My previous post recommended the use of “I” statements as a tool to prevent conflict escalation. In the interest of brevity, I omitted an important caveat that I would like to address here.

To recap, “I” statements enable us to avoid using the common trigger word “You.” That simple pronoun is often heard as a form of accusation because it’s usually followed by some form of blame (“You screwed up!”), exaggeration (“You’re always holding up rehearsal!”) or attribution of motivation (“You’re trying to sabotage the project!”). It’s easy to assume bad intentions based on the negative impact another’s words or actions have on us, and that assumption is usually incorrect. Thus an otherwise productive conflict becomes personalized, and the downward spiral begins. However, using “I” statements forces the speaker to speak from and about his/her own experience, which is inherently personal and necessarily subjective. In owning your feelings, you acknowledge yours as one possible perspective (not a universal “truth”), and avoid adding guilt to the potent brew of emotions the other person in the conflict may be feeling.

Recall that our proposed “I” statement model was as follows:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss a resolution to the problem].”

For example, “I feel angry when I’m interrupted in meetings, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to discuss how we can debate more respectfully.” Note how this is a much less incendiary statement than, “You’re always interrupting me!”

This brings us to the caveat – or caveats plural, because there are two: The first is that “I” statements require practice, like any other conflict resolution skill. The second, and more problematic, is that when framed improperly they can increase the risk of conflict escalation. In other words, they can accidentally trigger the very thing we are trying to avoid.

Thoughts & judgments can be triggers too

Conflict can be inadvertently escalated when we insert a thought or a judgment into our “I” statement, instead of a genuine feeling we’re experiencing. Again, this is easy to do in the midst of emotional turmoil when it’s hard to identify exactly what we’re feeling, or when we don’t want to admit to fear, anger, or other unwelcome emotional states. The problem with thoughts or judgments is that they are easily mistaken for blame or accusations, which we know are conflict escalation triggers. If your “I” statement is, “I feel ignored,” for example, that's a thought or judgment about your predicament; it's not how you feel about it, which might be frustration, anger, sadness, etc. So this statement can have the same effect as, “You’re ignoring me.” Ignored is a verb in the past tense. The implication is that someone had to do the ignoring, and obviously it must be the other person in the conflict. It’s still an accusation, albeit indirect.

Note, however, that anger, sadness, and most other genuine emotions are nouns. The word cloud below contains some of the common negative feelings in the human emotional spectrum; chances are if you’re experiencing any of them you’re probably in a conflict situation:

 Word cloud of negative feelings

Now compare and contrast that list with the following selection of thoughts or judgments:

Word cloud of blaming words

You can see how the second group of expressions can be interpreted as blaming words that can perpetuate or exacerbate a conflict, even when used in an “I” statement.

It's important to zero in on the actual emotion(s) as best you can, because that’s one thing about which you can never be wrong; you feel what you feel, and no one can claim otherwise. Identifying the feeling is often easier said than done in the midst of the upset, so it’s OK to take the time to experience the feeling, process it, then resume the conversation when safe to do so. Another option is to simply say that you’re feeling full of emotion (another noun!) and then follow up with the description of the issue or problem and an invitation to discuss it, as per our model. - kda




Ron Burgundy: That Escalated Quickly

How often have you found yourself muttering, “Well, that escalated quickly”? Despite the humorous memes it’s seldom funny when you're on the receiving end of an unexpected outburst. But we can keep disagreements from spiraling out of control if we understand how conflicts typically escalate, and thereby avoid doing the things that cause them to become conflicts in the first place. 

