The Third Way – 18 Camels


I met with a faculty member recently who shared a situation and how they responded. It was explained that when X happened, then the only choice was to do Y. The faculty member was upset, angry about the situation, so I listened. I then summarized what I’d heard to make sure I had the various pieces and to acknowledge the faculty member concerns. The faculty member visibly relaxed (they were heard) and then I said: “Let me make an observation and ask a question. When you shared the situation you framed it as X and then Y, as either or – what’s the third way?”

I have long stated that the idea that there are two sides to every story is wrong; instead, there are six or seven (even if only two people are involved)!  We all carry multiple perspectives within and these show up when we are in conflict. As I think about our multiple sides to every story, I recalled the work of William Ury, one of the authors of Getting to Yes, who has more recently talked about the Third Side of conflict resolution. Ury has an excellent Ted Talk – “The Walk from No to Yes” on the subject where he shares the story of 18 camels.

Here’s the story:

“One of my favorite negotiation stories is about a man who leaves his herd of 17 camels to his three sons as their inheritance. To the first son, he leaves half the camels; to the middle son, he leaves a third of the camels; and to the youngest son, he leaves a ninth of the camels.

The three sons get into an intense negotiation over who should get how many, because 17 doesn’t divide by two, or by three, or by nine. Tempers become strained, so in desperation they consult a wise, old woman.

She listens to their problem and says, “Well, I don’t know if I can help you, but if you want, at least you can have my camel.” Now they have 18 camels, so the first son takes half of them, or nine camels; the middle son takes his third, or six camels; and the youngest son takes his ninth, or two camels. Nine plus six plus two adds up to a total of 17 camels. There is one camel left over, so the brothers give it back to the woman.”

As Ury explains and as I asked the faculty member visitor – what’s the third way to consider the situation? Too often we think in either/or, we polarize situations, and don’t consider some other path.

Thus, next time you are stuck or better yet, before you get stuck, visit the ombuds – let me help you find the third way.

Emojis, tagging, instagram + dealing with hostile email – BIFF it!!


I’m working on a presentation “Conflict Resolution in Our Digital Age” and thinking a lot about our electronic communications. I’m on email and text most every day, yet working with people in conflict seems to work best when we meet face-to-face. That’s why most of my meetings are in-person. This is also supported by research that explains how spoken language makes up only a small portion of what is communicated.  The non verbal and other than conscious communication makes up a majority of what we see, feel and hear. The question is how do we manage this in our digital age?

I’m convinced that the emoji is one answer. Emojis are so popular because we want more than “just” the written word.  We want to capture the non-verbal stuff whether it be tone, cadence, or a full range of emotions. Emojis and now “tagging” help us fill in the otherwise lack of information we receive via email and/or text. It’s also why instagram is so popular – a picture is worth a thousand words.

However, if you find yourself needing to use words, here are some suggestions from Bill Eddy,  founder of the High Conflict Institute on how to deal with “hostile” emails. This is  based on Eddy’s idea that “high conflict” people require specific strategies to address and, hopefully, deescalte the conflict producing behaviors. Eddy has numerous books and training videos that may be of interest if you live or work with a “high conflict” personality!

Here’s Eddy’s strategy for dealing with hostile emails and he calls it the

BIFF response –           Brief         Informative          Friendly           Firm

According to Eddy:

Brief: A brief response reduces the chances of an angry back and forth. Brief signals you don’t take the other person’s statements seriously and keeps you out of sending anything resembling a personal attack. Focus only on the facts and make no comments about character or personality.

Informative: Remember the point of your response is to correct inaccurate statements. Focus on the accurate statements you want to make and offer facts only.

Friendly: A hostile response will elicit a hostile response back. A friendly response is focused on de-escalation, and other email recipients will notice that your response is clearly very different than the other person’s hostile email. Try as hard as you can to sound as relaxed and empathetic as possible.

Firm: Avoid comments that invite more discussion. You might even try, “This is all I will say on this issue,” or, “This conversation is over.”

