A counterterrorism expert explains how to deal with your mother and problem co-workers

Can you envision a better outcome?
Can you envision a better outcome?
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Rare is the self-help management book that doubles as a page-turner, but that’s part of the genius of Optimal Outcomes (Harper Business, 2020) by organizational psychologist Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler.

In the opening chapter, Goldman-Wetzler describes a problem that once held her emotionally hostage: Her well-meaning mom, whom she loves dearly, would not stop calling her during the hours that keep working parents like Goldman-Wetzler feverishly busy, often to complain that her daughter wasn’t phoning her enough.

The author would explain that she couldn’t talk, which her mother found unacceptable. “On the phone with my mother, I was always amazed by how easily my annoyance became fury, but it makes a lot of sense when you remember that they are both part of the same continuum, anger,” Goldman-Wetzler writes. “I feel annoyed when I pick up the phone, miffed when she told me I hadn’t called her in two weeks, then furious when she implied that I was lying to her when I said I was too busy to talk. ‘I’m not stupid!’ she’d shout. ‘I know you find time to call your friends!’”

Goldman-Wetzler, CEO and founder of the management consulting company Alignment Strategies, in New York, is supposed to know how to deal with conflict. She had worked with corporate clients on contentious issues for years. She had facilitated workshops in the executive education program at Harvard Law School’s prestigious Program on Negotiation. To complete her PhD at Columbia University, she had analyzed terrorist responses to humiliation as part of research funded by a US Department of Homeland Security fellowship.

Nevertheless, the phone calls from her mother inevitably escalated into yelling matches. The expert was stuck.

At the Harvard Law School program, Goldman-Wetzler writes, she had noted the way lawyers approached cases with the assumption that a breakthrough was achievable and that conflicts were finite, even when this didn’t seem true of our longest-running skirmishes, whether interpersonally or between groups. She instead saw “conflicts that seemed intractable, often resurfacing most violently just when resolution seemed near.”

Years later, examining the draining cycle she found herself trapped in with her mother helped Goldman-Wetzler see that some conflicts are, in fact, “resolution-resistant.” They have no discernible beginning and seem doomed to play out repeatedly.  Conflict loops, as professionals call them, can become aggravating facts of life. We often start living around them, but not without negative consequences.

Goldman-Wetzler developed her Optimal Outcomes system for those problems, the book’s introduction explains, implicitly suggesting we’ll learn how the author handled her mother’s constant check-ins, and stirring a sense of suspense.

She asks readers to think of a hardy, perennial problem in their own lives, one in which they are both personally impacted by the conflict and have the ability to influence or change it. The reader can then begin applying her method to that situation, to find their own optimal outcome: that is, a solution that both takes into account the more idyllic future you can vividly imagine while also making space for the realities of the situation, including the entrenched personality quirks and ultimate goals of both parties. (No more magical thinking pitfalls, or wishing that a situation, or the other person, or your own reaction would change, she says.)

An eight-step program

Goldman-Wetzler’s method is not a quick fix. It contains eight practices, some of which will be more applicable than others, depending on your scenario, she tells Quartz.

The exercises are inspired mainly by theorists and psychologists, though some take cues from the leaders of resistance and peace movements, particularly the brilliant strategist Martin Luther King Jr. Goldman-Wetzler has tested her multistep approach in classrooms and with clients for years, and she draws on stories from both populations throughout the book, changing her subjects’ names to protect the innocent.

The first step is predictable, if necessary: “Notice your conflict habits and patterns.”  This chapter outlines the classic behavioral responses to conflicts that people have typically inherited from their family of origin. Some people shut down and avoid the friction; some prefer to lay blame and become aggressive. It’s useful to know your own tendencies.

Her second task is less obvious: draw a conflict map, an analysis tool she first studied at the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, and one that even non-experts can use to identify complexity in a problem they’ve come to see in oversimplified terms. For instance, in the book, we meet a CEO named Bob who is locked in a heated battle with his top salesperson, and good friend, over her demand for a higher salary. To his mind, she’s simply being unreasonable.

To create a conflict map, you first draw circles to represent yourself and the person with whom you’re stuck in a recurring nightmare, then you add circles for all of the secondary people—the family members, the colleagues, the cultural groups, whoever—who also have some sway in the scenario. Next, draw arrows (or whatever works for you) to indicate relationships between individuals and key alliances or hostilities. You can introduce background forces, too—like the job market, or cultural norms, or a student loan obligation—and individual goals.

It sounds like a fun, cerebral process, but the conflict map is not for the faint of heart. A person might believe their problem involves just one significant other, or a lone colleague with whom you’re often butting heads, but by the time this exercise has widened your lens, and your conflict is fleshed out, you’ll see how much you’ve reduced the argument to a caricature, when historical legacies or layers of factors may in fact be at work. Bob, for instance, comes to understand everything that’s at stake for his salesperson, and how the entire team’s perception of the issue also factors into her request.

When your own situation’s hidden weight is made visible, you may feel overwhelmed, but you’ll also be better informed, the author promises. You’ll see nuances and opportunities that you had previously missed. Conversely, if a situation already feels extremely complicated, a conflict map can help crystallize your place within it, says Goldman-Wetzler. It can allow a person to zoom in on that one place where they can actually make a difference.

The values lurking in the shadows

The conflict map exercise may be potent, but the most emotional work lies ahead, in the practice that asks you to “honor your shadow values—yours and theirs.”

In this book, personal values are given a kind of retronym—Goldman-Wetzler calls them “ideal values.” That allows them to stand in contrast to “shadow values,”  or those concerns and personality features that we hide because they provoke a sense of shame. In fact, we may attach so much stigma to a shadow value that we can’t even admit to ourselves that it exists.