In this context, a conflict escalation means an increase in the level of emotions – fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, distrust, etc. – for those involved. Left unchecked, overheated emotions can have deleterious short- and long-term consequences for any creative team or organization. (The costs of conflict are widespread, significant, and largely hidden, which is a topic for a future post.) The illustration below shows how emotions can blow up quickly– and unintentionally – even in a simple disagreement or misunderstanding:

Conflict escalation diagram

At the first level, a productive conflict devolves into personalized conflict when the focus of debate shifts from the original topic, problem or issue at hand to the individuals involved. It’s “personalized” because it’s no longer about the original problem, it’s now about the people. This stage is characterized by frequent use of the pronoun “You” followed by some form of blame, accusation, exaggeration, or insult (ex. “It’s your fault,” “You screwed up,” “You’re always doing that!” etc.). There may also be an assumed (and probably incorrect) attribution of motives (ex. “You don’t care about what I want,” or, “You’re trying to make me look bad.”). When thus accused, the natural inclination is to defend against such attacks, and our fight-or-flight mechanisms kick in. Up goes the adrenaline and intensity.

Destructive conflict is triggered when one or more parties starts dredging up the past or issues that are unrelated, or only tangentially related, to the topic at hand. Suddenly the person on the receiving end finds him/herself fending off attacks on several fronts, and you can imagine how this too provokes heightened emotions.

Hostile conflict occurs when outside parties are dragged into the fray. Common forms of this include “triangulating” (evoking sympathy or validation from a third party); “forum-shopping” (seeking a friendly arbiter, like a child playing parents off each other); and rumour-mongering (“S/He must be sleeping with the boss!”). Hostile conflict can also be triggered by copying others on email, back channel conversations, and going straight to the boss without first trying to resolve the conflict with those directly involved. 

At the highest level of intensity, polarized conflict is activated when one or more parties refuses to work or communicate with the other or their associates. In these cases, battle lines are firmly drawn. Clearly this is the costliest form of conflict at a personal, team or organizational level because interaction can grind to a halt. In the creative industries, this can spell disaster.

In summary, there are three main reasons conflicts escalate:

1.    Using the word “You” followed by blame, insult, accusation, exaggeration, attribution of motives, etc.

2.    Proliferating the issues by bringing up past problems or arguments, unrelated issues, etc. 

3.    Involving others through gossip, back-channel conversations, copying others on email, etc.

There are other potential triggers including interruptions, which are irritating enough when a conversation is light and congenial. Some are subtler but equally powerful, like closed body language (defensive postures such as arms crossed in front of the body), or using the word “but” because it negates anything that has come before it. For example, “I know you think we should do it that way, but I think we should do it this way.” In its place, use the word “and” because it’s inclusive; it allows both perspectives. Note the difference: “I heard you say you think we should do it that way, and I think we should do it this way.” The effect of these triggers is magnified greatly when used in conjunction with the big three.

Avoiding the conflict escalation triggers

Knowing this, there are three specific we can do to help avoid triggering an escalation:

1. Speak using “I” statements. This can be challenging for many of us, because families or cultures may encourage modesty and teach us that talking about ourselves is impolite. Or it may be that we’re simply uncomfortable expressing and asserting our own needs.

The power of "I" statements is twofold: in addition to avoiding use of the trigger word “you,” “I” statements allow people to say what they need to say without compromising the dignity or safety of the other. They allow individuals to be both assertive in expressing their needs and respectful at the same time. Furthermore, you can never be wrong if you speak about your own experience, whereas it’s easy to assume incorrectly when imputing others’ motives or actions. 

Here is one model of an “I” statement:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss].”

For example:

•    “I’m nervous about how fast the decision was made, and I’d appreciate if we could set up a side meeting to discuss it before implementing it.”

•    “I am embarrassed about being reprimanded in the meeting in front of the group, and I’d appreciate if we could sit down and talk about what happened and how to avoid it in future.”

•    “I feel frustrated by interruptions, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to figure out how we can discuss and debate respectfully.”

A related strategy for avoiding inadvertent conflict escalation is active listening, which involves paraphrasing or restating the other person's words to reassure them that they’ve actually been heard, and understood accurately. If there is a misapprehension, it allows for correction. This alone can bring the temperature of a conflict down a few degrees.

2. Limit the conversation to a single issue. Focus on the problem or subject that originally sparked the conflict. Remain alert to any temptation to dredge up past grievances or throw other complaints into the mix, especially if or when you feel yourself being triggered.

