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Embracing and encouraging creativity in how we approach conflicts

09 March 2017   (0 Comments)
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By Dammon Rice and Naëtt Atkinson

Globally and in our local context in South Africa we are in a period of rising tension, be it the polarising reality of a Trump presidency and its impact on the rest of the world, or the violent scenes witnessed at our most recent State of the Nation address – we are witnessing fault lines rupturing what many believe constitutes a healthy society. It is a time to be extra vigilant of how quickly conflict can emerge and escalate, and finding the best way to resolve it constructively.

Although we might try to, we cannot avoid conflict, it rears its head in all areas of our lives. It enters our political spaces, our homes, schools, workplaces, and our social lives. It’s how we manage these conflicts that can either propel us into a phase of growth, deeper understanding and better, more constructive relationships or plummet us into dysfunction, stagnation and resentment.

How best then do we equip ourselves and our organisations for dealing with the fault lines that can prove so damaging?

Tatsushi Arai, a professor of conflict transformation at SIT Graduate Institute, scholar and practitioner in conflict resolution, multi-track diplomacy, sustainable development, and cross-cultural communication argues that “as long as there are contradictions in social interactions, those contradictions stand in the way of our human fulfilment.”

He makes that case that overcoming seemingly incompatible goals requires shifting the parameters of the conflict, redefining the goals, and coming up with different principles by which to see the challenge.

Professor Arai also taught international relations at the National University of Rwanda and worked in development in Rwanda in the aftermath of its 1994 genocide. He is the author of Creativity and Conflict Resolution: Alternative Pathways to Peace and is an advocate of creative approaches to conflict.

“I see creativity for conflict transformation as a sustained, interactive and group-based process where a small number of stakeholders involved in a given social conflict come up with a seemingly unconventional insight to respond to the root causes of that conflict. Importantly, the insight has to be subsequently accepted as workable by a growing number of other stakeholders,” he says.

“Basically overcoming seemingly incompatible goals requires shifting the parameters of the conflict, redefining the goals, and coming up with different principles by which to see the challenge.”

For many of us creativity is something that is done by others – the “creatives” amongst us – so we avoid or dismiss it and designate it to someone else; and so we become stagnant and rigid in our thinking and doing. By doing that we lose the opportunity to engage with the incompatible goals and allow new possibilities to emerge because we don’t think of ourselves as creative.

When we embrace creativity, push through the discomfort of not knowing into a space of curiosity, we have the opportunity to find a new path. We grow, build deeper connections and more constructive solutions. This is true in all spheres including within our organisations.

Organisations are made up of individuals with different skills sets, talents, life experiences, prejudices and personalities. All of these constitute the basis of inter-personal and group dynamics and provide ample opportunity for misunderstanding, miscommunication, contentious disagreement and conflict.

The challenge is that traditional ways of addressing these issues are often ineffective. Conflicts are sometimes solved in an autocratic way; the symptoms of the conflict are dealt with but the underlying causes not, so resentment or underlying issues remain; the process for dealing with conflict in organisations isn't clear.  People just leave their positions or they escalate the matters to the legal system because they don't believe that the conflict will be resolved and don't want to expend energy on trying.

What we really need is an overhaul of the current approach to dealing with conflict so that it is more inclusive; a much greater focus on self-awareness as a process to help with conflict resolution; and tools for alternative ways to resolve conflict that lead to more creative solutions and sustained positive relationships.

Creativity and conflict are not mutually exclusive. Both can be difficult and uncomfortable to grapple with but through engaging with creative thinking while dealing with conflict we have an opportunity to provide opportunities for deeper understanding, stronger relationships, growth, and change. 

And it’s good for the bottom line. “An investment in creativity and design is simply good business,” says Mala Sharma, vice president and general manager of Creative Cloud at Adobe which conducts an annual study of creativity in business globally. “Creativity and productivity go hand in hand, but investing in creativity isn’t on the agenda for enough of today’s leaders.”

Perhaps it is time to change this in business and beyond; to embrace and encourage creativity in how we approach conflicts so that we can navigate and even thrive in these uncertain times.

Dammon Rice heads up CCDI Creative, a consultancy offering creative workshops to unlock competiveness. Naëtt Atkinson is an internationally accredited mediator and specialises in mediation, conflict resolution and mentoring in various contexts. Creative with Conflict workshops run on 18 May and 21 August. Email


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