The shadow value concept is inspired by psychologist Carl Jung’s notion of the shadow self, or the idea that we repress parts of our psyche, and that those muted pieces of ourselves still drive our behavior. For instance, perhaps you mask your natural urge to be competitive, because a parent once taught you, whether explicitly or implicitly, that competitiveness is unbecoming. A need to win thus became a shadow value. Or maybe you have a secret desire to please an authority figure, but you hide it, knowing you work in a culture that’s irreverent and individualistic.

When you’re in the corporate world (or at home with friends or family), you may be unaware that your shadow values are making you do strange things, but they almost certainly are. “Let’s say there’s a situation where I am in conflict with a colleague, because she has asked if she can take someone who’s on my team and transfer that person to her team for a critically important project,” Goldman-Wetzler tells Quartz. “What she’s not understanding is that I am also working on an incredibly important project. This person is central to my project and I personally feel like I cannot let that person go, but [my colleague] is not taking no for an answer.”

In this hypothetical scenario, Goldman-Wetzler imagines she is the avoidant type, someone who ignores her peer’s increasingly insistent email messages because she finds them irritating. “As I avoid, she just keeps stepping up the requests. She calls me and leaves a voicemail and I still don’t have a chance to respond,” the author says. “Eventually she sends me an email and says, ‘If I don’t hear from you by five o’clock today, I’m going to make the transfer.’”

To diagnose what’s happening here, Goldman-Wetzler would first advise looking at the ideal values at play. The employee who can’t give an outright “no” to a colleague is probably someone who prioritizes collaboration and kindness, she suggests. And yet, her shadow values are likely independence and a need to fulfill her needs. “I wish I could just say ‘I need this person on my team,’ but it feels so wrong for me to say my needs are important, because I’ve been taught that it’s not okay to fulfill my needs, and it wouldn’t be an okay thing for me to say to this person: ‘Hey, I get that you need her on your team, but guess what? So do I. We both need her and she happens to already be working on my team.”

A key to understanding weird behaviors

It turns out one person’s ideal value may easily be someone else’s shadow value, Goldman-Wetzler explains, and that seems key to decoding the mysteriousness of someone else’s behavior—or your own.

For instance, let’s say you’re baffled as to why a colleague is dragging out a process that shouldn’t be complicated. It just may be that the co-worker’s shadow value is something we typically treasure in the workplace: efficiency. “It could be when I was growing up, my high school English teacher said to me, ‘Jennifer, you are putting efficiency at the expense of the thing that really matters the most here, and I want you to really take your time and see things through and think carefully and critically,” she says. And literally from that day on, I have been ashamed at the idea that I would try to be efficient. I want to come across as somebody who is collaborative at all costs.”

“Even if it takes 15 months for us to come to an agreement, I would rather do that than be efficient,” she adds, “because my English teacher in ninth grade told me that efficiency was horrible.”

Acknowledging your shadow values can be liberating, but also surprisingly moving. “The way that you know you’re doing the work well is if the tears start to flow, because it’s intense,” says Goldman-Wetzler.

She never intentionally tries to spark emotional turmoil, she reassures me, but, if you’ve spent a lifetime not noticing that you actually crave recognition, for example, then giving a voice to that want and realizing how it’s gone unmet can trigger a great relief or sadness, she says.

The only way to understand just how powerful shadow-value work can be is to go through the motions yourself. Handily, Goldman-Wetzler provides an appendix (and other quizzes and worksheets with the book) that lists some possible shadow values. It includes affluence, status, loyalty, order, collaboration, and safety.

Part of the value of reflecting on shadow values, whether your own or that of the other person in the conflict, is that it builds empathy. Even if you guess incorrectly about the other person’s motivations, it’s going to help you feel more compassionate toward them.

In that sense, with her approach, you may not need to have any conversations with anyone but yourself to get out of the conflict loop, Goldman-Wetzler says. But she has a word of caution: “I never, ever advise people to start a conversation by trying to talk to someone about their shadow value. I would never want you to go up to someone and say, ‘So, you know, I’ve been thinking about your shadow value and here’s what I think,’” she says, chuckling. “That is not going to free you or anyone else from conflict.”

Ultimately, honoring a shadow value often means finding some way to meet seemingly opposing urges. In the case of the executive under pressure to transfer her employee, for instance, she might decline her peer’s request, but ask, “Is there another way I can help you?”

What is an optimal outcome?

The last three practices in the book are aimed at building a route out of the conflict loop by deciding what actions to take or avoid, and to walk through the possible pitfalls of each possible plan to determine what will lead you to the “optimal outcome.”

As the qualifier in the name suggests, the goal is not perfection, which is unrealistic. That said, vividly envisioning a happily-ever-after is indeed part of the process. “A lot of times, the place where things break down is when people are trying to quote-unquote ‘resolve conflict’ using their rational thinking brain, which we’ve all been taught to do for the last 40 years,” says Goldman-Wetzler, pointing to classic books in the field that advocate separating your emotions from the facts. “You don’t come to an optimal outcome by trying to think rationally about another solution, because if you could have done that, you would have done it already.”

Still, her method calls for the rational mind to return to the room, after you’ve allowed yourself to feel what you’re longing for. At that point, finding the best way forward involves accepting or rejecting the costs that real life imposes on that vision. Are you willing to ask your family to move to another city to pursue a job opportunity? Would you fire your best friend? Could you handle not talking to your mother at all, if that’s what it would take to make her stop calling? Notably, the author believes that an outcome is not ideal if it leaves you feeling miserable and unsure of your choices.

By the way, in case you’re still wondering, things between Goldman-Wetzler and her mother are “much better” now, she reports, but I won’t spoil the suspense by describing how they found peace. For that, you’ll just have to pick up this excellent book.