3. Work it out between you first. It is perfectly acceptable, in many cases advisable, to express your emotions and your needs to the other party(ies) in a conflict, as long as you assert yourself respectfully. Resist the urge to vent to a third party or CC the whole office, otherwise you risk inflaming the situation. Most people have the capacity to negotiate a satisfactory outcome to a conflict without having it spiral out of control, but they don’t always feel they have the skills. Or they fear the strong emotions that come with conflict. Now that you know how to avoid using escalation triggers or how you can be triggered, you have some basic tools to enable a calmer, mutual problem-solving and decision-making process.

That said, there are legitimate instances where a third party may need to be involved. You can find a free Conflict Assessment Worksheet available for download here; it will help you determine whether you should seek outside help navigating a conflict, and what type of assistance may be appropriate.

The strategies discussed here are not guaranteed to work in all situations, and they require practice to be effective. It can be tough and lonely taking the high road, but someone has to take the lead and set a positive example; too few people have the necessary skills for successful conflict resolution, especially in the heat of the moment. It’s not easy when someone is pushing your buttons. But the short-term challenge is worth the longer-term peace of mind that comes from preventing a conflict from spiraling out of control.  - kda


One of the challenges of conflict is that creative teams or workplaces are often fully engulfed long before they’re even aware something’s happening. Therefore, a crucial first step in dealing with conflict is to simply recognize the signs it may be occurring. This is easier than it sounds, but it’s critical because the earlier an emerging conflict can be detected, the sooner steps can be taken to resolve or manage the issue(s) effectively and prevent further harm. 

4 warning signals
The four warning signs

There are four categories of warning signs: emotional, physical, behavioural, and relational. Think of these as concentric circles spiraling outwards from within and progressively manifesting externally if unnoticed or left unchecked. Each successive set of indicators, if ignored, inevitably leads to the next level, with ever-increasing consequences. It’s like your cat trying to tell you it’s feeding time, going to greater lengths to get your attention, only it’s not funny (and hopefully will never wind up on YouTube). 

Let's examine what each of these sets of signals mean and why they happen. The analysis can provide useful insight into the individuals involved in a conflict at a personal level.  In observing and interpreting the warnings we can apply the knowledge not only to ourselves but also to others (namely, our colleagues) and take appropriate, timely action.

Emotional signs

The first indications of a problem in a working relationship are internal: our emotions. Feelings are a reliable barometer that things aren’t OK. If my normal state is one of comfort, happiness, relaxation, engagement, calm, and/or contentment, then it’s easy to tell when I move away from that baseline. I can usually identify or describe any uncomfortable feelings I’m having. When trouble is brewing between myself and another person, this discomfort is going to be the first sign that all is not quite right. We may have a conflict, which itself is simply a signal that something needs to change, occurring when something we care about is about to be affected in some way. Time to pay attention!

Feelings will, of course, vary according to each individual involved and each situation. For example, a situation that might seem humorous when it happens to someone else is usually not so amusing when it happens to you. The intensity of the feeling might also vary from one instance to the next. You might feel confused by multiple feelings occurring simultaneously. The range of possible emotional reactions is virtually limitless; there is no definitive feeling or combination of feelings. The bottom line is that any emotions at all outside the normal comfort range are probably a warning.

As such these feelings should not be ignored or repressed. Some find it easy to overlook them because society prefers that we avoid expressing unpleasant feelings. We may downplay what's going on inside when we experience them; we put on a brave face and say everything is “fine” when we know it’s not. Whether or not you choose to divulge them, it’s important to recognize that these feelings are a kind of internal gauge of whether or not the person you are dealing with, or the situation you are in, is psychologically healthy and safe. They’re like the VU (volume unit) meters on a mixing board: when they’re pushing into the red zone, you know the signal is “clipping” and you need to do something because unwanted noise and distortion are being introduced into the signal. If your emotional VU meter is tipping into the red when you are with a particular person or in an uncomfortable situation, that’s your signal to act. 

