in business. Effective speaking engages the emotions of the audience, and the use of body language is a powerful aspect of that communication.

A story told about President Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrates his belief in nonverbal communication. One evening he decided to have some fun while greeting people. Many of them said, “Good evening, Mr. President, and how are you?” to which he responded with a warm smile, “I’m fine, thank you, I murdered my mother-in-law.” Not one person reacted to his comment. It is possible that no one even heard it because his body language was so contradictory to his statement. Because body language is typically unconscious, it is believed to be the most genuine form of communication.

Because body language is based on feelings, it is valuable to read the recipient’s body language when communicating. More important, it is possible to leverage the use of body language as well as other nonverbals to enhance the delivery of a message. A list of the most common body actions that can lead to intended or unintended impressions follows.

  • Erect posture. Power, confidence, control
  • Two people sitting in similar positions. Harmony, agreement
  • Leaning forward. Interest in other, confidence
  • Open hands. Sincerity, openness
  • Crossed arms.  Defense, closed
  • Head tilting toward the speaker. Agreement or interest
  • Smile. Pleasure, compassion, trust, desire for connection[ii]

There are certainly exceptions to this list, particularly when considering other cultures. It is best to consider body language in combination with cultural behaviors before drawing conclusions.

The use of the hands to guide the eyes is one of the most powerful body language techniques to convey or guide attention.


Proxemics  relates to the space in which we operate and its effect on our level of comfort. [iii] There are two general aspects to proxemics:

1.       Physical territory, such as the orientation or characteristics of furniture or surroundings, can have an effect on our comfort. For example, a desk facing a window versus a dingy wall can affect a worker’s mood. Or a presentation in a poorly lit room might change the experience of the audience.

2.       Personal territory reflects our comfort level in proximity to others. Depending on the level of intimacy, there are basic ranges for each level.

a. Public space. The distance maintained between an audience and a speaker is generally 12 to 25 feet..
b. Social space. The distance between business associates in communication or strangers in public settings is 4 to 10 feet.
c. Personal space. The distance between close friends or family members, or between strangers waiting in line, is 2 to 4 feet.
Cultural differences can lead to variations in these distances. Becoming familiar and respecting these cultural differences will improve cross-cultural relations and build connection. Distances can also vary by gender, age, and personal preferences. Reading body language and observing reactions are the best way to determine the best distances.

[i]             “What Is Paralanguage?”
[ii]             Patricia Ball, “Watch What You Don’t Say,”,CSP,CPAE_592.html.
[iii]             Mike Sheppard, “Proxemics,”

Business Skills: The Art of Listening

Listening may or may not be an “act of love” or way to “tap into people’s 

listeningdreams,” but it sure as hell is (1) an uncommon act of courtesy and recognition of worth from which (2) you will invariably learn amazing stuff…and (3) it will build-maintain relationships beyond your wildest dreams.

—Tom Peters, best-selling author

To be a strong leader, you must be able to influence others. In highly complex organizations, everyone plays the role of leader from time to time. And communication is an essential mechanism for the exchange of knowledge and intentions. Mastering the art of listening is essential to the success of all participants in an interdependent organization.[i]

Those who are good listeners greatly increase their influence on others. Although listening is passive in nature, when someone feels heard, he or she feels inspired and validated. Sadly, many leaders fail to listen because they are biased, impatient, bored, or rigid in their views. This prevents the critical exchange of knowledge, insights, and intentions.

Listening skills are rarely taught. Communication training in business schools typically focuses on argument and persuasion. These skills fit the old management model with its top-down, authoritative approach.  Managers had little reason to listen. They communicated down the chain of command, and the workers followed orders.

As stated earlier, as organizations embrace new business models, listening is becoming an integral part of the communication process. Two-way interaction helps to clarify and prevent confusion, aid comprehension, and improve connection.

Listening goes beyond just hearing. Hearing usually triggers a reflexive response without any thought or reflection. Listening is deliberate and requires interpretation. A good exercise in listening is to ask recipients to reflect back what they heard.

Bad listeners:

  • Interrupt. They are impatient and may like to dominate the conversation.
  • Are inattentive. They are easily distracted, perhaps even multitasking.
  • Exhibit mind-drift. They are easily bored, perhaps even self-centered.
  • Are biased. They have strong marginal views (out of the mainstream), and cannot expand their thinking.
  • Have closed minds. They have already drawn a conclusion or stay with their own beliefs.

Good listeners:

  • Are quiet. They talk less than the speaker.
  • Are patient. They never interrupt the speaker.
  • Are unbiased. They avoid prejudgment.
  • Are curious. They ask clarifying and open-ended questions.
  • Pay attention. They sit attentively, take notes, concentrate.
  • Employ nonverbals. They smile, maintain an open posture and eye contact.
  • Reflect back. They verify and reinforce what was heard through summary comments.

Skillful listeners are natural leaders in the new business landscape with their ability to influence, engage, and inspire.

Come back for more business intelligence and change management focused blogs by The OLIVIAGroup! Feel free to comment with questions, insights, or additions to this post. 

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[i]             William F. Kumuyi, “Sir, Listen Up!” 2008,;col1.

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