So, keep sending those emojis and tags and next time you get that email that sends you to your keyboard with strokes fast and furious, remember BIFF and take a break before even thinking about a response. Take a walk, clear your head, determine whether you even need to respond. Then try a BIFF!

Resolving Conflicts – the Present, the Future, and the Past


As you may know, the NC State African American Cultural Center is in the midst of its 25th Anniversary year (1991 – 2016) (Congrats!) and I was on the Center website recently when something caught my eye. It was a banner showing the West African Adrinka Symbol Sankofa (“learning from the past” or “return and get it”). I wanted to learn more and found another version to share in this post.

Adrinka are visual symbols developed by the Ashanti people who are native to the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The presentation is of a bird turning around to catch its lost egg with the meaning that it is never too late to turn around and start on a new path once a mistake is recognized.

This idea fully resonates with my work in the conflict resolution field and as the NC State Faculty Ombuds as people can get bogged down in the past. Sometimes people are unwilling to recognize a mistake or are just stuck and, in either case, are not willing to start a new path. Connection with the concept of Sankofa, as I listen to faculty members share situations, I often encourage people to not fully discard the past in order to move forward; instead, use the past and learn from it in order to create a new path.

Thinking about the past and future is also part of the “The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution” by Dudley Weeks, Ph.D.  Weeks thinks of people in conflict as people in a partnership and that in order to resolve issues, people must work together. He outlines 8 Steps that focus on resolving conflicts and preserve relationships. Step 5 is “look to the future, then lear from the past.”  Weeks takes the idea of Sankofa and turns it around. He asks people and groups in conflict to first consider the present and the desired future, then go back to the past. Weeks explains: “Even though the past does indeed matter, we deny our own power and the power of development and change if we allow ourselves to be defined by the past, to be trapped in perceptions that use past patterns to limit present and future possibilities.” (p 165)

Taken together Sankofa and Weeks’ Step 5 provide a great tool to resolve conflicts. I encourage you to be in your present, then look to the future, and then check-in with the past. What do you want your future to be? Can the past help guide you or do you need new patterns? Good luck and let me know how it works out!

NC State Faculty Ombuds Office Announces New Initiative


The “Be Nice Campaign:  Be Hard on Problems and Soft on People”


On June 19, 2015, in a New York Times opinion, Christine Porath wrote “No Time to Be Nice at Work” opening with “MEAN Bosses could have killed my father.” I wrote about this article in the summer (see entry of 7/31/15) and while the article certainly made an impression on me, I was already a believer in terms of encouraging civility even when people disagreed. As a long time professional mediator, I’ve long encouraged people to separate the people from the problem based on concepts from one of the seminal books on negotiation/mediation “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. I noted in my earlier post that perhaps this could develop into a “Be Nice” initiative. This fits well with part of what I consider my role as the NC State Faculty Ombuds – to promote healthy conflict resolution approaches.

Fast forward to last week. In addition to serving as the NC State Faculty Ombuds (on a part-time basis), I also maintain an active dispute resolution practice serving as mediator, arbitrator, teacher, and trainer. This past year I’ve had a chance to work with Marine Special Forces Team Commanders in a two day program focused on negotiation and mediation skills for working with people outside a military command structure. These programs generally include other military personnel to help with role plays and provide experience based concepts for the program students. During a session last week, one of the assistant trainers, an Army Special Forces Veteran with experience across the globe shared the following story about one of his team Sergeants to highlight the importance of being nice.

The story goes like this:

In the mid 1980’s the Sergeant was serving as a military advisor in El Salvador. This was in the middle of fighting between government forces and FMLN forces. One day the Sergeant was driving down a fairly remote dirt road when he saw a women up ahead walking along the side of the road and carrying a bundle of sticks for firewood. He slowed his vehicle down because that’s what you do on a dirt road when someone is walking so you don’t stir up the dust. He stopped when he got near the woman and asked if she wanted a ride. She did, got in the vehicle, and they headed up the road. He dropped her off with hardly a word spoken along the way and quickly forgot about the event.