Emotional VU meter
Emotional VU meter

  Sometimes this means temporarily stepping away from the person or situation causing the discomfort, taking a time-out, and putting some physical or emotional distance between you. That may be all you need for your feelings barometer to return to its baseline and to once again feel calm, relaxed, engaged, happy, or whatever your normal state happens to be. If that's genuinely the case — after a good night’s sleep the discomfort is truly gone and not merely repressed— then you may not actually have conflict. But if the feelings persist, it could mean there is a problem between you and that other person. Avoidance or masking feelings with food, distractions or addictions won’t help. Trying to “rise above” or “be professional” about the uncomfortable situation are among the countless ways to cope with unpleasant feelings. But when there is a genuine conflict between two or more people—one in which the relationship is being challenged (if not damaged) in some way—then the feelings are not going to go away on their own. 

Physical signs

If the emotional warning signs continue unheeded, another natural protective mechanism kicks in. The manifestation of physical symptoms is your mind and body’s way of issuing a more urgent set of signals that are more difficult to ignore.

Again, everyone will experience physical warning signs of conflict differently, but some are quite common. There are those that seem trivial, such as nervousness or sweaty palms. Others are more noticeable and worrisome, for example, difficulty in sleeping. Depending on the individual, the opposite may also be true: you may find that you begin to sleep more than usual, either as a way of avoiding the conflict or recovering from the stress and anxiety it brings. These are two opposite but equally valid physical signs that are more evident than emotions, precisely because they affect not only your mind but your body. Frequent headaches can be among the common physical warning signs of conflict, as are subconscious activities like smoking, eating, or drinking more than usual. These strategies provide bodily sensations to mask the unpleasant emotions we may be experiencing, if only temporarily. (Here the standard disclaimers apply: always check with your doctor if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of any kind; there may be other physiological causes that should be ruled out.)

Not surprisingly, the physical indicators have their own knock-on effects, especially when piled on top of the emotional stuff. Consider the consequences of eating, drinking, or smoking to excess, for example. The short-term results may be stomach aches, hangovers, or smoker’s cough, and the longer-term impacts can be far more severe, even deadly. There are many possible causes of physical ailments, one of which is that the original problem hasn't gone away of its own accord. The physical manifestations are harder to ignore so that you'll finally be moved to do something about it before worse things happen. Even sleeping too little or too much can have consequences extending beyond personal health. In workplace scenarios, one typical result of unmanaged conflict is an increase in chronic lateness or absenteeism. 

Behavioural signs

If the physical warning signs of conflict go unheeded and the core issue remains unaddressed long enough, the next set of signals kicks in. These behavioural indications are overt and more readily observed by others. The subtle logic of the psyche’s strategy is this: if you can’t (or won’t) take care of yourself, you will get someone else to do it for you.

How does your subconscious enlist others in your conflict caretaking? Here, too, the range of possibilities is wide, but examples of the more common tell-tale behaviours might include a normally calm and serene person appears agitated and on edge; a typically patient individual becomes short-tempered and easily triggered; someone who is otherwise engaged and outgoing begins withdrawing; and so on.

You might notice, for example, that a team member who usually goes out socially after work starts making excuses to go right home, or one who normally participates in team discussions and decision-making stops contributing. They may just shrug and say, “Whatever. I don’t care.” Conversations tend to become more difficult, more tense, more strained. Electronic communication may take much longer to get answered, if at all, or responses are more tersely worded than usual. Eye contact may be avoided. You don’t need to be an expert at conflict resolution to detect behavioural changes; the untrained eye can usually spot the signs. We just don’t always recognize them as indicators of conflict.

Abnormal behaviours could be symptoms of another issue or problem, but you won’t know for sure unless you ask. Even then, they may not respond (at least not immediately or candidly), but a change in communication style is sometimes a cry for help in disguise. Unusually difficult behaviours may be indirect and inarticulate invitations to assist, but nonetheless that’s what they are. Uncharacteristic conduct is a way to draw others in because it inevitably affects them one way or another. 

