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Engineering Conflict Resolution

Many people ask me how I navigated from Engineering to Conflict Resolution and are interested in how my Engineering background aids me when working with conflict.

My journey from Engineering to Conflict Resolution was slow and measured – sounds similar to how most Engineers operate.  My interest in negotiating came to light while I was working for clients seeking an end to energy management contracts.  I was an independent third party creating reports detailing energy savings from newly installed energy management systems.  There seemed to be no win-win solutions in these situations.  Many times the answer relied on lawyers and removed the participants from the opportunity to discuss their needs.  This left much frustration on both sides and an outcome that no one seemed happy with.

At the same time the concept of mediation was rearing its head in my life from many directions.  Friends and others around me were talking about it and making suggestions that it was a good fit for me.  That’s when I came across the Mediation/Negotiation courses at U of C, based on the training developed from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

It was clear early on in the program that this was a great fit for me and very aligned with one of my key values -collaboration.  Although I struggled with the vulnerability of using the skills in role plays, I devoured the learning and eventually mastered the theory and practice.  My next steps led to work in the field focused mainly on resolving conflict in the workplace for individuals, teams and larger groups, often in the Engineering or technical sphere.

So how does my Engineering background fit into all this?  Engineering is focused on analyzing problems and finding solutions. My work with conflict also centres on analyzing problems, however the solution piece does not lie with me but with the person or group I am working with.  I like to think I’ve been able to step away from the thought that I have the solution and maintain a core belief that each of us has a solution that best fits our own situation.  It may not be a perfect solution, but it may be a next step in learning and growing for that individual or group.

The analysing piece has shifted from technical issues to human issues and the connection became evident as I was Googling “engineers and psychologists”. I certainly do not see conflict resolution work as psychology, but as a human puzzle.  In general, psychologists (especially experimental psychologists) are interested in how individuals perceive and interpret the environment. There are differing types of psychology, cognitive psychology; human thought processes including awareness, perception, reasoning, judgment and decision making and asocial psychology; how a person’s thoughts, behaviors and feelings are affected by the presence of other people.  Much of conflict resolution work focuses on the ability of the facilitator to bring to light each party’s thought processes and reasoning as this is the key to building  understanding.   Facilitators with insight into both party’s perceptions, reasoning and judgement will be more successful in this regard.

Curiosity forms a vital element in building understanding.  Most engineers have a healthy dose of curiosity.  My curiosity in conflict situations relates to people and their behaviours.  Posing questions to assist the participants to understand the effect of their actions on themselves and others helps shine a light in a different way.

Engineers also pride themselves on being thorough.  This aspect certainly comes into play when we reach that final stage of solution building.  Here is my chance to be thorough, to ‘poke holes’ in discussed options and bring to light all the possibilities that may affect a successful solution.  Although I do not provide an opinion as to which solution is the best solution, I can bring to light issues that the participants may not have thought of.  This will allow them to craft the best solution to meet their needs.

So my Engineering skills of analyzing, being curious and being thorough are now being used in a different manner.  I find conflict resolution work fascinating and am always learning.  The only difference is now my learning is centred around people issues instead of technical issues.  Much more challenging and interesting – at least to me!

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