Many years ago, a friend said to me, he thought people were a bit like unmarked toothpaste tubes – that until you squeezed them you’d never knew what would come out! It is very true that in times of great suffering and pressure, we see what people are really made of. Tests, trials, and tribulations will sort the chaff from the wheat and expose any underlying weaknesses without mercy.

In Japan—following the earthquake, Tsunami, and nuclear disaster—we are seeing the expression of many different feelings, issues, and interests as the people begin to realise their Government may not have been as honest as they believed? A nation that is renowned for its stoicism, polite and disciplined culture, is discovering in the aftermath of this great natural disaster, things are perhaps not always what they seem. Blame is now being apportioned and the people are angry at what they perceive as a culture of secrecy within the country’s leadership.

In business too, when people are put under pressure, we find out what’s inside them. Conflict in the office, boardroom, or on the shop floor will soon expose the attributes and characteristics of all affected, and managing expectations and disappointments can be a challenging task for any ADR professional. As in the Japanese disaster, some cope better than others. Some will apportion blame: some will stoically get on with life. So it is in the workplace.

Disasters (or conflicts) can also be a blessing. They can act as a catalyst for change, with the old ways and methods being forced into the spotlight for review. Disasters force us to consider what we could do differently, what lessons can be learned, and how we can improve our responses. It is a bit like the wine glass metaphor: is the glass half full, or half empty? Is the cup of workplace conflict a blessing or a curse? Personally, I believe if correctly handled, such cups of conflict can be blessings. As those involved are brought to the negotiating table to talk, explore, generate ideas, and solutions: we can observe much positive creativity being unleashed. Achieving this is, of course, the responsibility of the ADR professional who must create the right atmosphere and carefully stage and manage the process. Will the Japanese people be managed to find the same blessing and opportunity: or will their great personal grief and loss simply hijack any opportunity for creative change?

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.