Relational signs

If left too long, the logical consequence of behavioural issues are the relational warning signs that manifest. The relational signs are the most difficult of all to ignore because they’re the most public. Now it’s not just the individual who is affected but others in the relationship. Like the previous three categories they may also appear different for everybody, since no two individuals, conflicts, or situations are identical.

Still, you can spot some common relational warning signs. A person feeling uncomfortable or in conflict may begin avoiding specific people, primarily the person(s) with whom they are in conflict. In a work setting, this might mean he or she takes a different route to the cafeteria or the washroom in order to bypass the other party’s office. They might ask the boss to put them on a different team to reduce the likelihood of interaction with the other person. There are many variations on this avoidance behaviour that people typically employ when in conflict, but they might be hard to spot at first precisely because “out of sight is out of mind.”

Generally, the relational warning signs are easier to detect because they impact multiple individuals, entire teams or companies. As with the other three sets of warning signs they will vary greatly, from deliberate unresponsiveness to singling others out for criticism or verbal attacks, belittling others’ perspectives and contributions, or shooting down their ideas. There may be open disagreement, challenge, argument, or outright hostility. Other nonverbal cues may include eye-rolling, crossing arms or other defensive postures, and deliberate distractions. There may be rumour-mongering, idle gossip, or complaints to others in an effort to win sympathy and support. You can probably identify other examples from your own experience.

Clearly, the relational symptoms affect not only the person with the initial conflict symptoms, but they also impact the others in the group, team, or company. Innocent bystanders often become embroiled. Stakes are much higher by this stage, and if things don’t get resolved soon the whole workplace gets involved one way or another.

Pay attention now, or the pay consequences later

In the midst of a conflict, it’s hard to stop to take proper stock of the situation or retrace steps to figure out how things devolved to the present state. But in learning to recognize these early warning signs, you can remain alert to whatever may be happening right now that requires immediate attention. The internal warning signs tell you it’s time to take care of yourself in some way – often just by asserting your needs – and the longer you put off taking action, the more intense they become. Invariably they will become more outwardly noticeable, which can only cause further discomfort or damage.

It’s understandable that many are uncomfortable talking candidly about their feelings with colleagues or co-workers, because of the additional sense of vulnerability it can bring. Some are only comfortable discussing their feelings with therapists or other professionals, if not with life partners. (Some find even that hard to do). But feelings should be acknowledged and honoured, if not celebrated, because they play a vital role as part of an early warning system. The initial discomfort may be unpleasant but the alternative is greater pain and distress for everyone in the long run.  

(Adapted from Conflict Resolution for Musicians (and Other Cool People). )



In the creative industries, teams frequently need to get from zero to sixty almost instantly. This is typical in film & TV, where production crews are routinely shotgunned together and required to make audiovisual magic in as little as thirty days (sometimes less). These high expectations may be unrealistic but they aren’t impossible, usually because the more seasoned veterans can turn on a high level of professionalism like flicking a switch. The early break-in period can also be greatly reduced if some crew members have worked together on previous projects.

But not everyone on a team has a shared history, pleasant or otherwise, and few crews are exclusively comprised of battle-hardened pros. Creative teams, no matter how short-lived, are still subject to the same process of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning (or “mourning”) as any other. So how do you accelerate them through Tuckman’s stages of development when you simply haven’t got the time or budget to send everyone on a team-building retreat? While there are many things leaders can do to shorten the team development process, this post will focus on  four readily accessible tools that can be used to help teams through the first crucial phase.

In brief, the Formation stage is characterized by (among other things) a general lack of prior history and unfamiliarity with other team members; concomitant low levels of trust; a steep learning curve with lots of checking each other out; and few, if any, established norms for communication, handling conflict, and other behaviours. Therefore, the kind of tools that are appropriate at this stage are those that are not only quick and cost-effective but can also help the team get to know each other without being too in-your-face and personal. Ideally they will also surface ideas about how to manage essentials like communication and conflict. It’s a tall order, but here are four that fit the bill:

