Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler’s book Optimal Outcomes (2020) is for individuals who feel defeated when all their well-meaning attempts to resolve conflict amount to nothing. It is a practical guide, so it deconstructs, analyses and offers a step-by-step approach to moving out of the conflict loop. If you are looking for validation or a pep talk, this book might not be the right fit. However, if you are prepared to look in the mirror, it could work for you.
The author, who is the founder and CEO of a New York-based consulting firm called Alignment Strategies Group, writes, “When in conflict, we tend to make the same three wishes: we wish the situation would just go away; we wish other people were different from how they are; and many of us…wish we ourselves were different! When our wishes don’t match reality, we can feel frustrated and disappointed, mad and sad.”
Published by Harper Business, this book draws on the author’s expertise as an organisational psychologist and her experience of developing and using the “Optimal Outcomes Method” with leaders at companies, universities, non-profit organisations and other institutions. She has been a facilitator at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, and has taught at Columbia University’s Morton Deutsch International Centre for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution.
These credentials might help you warm up to the book if you are worried that the author might be yet another self-help guru trying to make a quick buck at your expense by spouting feel-good mumbo jumbo that is unhelpful in the long run. This book does not promise miracles or instant results. It only supports people ready to do the work it takes to free themselves from “habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting” that have held them “captive in the past.”
The book is divided into three parts: Understanding the Conflict Loop, Breaking the Conflict Pattern, and Freeing Yourself from the Loop. Each part introduces and fleshes out specific practices to be tried out and honed over time in order to develop proficiency. There are eight of them in the book. The author invites you to think about recurring conflict situations in your own life as you learn about each practice so that the knowledge gained does not remain at the level of theoretical principles but can be applied in your immediate context.
What is a conflict loop? The author writes, “When you’re stuck in a conflict loop, you develop conflict habits, including blaming or avoiding others, blaming yourself, and relentlessly seeking ‘win-win’ solutions even when other people refuse to cooperate. And your conflict habits interact with other people’s conflict habits to form a pattern of interaction that keeps you stuck in the conflict loop.”
This book will teach you how to acknowledge the reality of your current situation, and take charge of your life. The eight practices described are: 1. Notice Your Conflict Habits and Patterns 2. Increase Clarity and Complexity: Map Out the Conflict 3. Put Your Emotions to Work for You 4. Honour Ideal and Shadow Values – Yours and Theirs 5. Imagine Your Ideal Future 6. Design a Pattern-Breaking Path. 7. Test Your Path 8. Choose an Optimal Outcome.
The author builds on lessons learnt from famous personalities such as Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, Audre Lorde, Daniel Goleman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Carl Jung, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, the book is largely grounded in examples from her own work with clients and students, whose names have been changed in order to respect their privacy and protect their identities. She also brings in stories from her own life because, having “grown up in a family of screamers and door slammers,” she was “intrigued by how emotions such as anger and sadness contribute to conflict.”
What she offers in this book is a blueprint of sorts but it is not cast in stone. As the author herself mentions, “Though it can be helpful to follow the listed sequence of steps, designing your path is an idiosyncratic process that works best when you take the particular details of your situation into account and build its steps based on those.” It can be exciting to break patterns but it is also crucial to spend some to thinking about the consequences that might arise for you and for others. Weighing costs and benefits can be helpful.
According to this book, conflict is inevitable but you can strengthen your “courage muscles.” You may not be able to change your situation owing to a number of reasons but you can learn “to notice and stop engaging in the often unconscious habits that make conflict worse, such as avoiding it until explodes, acting in the heat of the moment in ways you’ll later regret, blaming yourself unnecessarily, or relentlessly seeking to collaborate even when others are not willing to do so.” There is discomfort in staying stuck, and in choosing new, pattern-breaking behaviour. Which one do you prefer for yourself?
The book also includes a comprehensive “values itinerary” to emphasise the fact that conflicts often have to do with the differences in values that people are proud to hold. Some of these are explicitly taught; others are imbibed in a manner that is less obvious. Therefore, our conflicts are linked to our conditioning in homes, communities, educational institutions and workplaces. Conflict is not always undesirable. It can also bring forth diverse perspectives, spark off creativity, and lead to innovative solutions.