Updating a useful metaphor

Wouldn’t you assume that using words was a skill transferable from one career to another? After all, words are a Conflict Manager’s main tool. If I can talk I can manage conflict. Words are words, right? Yet, the switch from Conflict Management to writer of managing conflict changed my brain and words.

As a Conflict Manager, I think fast, strip down flowery language, and integrate non-fiction stories into a coherent narrative. As a fiction writer, I work in slow motion, pick words for description more than truth, and think in metaphors.

To align my two careers, I turned a writerly gaze on how I use Conflict Management metaphors. Time to rethink those too.

A prime metaphor for conflict

Often, a simple skill or concept learned early remains  important. For conflict competency, one such foundational skill is probing beneath Positions to understand Interests. A common metaphor for moving from Positions to Interests is imagining an iceberg.

The metaphor instructs that, like icebergs, conflicts are 10% knowable by the revealed Position a party takes. The submerged 90% represents unseen Interests, the concealed reasons a party has its Position.

Although derivative from Freud, the iceberg is a powerful metaphor for teaching that conflicts are more solvable once Interests are known. Trainers extend the iceberg metaphor in creative ways to aid discussing the mass of Interests under the waterline that anchor the minimal, protruding Position.

                      Icebergs of interests & positions

Reasons to update a prime metaphor for conflict

What makes a block of frozen fresh water, that’s endangered from climate change, the best visual for conflict management? Not only are icebergs disappearing, it’s a north/south image that most of the world’s population won’t see firsthand.

I’ve been privileged to hike icebergs and drink straight from the melting ice. That’s an elite experience. My kayak rocked wildly when a collapsing monster iceberg caused a mini tsunami. How many experience that? I shattered my ankle and fell beside a towering iceberg, just it and me in the frigid Arctic Ocean. Not many want to experience that.

The iceberg image is vivid in my memory. That doesn’t make an iceberg translatable across cultures and experiences.

An alternative metaphor

Recently, I taught Positions and Interests using a dandelion metaphor.

dandelion 1Like conflict:

  • a dandelion is natural and, usually, considered an unwelcome invader and pest.
  • much of a dandelion is unseen beneath the soil.
  • a dandelion has uses; the leaves for salad greens and the root for tea or medicine.
  • a dandelion infestation is rarely solved with neglect.
  • if blasted with harsh chemicals the dandelion’s surroundings are also poisoned.
  • age transforms a dandelion flower into seed and its leaves turn bitter.
  • unless the dandelion root is removed the dandelion survives.
  • gentle probing and wiggling removes more dandelion root than does grabbing a handful of leaves and yanking.

Complexity and simplicity are both relevant tools.

The iceberg is a more simple, linear seen/unseen binary. Other metaphors enrich and expand it, complexifying the role conflict plays in life.

By the way: Iceberg images are so familiar that no Conflict Manager I asked could name the photographer or graphic artist to credit the pictures; as if they are in the public domain, although someone must have used each image first. Perhaps you know who, or it’s your image. If so, please let me know so I can add the credit.


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