Arguably the best-known of the personality inventories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) which, according to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, aims to “make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people's lives.” The MTBI assesses preferences along four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion, which is the extent to which individuals focus on their external or interior worlds; Sensing/Intuition, or how we relate to incoming information and the extent to which we interpret and add meaning; Thinking/Feeling, how we make decisions by focusing either on pure logic or whether we take emotions into account; and Judging/Perceiving, which is about how we structure our relationship with and make sense of the outside world. Knowing how we differ in the ways we relate to the world through our sensory, analytical, perceptual and emotional mechanisms can help us be more patient and tolerant – not just with others but with ourselves as well. It can, for example, be helpful in matching an individual’s natural inclinations with appropriate career options.  In the case of hastily-assembled teams, it offers members a way to get to know each other without having to reveal anything too personal in nature and taking them too far outside their comfort zones. It  encourages bonding by identifying similarities among team members and enables teams to establish norms to respect the differences.

Merrill & Reid’s social styles theory, as its name suggests, offers insight into our social interactions. It identifies four main archetypes (Analytic, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive) and their respective sub-types based on a two-dimensional matrix of social Assertiveness and Responsiveness. The Assertiveness continuum is the extent to which we are more comfortable asking or telling in a social context, mainly as it pertains to expressing individual needs. Responsiveness is the extent to which we react to others by empathizing or openly emoting, or whether we are more likely to rein in our feelings. Awareness of relative ease or discomfort when asserting individual needs and desires, for example, can allow us to see past the stereotypes we might otherwise apply (“bully” vs. “wimp,” etc.) and communicate more sympathetically, allowing for variations in social styles.

Both of these models have been in use for many years, providing valuable insights into how people behave, and why, under most normal circumstances. There are, however, two more tools that offer more specific, situational insights that I have found particularly useful in creative and business environments:

Based on the work of Dr. Meredith Belbin, Team Role theory identifies nine basic roles that we all unconsciously adopt, to varying degrees, when operating in a team environment. When allowed to flourish, each of these natural roles – as opposed to any formally assigned team roles – makes a unique and valuable contribution to the team. They also come with concomitant allowable weaknesses. Knowledge of team roles can allow for more strategic and effective team formation; conversely it can help avoid team dysfunction or outright conflict inevitable when team roles are over- or underrepresented on a given team. Even in film & TV production, where formal crew roles, hierarchies and workflows are very clearly defined, this is still applicable.

The five Conflict Response Roles – Loner, Decision-maker, Moderator, Diplomat, and Friend – describe the clusters of behaviours we tend to adopt when in conflict. These roles vary according to the extent to which the individual naturally focuses on the self, the task, and/or the facts of the matter in a conflict situation; and the extent to which the focus is on the other, the relationship(s) involved, and the feelings of the people in the conflict. The Conflict Response Roles (CR2I) self-assessment instrument has been used successfully for over a decade to identify common escalation triggers; needs that are being protected in a conflict; conflict behavioural patterns, both helpful and potentially destructive; and other key characteristics. This increased self-knowledge can help individuals make the necessary adjustments so that conflict situations are prevented, or at least managed earlier and more skillfully, in a conflict situation.

Of course there are further tests and inventories that can be used, alone or in combination, to assess and analyze everything from individual decision-making preferences to leadership styles and other aspects of our personal and professional selves. As in every situation, it's important to match the right tool for the right job. Note too that the purpose of these tools is not merely to categorize or classify people; it’s imperative to avoid lazy assumptions based on handy generalizations. Reducing individuals to labels and objectifying them makes it far too easy to demonize and see them as “other,” which defeats the whole team-building purpose. And while these tools can help speed the team’s formative stage, they are by no means a panacea.

Still, when used wisely these mental models can help us appreciate what makes each other tick, and see how and why we behave the way we do in certain situations. They can be invaluable for establishing a solid foundation for more effective and durable working relationships. Teams may not always achieve unanimous agreement, but they can always achieve greater understanding and empathy. And they even can do it more quickly and cheaply when time and money are in short supply.


