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Managing Conflict, in Life & Work: using ancient and modern approaches

Copyright 2005
by Dr. Jason Armstrong and Dana Buchman

“Conflict” is a word that can have varying degrees of severity, meaning, and
implication for each individual or circumstance. For example, the conflict that is
experienced in our current, daily lives seems insignificant in comparison to the
Samurai, or those in war, who faced death on a regular basis. However, it is still
important to extrapolate the significant lessons that have been derived from such
severe scenarios, as these notions are still applicable in the conflict that we experience
in the workplace and life today.

Conflict is unavoidable, as each individual has unique and differing thoughts, ideas,
and opinions. Therefore, it is important to learn ways to minimize and manage this
difficulty, in order to ensure efficient and harmonious interactions. This article
provides the genesis of a personal path, introducing tools and ways to minimize and
manage conflict, while pointing to the origin of these concepts. After an overview of
these modern and ancient approaches, a discussion will follow on applying successful
tools and techniques for managing conflict. These ideas can be used to help clear the
mind for better decision-making, and consequently, ensure a personal pathway to

New approaches to ancient concepts
Profound strategies and lessons to minimize and manage conflict have been around
for thousands of years in forms such as the classic Chinese texts the “Book of Change
– Tao de Ching” and the “Art of War”. Today, modern legends including Stephen
Covey (“7 Habits for Highly Effective People”) and Dale Carnegie present similar
corporate and personal tools. As many know the “7 Habits” is not a group of new
concepts, but age-old approaches to success and conflict management, represented in
a way that can be clearly applied to modern day personal and corporate development.

Discovering the origin & foundation of concepts
Although many of the true ancient concepts have been exaggerated or misused
through incorrect interpretations, they can be applied in non-extreme forms relevant to
the modern day from such arts as: Zen (which is not a religion, but a path for self
discovery and growth), the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu (the classic text on strategy
which is often regarded as the most definitive text on the topic), and the Tao de Ching
(the “book of change”). These all provide profound lessons for leadership, change,
success, peace of mind and conflict management.

A workplace example – an tense group meeting debating a topic
If one has to enter a meeting with a number of staff peers on a topic that is likely to
require an intense debate, a strategy can be put into place to help provide a successful
outcome (this should be combined with the other approaches outlined below). For
example, one can approach the members of the meeting individually prior to the
meeting to convey your preferred position. Once the meeting has started you will
hopefully already have likely confrontational people already “on-side” to achieve
your desired outcome in a non-confrontational way.

The Key to Managing Conflict: bringing it all together, and applying it today
All the above methods (old and new) are about changing core behavior and
approaches, in order to avoid conflict and simultaneously achieve personal success.

As Sun Tzu states:

“If you know yourself and know others – you will be successful.
If you know others and not yourself, you will win one and lose one.
If you do not know others and do not know yourself, you are destined for failure in
every battle.”

These are core values, and far more important than putting band-aids on problems, or
approaching things with simply a short-term change. In regard to the ancient
philosophies, they of course must be interpreted, and applied, using case studies and
real world examples in a context that matches the modern corporate world. Applied
Zen ( is a company that provides workshops, and
downloadable videos online, regarding these exact topics with a unique approach.
This is achieved through implementation of physical interaction drills to reinforce the
concepts covered in workshop presentations. Studies have shown that learning
conflict management based on physical as well as mental practice greatly increases
the participants’ retention, and consequently, aids in implementation (more than 2 to 3
fold improvement).

Aggressive escalation of conflict
Conflict is derived from many circumstances, but quite regularly it can be escalated
because of a person’s approach to the

situation. In the Japanese language, there are
two words that help to describe this: aiki and kiai. These words are derived from the
same two characters, and are simply reversed to convey an opposite meaning. Kiai is
a form of showing intensity and channelling it towards an individual, and in the
martial arts ‘kiai’ is a very loud, expulsion of air and voice to intimidate or scare an
opponent. Aiki is the opposite of head-to-head approaches and allows one to avoid
escalating conflict (hence the martial art “Aiki-do”). Yet the approach still
incorporates assertiveness a key attribute in any successful negotiation. Consider for
a moment which concept would be most beneficial in dealing with conflict in a
meeting at work or your personal life: kiai, or aiki?

“Show softness yet engage the opponent with hardness. Show weakness yet
engage with fluid strength”
Obviously aiki is more practical, and will produce a more desired outcome. If we
listen with the intent to understand - not to respond, if we get all our thoughts together
before we confront another person, we can strategically work with someone to
maintain our own balance and not produce antagonism in the person with whom we
are dealing.

“Reaching a centered state, so I can perform at my best”
Having an open mind, and a relaxed physical and mental state will ensure I have an
approach which is non-confrontational and provide a first step to maganging or
avoiding conflict. An approach of aligning your thoughts and actions, and taking a
moment to breathe and release tension, will create a more relaxed state within
yourself as well as the person you are dealing with. This approach will enable you to
convey your points in a way that your opponent will be unable to avoid or refuse.
Settling oneself creates a calm and open mind: you are able to listen, think, and
respond (in this order), and this is positively received by others. If you are able to
settle yourself at any point (i.e. before, during, or after you feel aggression arising),
others will respond to your calm, open mind, and it will put them into the same
relaxed state. In various physical arts the importance of relaxed upper body, a low
center of gravity and appropriate breathing creates this state. Zen and other conflict
relevant arts have such Japanese terms such as “mushin”, “mizu no kokoro” and using
the “hara” (stomach area) for creating and optimal physical state for mental

Conflict within oneself – perhaps the most important conflict to understand
Lessons such as “trying to defend/attack too many areas at once leaves the troops
divided and weak” from Sun Tzu can be translated to an individual. Just as Stephen
Covey asks, “How thin can you spread yourself before you are no longer there?”.
Applying such lessons to your life today can have a profound impact on personal
conflict – don’t take on more than you can handle, or you will begin to sacrifice the
very essence of who you are. Although it is not direct conflict between two people, it
is still relevant. If you have conflict within yourself, you are destined to have conflict
with others. You will understand that conflict is not merely the apparent external
problems – it also involves each individual and his/her conflicts within.

Sharpen the sword…
This article provides and introduction to some of the methods and principles used in
Applied Zen corporate training ( Businesses and individuals
everywhere are using these philosophies to manage conflict more effectively and to
achieve success. Therefore, it is essential to train one’s skills & endure ongoing
development. As the ancient Samurai saying states, “Continuously sharpen the sword,
or it will go blunt!”

Definition of Conflict, Merriam/Webster Dictionary: 1 : FIGHT, BATTLE, WAR
2 a : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as
of divergent ideas, interests, or persons) b : mental struggle resulting from
incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands
3 : the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama
or fiction

Copyright 2005
by Dr. Jason Armstrong and Dana Buchman

About the Author

Jason Armstrong, Ph.D., has worked at CEO levels in Japan, the USA, & Australia. He has also consulted for large multi-national companies in Japan and has specialized in the "Art of War" for more than 20 years. He has worked in both Venture Capital and Biotech Industries. Today he runs , which conducts workshops in the USA Australia and Japan.


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