Conflict and Creativity are Kissing Cousins


Guest Blog Post by Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. –  Author of Conflict Tango

 creativity and conflict

“Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas.” – Donatella Versace

Complex and challenging conflicts benefit from a healthy dose of creativity to break out of deadlocks. Creativity requires divergent thinking—a conflict of ideas, as Versace says. Conflict generates creative solutions, and creativity resolves conflicts. At first glance, it’s the proverbial chicken and egg dilemma. There is a more synergistic way to look at it – view conflict and creativity as kissing cousins.

The first notion you need to drop is that creativity is available to only a few brilliant artists, writers, and innovators. Second, that creativity explodes out of the blue in a single ‘Aha!’ moment, causing you to want to streak naked down the street shouting, “Eureka, I’ve got it!”

Like any discipline, creativity can be taught, and it is not as rare as you might think. Insights don’t generally plop into someone’s head without prior inputs. It’s just that sometimes inputs are quite indirect, and not recognized as contributing to insight.

Anyone can use creative approaches to solve problems and manage conflicts. Most people do, but don’t recognize what they’re doing as creative. The problem is that most people think of creativity and masterpiece works as synonymous. Creativity is a process, not a result. It is seeing connections and developing numerous ideas and alternatives. There are many tools to help spark creative efforts, and many of these are applicable to collaborative problem solving in conflict situations.

Sometimes people look at me with disbelief when I talk about creativity and conflict this way. I suspect it is because they are thinking of the emotionality that often accompanies conflict, or perhaps of that person they find so difficult to interact with, or any of the other difficult dynamics associated with conflict. Creativity seems impossible in the face of such challenges.

So here is another notion to drop: that your toughest conflicts are not appropriate for the use of creative approaches. I suggest those are the conflicts for which you need creativity most. Using creative tools to break through  logjams is exactly what’s needed. You do still need to use all those other conflict management tools as well: listening, checking for understanding, clarifying wants and needs, managing your emotions, and so on. At some point, the search for mutual solutions becomes timely. This is when to apply whichever creativity tools will serve your particular circumstances best.

Don’t merely jump to compromise or accepting the first reasonable idea someone suggests. Instead, embark on a search for ideas that have a greater likelihood of meeting more of everyone’s priority needs. If you succeed at this, the solutions will prove more durable and satisfying. Other benefits accrue as well: stronger relationships, learning more about yourself and the others involved, growing your creative thinking skills, and the experience of transforming a difficult conflict to a (usually) fun and creative exploration. Once that energy shifts, it’s intoxicating.

Increase your chances of success by doing the following:

Soften your original position

Consider the possibility that there are other ways for you and your counterparts to get what you want or need.  For complex conflicts, consider that it is possible to make meaningful progress towards addressing the problems involved in them. Arriving at the place where you feel comfortable softening your original position is supported by using the communication and conflict management skills—people skills—I mentioned above.

Defer judgment to develop new ideas

One of the tenets of creativity is that there is no such thing as a bad or wrong idea.  Everything or anything may eventually lead to plausible and usable ideas. During your creative explorations, all suggestions are welcome, even the crazy and ridiculous ones. In fact, in the early stages, the more ridiculous, the better. Some creativity techniques, by design, take you far afield from your original problem. Doing so, shakes things loose, gets you past logjams, and opens new pathways.

One such technique is using analogies to trigger ideas. Randomly pick a word out of a dictionary, or an adaptation from nature, another discipline, etcetera. Begin to explore what you know about this thing, how it relates to or differs from your problem, or what senses it touches (images, sounds, sensations). Write down any ideas—even seemingly nonsensical ones—that emerge. These might lead to something you can use. Sonar was inspired by bats, Velcro by a thistle, and Mac products by calligraphy.

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Explore alternative ways of looking at the problem

Look at the problems about which you have conflict from numerous angles. The point is to break out of your usual habits of thinking about the situation to eventually open up new possibilities. Here are three ways:

  • Expand it. For example, if the conflict starts out about which car to buy, what happens if you begin talking about your family’s various transportation needs.
  • Reverse it. If the conflict is over a child disobeying its parents, a reversal would be the parents are disobeying the child. If you consider the situation in this way, somewhat from the child’s perspective, what emerges?
  • Break it up and rearrange it. Take any multi-faceted issue and divide it into parts. Put all or some of the pieces back together in a different arrangement and see how the problem looks now. Perhaps it opens new avenues for addressing it, or maybe it just gets you thinking about it differently. Both are useful results. You don’t have to use all the pieces, either. Take the family transportation needs as the problem. Parts of it might include: getting to multiple places in a short time, saving money, saving fuel, wanting a status symbol, and so on. Rearranging it might look like: how do we get kids and adults to school and work while saving fuel and money.

Welcome in curiosity and surprise

Along the way, ask curiosity questions. Explore strange-seeming ideas further. Be playful. Allow yourself to experience an “Oh, I never saw it that way before” kind of moment.

Continue to use people skills

Addressing conflicts is like a dance—forward steps and backward moves, big sweeps, side-by-sides, hops and glides. Creativity and problem solving is rarely a linear process. Sometimes you will make progress in leaps and bounds and other times, you will feel like you’re getting nowhere. These are the times to be patient with yourself and your counterparts. To listen. To take breaks. To clarify. To be kind.

Generate many possible approaches to addressing the problem

Go past the first solution that seems like it will work. Generate many options. Combine different options. Put unlikely ideas together to see what that triggers, and what that suggests, and what the next set of ideas is. Sleep on it and come back another day with whatever plopped out of your brain during that down-time that isn’t really down-time, but your thoughts incubating and working in the background like your computer processor. You might even consider keeping a waterproof pen near your shower, or a pad by your bed to capture those otherwise fleeting ‘great’ ideas that your mind cooks up. You are more likely to arrive at a direction or solution that is robust and mutually satisfying if you don’t settle for a good-enough idea too soon.

Select mutually satisfying solution(s)

Now bring your judgment back into play and select ideas that either solve or make progress on the issues over which you had conflicts. At this stage, it may no longer feel like you are resolving a conflict, but more like you are addressing a problem(s) everyone cares about. Instead of adversaries, somewhere along the way you became co-collaborators in the best sense of that word.

Perhaps you didn’t solve everything, but you made progress and you changed the nature of engagement. In my book, that counts as success.


creativity and conflict

Jagoda Perich-Anderson has over 25 years of experience helping people in both public and private sectors make progress on challenging work, social and organizational issues. She authored a chapter in The Handbook of Conflict Management on multi-stakeholder collaborative processes, as well as numerous articles on conflict management over the years. Jagoda is passionate about teaching people how conflict, handled skillfully, empowers creativity and innovation.

You can find Jagoda at her blog:



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