Book review “Conversational riffs- creating meaning out of conflict” by Neil Denny

Book review “Conversational riffs – creating meaning out of conflict” by Neil Denny (Conflict management). Psychologists say that successful relationships have the following elements:

  1. A safe place from which to explore
  2. Repair after rupture
  3. Communication

Neil’s book on conflict management offers some great insights and help primarily in the second and third categories and he draws on a number of psychological mainstays to support this suggestions. His constant assertion to gain time to think and reflect rather than fire out the first (attacking) retort supports a commitment to mindfulness and emotional regulation which allows reflection and a more appropriate response that avoids conflict.

I first read this book when it was released back in early 2010 as I knew of the author (a family lawyer with firm Mogers) and was interested in the collaborative approach to dealing with disputes which became popular at that time. I also thought that it might help in dealing with difficult teenagers (it did, although for this purpose I would also recommend “Whatever! A down to earth guide to parenting teenagers” by Gill Hines and Alison Baverstock).

But avoiding and dealing with conflict is the bread and butter of many business people – particularly in the professions where egos can be big and tempers easily triggered. So in my preparations for some courses I am due to present shortly – primarily on communications, relationship management and achieving buy in for change management programmes – I thought I’d highlight Neil’s work.

Summary of Conversational Riffs

The analogy is music and each chapter (track) starts with the image of a vinyl record. The contents are as follows:

  1. A tune a day – Learning to play conversational riffs. The need to be able to improvise in conversations rather than sticking to a script – and avoiding “Status Quo” riffs
  2. Attack – Identifying problems in a way that will offend or antagonise. Avoid personalising the problem or using absolute or inflated language (e.g. always, never) which often provoke defensive or counter attack riffs
  3. Defence – Protecting yourself against perceived attack usually by explanations or excuses which can produce positions and lose sight of the real issue.
  4. Counter Attack – Disagreeing in a way that will offend, hurt or antagonise. Straight bats, third party counter attacks, politics and indignation are explored as unhelpful responses.
  5. Invitation – Respectfully identifying the problem being faced and inviting dialogue. He suggests externalising the problem by visualising it and giving it a name and urges you to use would and will rather than could and can.
  6. Encouragement – Asking for more information and encouraging the other person it is safe to continue.
  7. Acknowledgement – Recognising the other person’s point of view without having to agree with it. There are examples of Karpman’s Drama Triangle (from TA) of villain, victim and rescuer.
  8. Agreement – The NLP approach of “chunking up” to reach a place where there is agreement, “building a mountain of yeses” and getting people to agree headings for discussion reinforces the relationship and collaboration within it. “Yes, and” is shown in preference to “Yes, but”
  9. Agreeing differences – A positive way to disagree involving validating the others’ view but avoiding despair (despair and flair riffs) and giving up by being quick to listen and slow to speak and using “I” instead of “you”.
  10. Solutions – Genuine, sincere suggestions to solve a problem or progress a discussion. Avoiding the Mr Fix-It tendency to offer fast fixes and the power of small changes.

As well as the light style which is easy to read, there are plenty of examples, really good summaries and diagrams to help map out conflicts from above. There’s a nice return to the music analogy at the end with the story of the duelling banjos in the film “Deliverence”.

The professions are well represented – the opening overture mentions work by Begbies Traynor (turnaround agents) that revealed 9 out of ten managers had hidden bad news from their directors and there are examples of disagreements in accounting and law firms.

Neil also draws on some well known books such as Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence”, “Getting to Yes” by William Ury and Roger Fisher, John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”, Sun Tzu’s “The art of war” and Stephen Covey’s “Seven habits of highly effective people”.

At the end of the book, he also recommends:

  • “Conflict diagnosis and Alternative Dispute Resolution” by Laurie S Coltri
  • “Conflict resolution toolkit” by Gary Furlong

Further reading

For those seeking a more detailed understanding of conflict, I might suggest (although I haven’t read all of them!):

  • “Interpersonal conflict” by William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker
  • “Mediating dangerously” by Ken Cloke
  • “The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice” by Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman and Eric C. Marcus
  • “Working through conflict: strategies for relationships, groups and organisations” by Folger, Poole and Stutman
  • “Harvard Business Review on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution”
  • “Managing conflict in a negotiated world: A narrative approach to achieving dialogue and change” by Kellett and Dalton
  • “Resolving conflicts at work: Eight strategies for everyone on the job” by Cloke, Goldsmith and Bennis
  • Conflicts: A Better Way to Resolve Them by Edward De Bono
  • “Mediation theory and practice” by McCorkle and Reese

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