- - Wednesday, March 4, 2020

When individuals or a country find themselves in a conflictual relationship with another party, and possible agreement and collaboration appears impossible, is it possible to find to a mutually satisfactory outcome through new methods of conflict resolution?

Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler’s “Optimal Outcomes” is especially valuable because in addition to explaining how everyday conflicts, whether by individuals in a personal relationship, employees in a business or even between countries, can be resolved, it is a valuable resource for broader conflict resolution in international diplomacy spheres. According to Ms. Goldman-Wetzler, achieving an “optimal outcome” can be reached by applying an eight-part strategy formulated to assist people and governments constructively.

Ms. Goldman-Wetzler is uniquely suited to examine these issues as the CEO and founder of the New York City-based management consulting firm Alignment Strategies. Full disclosure, this reviewer contributed a blurb to the book.

Ms. Goldman-Wetzler begins by pointing out that “conflict is a natural, normal, healthy part of everyday life,” and can even “be productive and lead to innovative solutions.” When it becomes negative and harmful, however, being stuck in such a conflictual situation or loop can lead to heightened personal anxiety, frustration and paralysis, making it difficult to achieve personal and professional growth in an organization, a family setting or peaceful relations between countries.

To overcome such a conflict loop, what the author terms an “optimal outcomes method” is proposed. It consists of eight practices. The first practice is to be aware of “the often unconscious habits that make conflict worse” such as “acting in the heat of the moment in ways you’ll later regret …” The second, third and fourth practices are intended to enable someone or a country to step back from a conflict in order to figure out who is involved in causing the conflict, what it is about and why you want it resolved. The last four practices are intended to apply a series of “pattern-breaking actions” to “help you imagine, design, test, and choose a new path” of how the conflict should be ideally resolved to produce an optimal outcome.

To achieve optimal outcomes in a conflict situation, greater self-awareness is required. This includes understanding how we present ourselves to others. The author adapts psychologist Carl Jung’s notion of shadow values, which are a hidden part of ourselves and are hard for us to admit to ourselves let alone others, because they may lead us to “speak and act in ways that exacerbate conflicts.” Interestingly, she proposes that those engaged in conflict attempt to identify others’ shadow values to notice what they do that is troubling in the relationship, such as being overly controlling, power-hungry, status-seeking or greedy, and how these might be addressed in a constructive way by providing alternative ideal values, and then proceeding to close the gap between one’s ideal values and actions and those on the other side of the conflict situation.

To achieve one’s optimal outcome the author proposes to visualize an ideal future to resolve the conflict situation, which then needs to be communicated externally “so you can engage others to help you make it a reality.”   

One should not expect this to be a completely linear process, the author writes, because “In life, every action you take or don’t take can create both intended and unintended effects.” She adds that “When you’re in a challenging situation, those effects can become exaggerated,” for instance, with one’s negative attributions about others potentially going into overdrive, “leading us to assume the worst of others,” so it’s “important to think through the potential unintended effects of your actions before they occur, so you can prevent or mitigate them.”

To prevent possible unintended consequences and prepare to respond if they occur, several alternative options are possible. For instance, if a conflict situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily, one should compare the costs and benefits of staying in conflict. At this point, three alternative cost-benefit scenarios are posited: The possibility of rebuilding a relationship, staying in the conflict situation or “walking away.” In this case, the two optimal outcomes would be to attempt to resolve the conflict or to “walk-away” from the conflict. The author concludes that adopting a pattern-breaking path to thwart clashes ultimately liberates antagonists from being stuck in a perpetual conflict loop.

Using numerous helpful examples, the author shows how her approach to family conflicts, conflicts with employers and international standoffs can lead to a desired outcome. In a particularly persuasive section she shows how such methods led to the successful outcome of the Camp David Accords.

With our society characterized by high degrees of conflict, Ms. Goldman-Wetzler’s “Optimal Outcomes” presents a highly practical framework for resolving conflict at all levels in order to make this world a better place.

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.  

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By Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler

Harper Business, $29.99, 240 pages

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