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Brainstorming is an inquiry with the purpose of investigating ideas and making proposals that lead to solutions. Brainstorming relies heavily on diagnostic questions, so it's also a powerful tool for getting at your mutual interest as well as your common values and experiences. To give your brainstorming process a little structure, here are several things to keep in mind. Explore your mutual needs before you tackle solutions. If you focus on the solution too early, you won't get to the core of the need or problem.
A problem defined in terms of needs opens up the possibility of a win-win solution. "What do you need to be happy?" is a good place to start, or, "What are the roadblocks you are running into on this project?" Next, rule nothing out. In the beginning of your brainstorming, focus on quantity, not quality, and don't evaluate any idea or debate its practicality or even probability. It puts the brakes on your creativity. You will have plenty of time to cherry-pick the winners later.
Expand on each other's ideas. Your best resolutions often arise from tacking a new idea to an existing one. So allow yourself to be inspired and resist competing. Let your ideas go. We have a tendency to angle for our own brilliance, even if our ideas are half-baked, let them go. You don't want to get derailed by being positional about a particular idea or solution. Very often that's what got you into the conflict in the first place.
Start with easy stuff. When you are identifying the issues, you may end up with a long laundry list of things to resolve. When you start with the easy issues first, you will be rewarded more quickly. You'll build on the trust you established early on and give one another good reason to hope that the more difficult issues can also be resolved. If brainstorming is an area in which you struggle, I'd like to offer an idea. Register for an improvisation class. In the early part of my career I performed with an improv troupe for several years.
As I moved through different roles in my work life, I started to notice how often I was sought out for brainstorming on projects, many times outside of my team and department. And that's when it ended up on my resume as a strength. Honestly, I value it more than my degrees and credentials. What improvisation teaches you is to go with-- not against--what your partner presents. To say yes and to follow that yes with more value, more ideas, something that moves the story forward.
So brainstorming can help you in the early stages of conflict resolution to flesh out issues and needs, but the sweet spot where brainstorming is most helpful is when you get stuck. So, if you reach impasse or you feel it a loss for the next right step, take a break. And when you come back, pull out your diagnostic questions and improvise from this question: Where might we go from here?
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