About 4 months later, the Sergeant is sitting in a restaurant/bar in San Salvador. The spot is know as a “neutral” location where people and military could gather without fear of violence. As the Sergeant sat, a man approached and asked if he could join the table. The man said – “Do you know who I am?” The Sergeant did indeed know as this was one of the rebel commanders that was being sought. The FMLN commander sat down, looked to the Sergeant and said: “I just want to let you know that you will get out of this country alive . . . and, my mother says thanks for the ride.”

University campuses are designed to foster critical thinking and as part of such thinking comes disagreement. This is true for both students and faculty and comes in many forms. Unfortunately, both in and out of the classroom, there are times when disagreement between ideas becomes disagreement between people and differing opinions may cause differing and sometimes hostile treatment. This incivility as Christine Porath wrote can have both direct health consequences and impact the ability to be productive at work.

As I reflect on my short time as the NC State Faculty Ombuds (opened the office in February 2015) and the range of issues that have come my way to date, some of the situations call out for faculty to figure out how to disagree in a better way. How to be civil and polite while being assertive and even forceful on ideas – how to think and do conflict resolution in more productive ways.

Thus, with the connections noted above, I’m pleased to announce a new initiative from the NC State Faculty Ombuds Office –

The Be Nice Campaign: Be hard on problems and soft on people


This campaign will develop over time with a range of programming including written materials, training, and perhaps a public forum on the topic; however, the first step is to announce it and, in so doing, raise how faculty treat each other as an appropriate issue for consideration.

I look forward to working with you all to “Be Nice” and continue the critical thinking necessary to foster, develop, and share differing ideas and perspectives.

Difficult Conversations – Office of Faculty Development Workshop

Conflict resolution workshop featuring Roy Baroff, NC State Faculty Ombuds, presented by the Office of Faculty Development on Friday September 18th from 1:30 pm – 2:45. Come learn about Conflict Styles, how to have that difficult conversation, and meet the NC State Faculty Ombuds.  Here’s a link to registration for this event: OFD Registration

Hope you can attend!

Navigating the storm of Conflict

How do we deal with conflict?  That’s the question John Zinsser asks and answers in his recent TedX Charleston talk. I met John at the recent IOA (International Ombudsman Association) annual conference and he provides a great tool for thinking and dealing with conflict.  John calls himself a communication catalyst and has significant conflict resolution and ombuds experience.

John explains that most of us use the “legal model” of dealing with conflict and this takes us down the wrong track with a focus on the past, a search for the “truth” and then, based on findings, someone is punished or rewarded. He suggests that this approach largely ignores the things we really want, does not pay attention to relationships, and rarely focuses on the future. As a result, and I really liked this line ” we sacrifice tomorrow to win yesterday.”

John has an answer worth considering. He believes we need to do the opposite, move away from the legal model and do three things to deal with conflict.

1)  Focus on interests and intentions

2)  Invest in relationships

3)  Focus on the future

The idea is to think about the why (interests) that drives what you seek and to consider your intentions – where do you really want to go?  To pay attention to relationships and the future.  This approach will help you navigate the storm of conflict and find the direction to take you to your desired port of call.

In John’s words, don’t “win yesterday” – win tomorrow!

Here’s a link to John’s TedX Charleston Talk:

IOA Conference – build relationships to build resolution

I just returned from the IOA (International Ombudsman Association) annual conference in Atlanta. Just imagine 400 ombuds from across the country and the world gathering to talk, learn, and network around the work of the ombuds. The program was packed with plenary sessions and smaller seminars with topics to meet a full range of interests.

One plenary session focused on the idea of relationships and how we humans place significant emphasis on value in relationships. In thinking about this concept, if you are having a conflict with a colleague, then figure out what you can do that the other will perceive as valuable. (Note – its not what you are already doing that you think is valuable – its what the other will think is valuable.)  Taking such a step has the potential to create, rebuild, or perhaps enhance your relationship. And with a more solid relationship, then you may be more able to resolve the issue or conflict.

In my past mediation practice, I’ve used the phrase  “build relationships to build settlements” and its worth thinking about if you find yourself in difficulty.  And, of course, contact the NC State Faculty Ombuds if you need help!