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20 Questions to Help Untangle Conflict

One of my formative childhood memories happened in second grade. I was working next to another student on a blackboard and our teacher assigned us the same math division problem. I used long division and my peer used some form of magic to arrive at the same correct answer in half the time. I later came to know this witchcraft as short division. While we arrived at the same answer, my approach was longer and far less elegant as it took more time and writing. This experience helped me realize there was more than one way to solve problems, even in systems as structured and logical as arithmetic.

Like many engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, I have a fascination with problem solving -- perhaps even a fixation at times. One heuristic I like to keep in mind whenever I encounter a new (to me) problem or opportunity is to remind myself that someone else has likely already encountered this kind of problem or situation. Someone may have a countermeasure or at least something to say about it. While we are “not yet” able to immediately download the skills and knowledge needed to fly a B212 helicopter, learning via the internet is easier than ever before.

One good practice is to look at how people in other fields have solved the same or similar problems. But rather than taking time to explore possible approaches from related fields, some coaches and scrum masters with a shallow portfolio of heuristics tend to rely too much on either popular “best-known” methods or iteration to solve problems. While there is a place for trail-and-error, inspect-and-adapt takes time and effort. What if there were shortcuts or more effective approaches for your situation if you only knew they existed -- like short division?

I attended a course on scaling Agile several years ago and after about a day into the Lean section, the instructor introduced a one-page problem solving template that the consultancy had created. As an experienced Lean practitioner, this was quite interesting. It was a different way to visualize solving problems on a single page than I had seen before. I asked, “Why did you choose to develop and recommend this approach to problem solving versus using an A3 and A3 problem solving?” The instructor replied, “What is an A3?” Needless to say, I was shocked by the response. If you are unfamiliar with how Lean practitioners collaboratively solve problems, I'd recommend Managing to Learn by John Shook. (1)

It takes discipline to not jump into problem solving and reinvent the wheel. It takes effort to explore how others may have addressed for this kind of situation before. When I research the state-of-the-art in fields with similar problems, I ask myself what underlying principles, heuristics, and practices do practitioners rely on? How might I borrow their approach for my own problem and situation? What are the underlying principles for how their approach works and how should it be tailored for my situation and context? In biology, repurposing or coopting a function for a new use is known as exaptation. The world of technology is full of examples of radical repurposing technology designed for one use case to another completely different application. For example, the re-purposing of a radar magneto for a microwave oven and repurposing a microwave oven to smelt metal at home.

One area where I have been exploring related fields lately is human psychology -- conflict resolution more specifically. Like many coaches, I have experienced and participated in several conflicts that erupt over the course of challenging the cultural status quo and radically changing ways of working. Here are a few examples, Agile vs waterfall development, Lean vs Agile, Scrum vs Kanban, project management vs product management, and estimation vs #noestimates. Helping clients resolve unhealthy conflict is a core skill for coaches -- note that some kinds of conflict are healthy and beneficial. What can I adopt and adapt from how psychologists, professional conflict mediators, and peacemakers resolve conflict?

A great post that exemplifies the practice of exaptation and repurposing the approaches used by conflict experts in other domains is Complicating the Narratives by Amanda Ripley. Ripley makes a compelling case that journalists can improve their ability to moderate dialogue between conflicting factions by adopting techniques from professional conflict negotiators and peacemakers. Lean and Agile coaches can use these techniques as well. If you ever need to broker a peace deal or mediate a compromise, take some time to learn from others and not re-invent the wheel. Explore what professionals in other domains have learned about the nature of conflict how to nudge tense situations toward a better place.

Here is my riff on a list of questions inspired by the article for fellow travelers to consider.




1. What camps are forming or already exist on this issue?

2. What is dividing us on this issue?

3. What is oversimplified about this issue?

4. What are the larger or higher-level questions that should be discussed first?


5. Why is this important to you?

6. What information or experiences have shaped your thinking on this issue?

7. How did you come to arrive at your current position about this issue?

8. What is at stake for you?

9. How might things change for you if the other side had your same understanding?

10. What do you want the other side to understand?


11. Where do you feel torn?

12. Is there any part of the [other side's position that makes sense to you?

13. How do you feel about this issue?

14. Where does that feeling, emotion, or thinking come from?

15. What are you saying that the other side is not listening to?


16. What’s the question nobody’s asking?

17. What do you think the other group thinks of you?

18. What do you think the other group wants?

19. What do you want to understand about the other side?

20. Is there anything about how the other side portrays you or people with your views that feels inaccurate?

Any suggestions or feedback is welcome.



  • What problem that am I struggling with today has likely already been solved or addressed by others?

  • What related fields should I be exploring to improve my own capabilities?

  • How would I know if I were in an echo chamber? Do I spend too much time in an environment where I only encounters beliefs or opinions that coincide with my own?


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