April 20, 2015

If you’re in the arts, entertainment & media industries there are many skills you can (and probably should) learn that complement your creative chops and will help you succeed professionally. For example, even as a lifelong “mathophobe” I’ve found it invaluable to improve my financial management repertoire (although it took many years and several courses in finance for non-financial managers to get it). And given my background in marketing I can’t recommend highly enough that every musician, filmmaker, or game developer learn the fundamentals of the “four Ps” (or six, or nine Ps, depending on which model you follow) in addition to core social media principles, however distasteful or daunting the concept of marketing can be to some creative folks. There are others I could list, and the reality is not everyone has the time, money or desire to learn them. Besides, you can always hire an accountant or a marketing consultant. There is, however, one critical skill that every creative worker should learn. And it’s one that most never do, either out of fear or out of false confidence in their current abilities. It's also one you can't readily farm out to someone else to handle on your behalf.

Digital VU meterIt’s a relatively simple skill, and it has immeasurable impact not only in the professional domain but in the personal as well. In plain monetary terms, research shows that if you applied this skill you would likely earn an average of $1.2 million more over the course of your career compared to those who don’t (the figures differ for men and women who negotiate their salaries, but that’s a story for another day). Have I got your attention yet?

I’m talking about negotiation. Don't mistake negotiation for merely bargaining over deals, contracts, or compensation. Sure, in a professional setting it’s clearly useful. In its broader sense, negotiation is something we do every day in almost every facet of our lives without even realizing it. One definition of negotiation is “a mutual problem-solving and decision-making exercise invoked whenever we need at least one other person to do something.” Seen through this lens it means every time we want to borrow the car from Mom & Dad, or get a roommate to wash his dishes, or figure out how to split a songwriting credit, we have a de facto negotiation. It’s ubiquitous; we can hardly avoid it. It doesn't necessarily mean we're good at it.

Yet people in general, and creatives in particular, often fear negotiation. The very word provokes anxiety, either because they’re afraid of appearing demanding or greedy, or they’re worried that a botched negotiation could lead to conflict, or perhaps they’re concerned that they would “lose” the negotiation due to unequal bargaining power.

Unfounded fears

Like most common fears, these can be crippling – and they are largely unfounded. Most parties in a negotiation have more leverage than they realize. (Hint: it's about using your creativity to brainstorm and solve problems).  And one of the few reasons that negotiations go sideways is if the parties instinctively use the old-school, confrontational approach to bargaining, which is about claiming more value than the other guy. (To get a sense of how this “win-lose” style works – or doesn’t – try pushing a piece of paper across a desk while another person tries pushing it in the opposite direction. Mostly you’ll get stuck in the middle, and the paper winds up crumpled into a ball. Or try pulling the paper; the result is almost always a torn sheet which is seldom fairly split.)

Besides fear, another common reason cited earlier for failure to learn to negotiate is false confidence. This comes from thinking one's self a great negotiator because s/he consistently make gains at the other person’s expense. But the cost to that other person is not only financial (which is bad enough) but emotional as well. This is a recipe for short-lived, unsatisfactory relationships, whether they’re business, personal or creative in nature.

A better way

There is a better way to negotiate. If you've read Getting to Yes: How To Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher and Ury then you're already familiar with this “win-win” negotiation method, one I teach my clients and students. (If you haven't read it, please do -- you'll be glad you did.) 

I say it’s simple because it really boils down to observing the four basic principles. It’s just not necessarily easy. Like acquiring any new skill, there’s a learning curve and it takes consistent practice, review and reflection. But it’s worth the temporary discomfort; it will save you time, money and aggravation in the long run.

What most people don’t realize is that negotiation is also one of the first vital steps to successful conflict resolution. If you have an issue with your co-writer, director, or lead level designer, negotiation is essential unless you want to call in a mediator every time you need to have a conversation. That can get expensive. It’s bad for business, bad for employee/team morale, and it doesn't serve the parties as individuals and human beings.

Done right, negotiation offers extraordinary (and satisfying) opportunities to exercise your creativity. It also makes many aspects of your life that much more stress-free. So I encourage all those engaged in the creative industries not to fear negotiation but to learn it. It's a worthwhile investment that will pay dividends over and over.

- kda