Shamash of the Day, and other Thoughts on Win-Win Solutions

The votes are in! Many of you visited the voting page to tell me what topics you would like to hear about (thanks!), and conflict management is a top request. While this topic is deep and complex, with scholarly research and formal models used by professional mediators, I have some simple approaches to share that have worked for me over the years.

I’ll start with a story. When my kids were little, they attended preschool at the local Jewish Community Center. As part of the daily routine, one of the kids was chosen to be the “shamash” to help the teacher. (I believe this term comes from synagogues, where the shamash is someone who assists the rabbi.) At our preschool, the shamash chose the story to be read at nap time, headed up the line to the playground, and even put the challah bread in the oven on Fridays. My kids loved being the shamash! And I think the teachers loved having a shamash as well. Since everyone took turns being the assistant, the teachers didn’t have to remember who the line leader was yesterday or who hadn’t had a turn in a while. What a brilliant idea for reducing rivalry and conflict! So, I decided to apply the shamash concept at home. On alternating days, my kids took turns being the shamash, which meant they chose what television show to watch, what book would be read aloud at bedtime, and who would take their bath first. As they got older, the choices evolved to things like who got to sit in the front seat of the car. By having a shamash, we virtually eliminated the potential conflict over daily decisions; my kids felt things were fair.

Of course, not every conflict can be prevented by having a shamash. Whenever there are groups or individuals who perceive an inequity or have a difference of opinion, conflict can occur.

Earlier in my career, I participated in a leadership-focused book club. One of our discussions was on Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and William Paton. From its jacket: “Getting to Yes offers a concise, step-by-step, proven strategy for coming to mutually acceptable agreements in every sort of conflict – whether it involves parents and children, neighbors, bosses and employees, customers or corporations, tenants or diplomats.” I appreciated the authors’ emphasis on win-win solutions and their examples of what happens when you make assumptions about what the other side wants to achieve. If you start negotiating with misunderstanding, it’s bound to fail.

Even with a great resource like “Getting to Yes,” I still find that managing conflict is hard work.

  • I often find I’m emotionally exhausted by handling conflicts. In trying to get to the root of the disagreement, I find myself carefully asking questions, empathizing without taking sides, and, at times, walking on eggshells in an attempt to not make things worse.
  • I can get defensive if the conflict is with me.
  • I may upset others, especially if I tell them how to resolve things in a way they don’t agree with.
  • In the moment, I’m tempted to ignore the conflict or procrastinate. While time may heal some issues, the big conflicts never resolve themselves.

So, when I need to manage conflict, I remind myself of these best practices:

  1. Get ahead of it. If possible, I try to prevent conflict from happening by setting things up for success, as I did by having my kids take turns being the shamash. At work, I look for ways to build relationships which will serve as building blocks for resolving future conflict.
  2. Focus on the issue at hand, not the emotions, egos, or politics. I do my best to understand what each side wants to achieve. I put myself in their shoes, and I summarize their goals or concerns as simply as possible. I ask them if there is anything I missed.
  3. Acknowledge strong emotions but don’t pass judgment. I say things like “I can see you are upset” or “You look frustrated.”
  4. Brainstorm solutions. Working with both sides, I identify potential ways to resolve the concerns or meet the goals. I make sure they participate in generating ideas so that they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership. I try to find win-win solutions.
  5. Resolve it. I objectively explain which solution seems best and why. I look for ways to help both sides save face.

What approaches have you used to manage conflict as a parent or a leader? Do you have a favorite book to recommend on the topic? I look forward to hearing from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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