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The Strategic Use of Art in Problem Solving

Natura in reticulum sua genera connexit,
Non in catenam: hominess non possunt nisi
Catenam sequi, cum non plura simul
Possint sermone exponere.
Nature knits up her kinds in a network, not
in a chain ; but men can follow only by
chains because their language can’t handle
several things at once.

Albrecht von Haller
(Nemerov, p.471, 1977)

Escaping Flatland”

“Cognitive art” includes images as basic as graphs, tables, guides, instructions, lists, and directories and as complex as maps, diagrams and even abstract representations. Largely taken for granted, the utility and sometimes downright beauty of these displays often provide a visceral level of understanding and clarity that is otherwise unobtainable through mere verbal communication. Nowhere is that is more apparent than in the field of conflict management where issues are often complex and unwieldy and resist easy description. Edward Tufte, an early and important proponent of cognitive art, commented in the introduction to his book, Envisioning Information: “Even though we navigate daily through a perceptual world of three spatial dimensions…the world portrayed on our information displays is caught up in the two-dimensionality of the endless flatlands of paper…. Escaping this flatland is the essential task of envisioning information—for all the interesting worlds (physical, biological, imaginary, human) that we seek to understand are inevitably and happily multivariate in nature. Not flatlands. (Tufte, p.12, 1990)

Tufte quotes Paul Klee, a renowned modern artist, who addressed a critical issue directly relevant to mediators when he observed how our language— spoken words—lack the capacity to communicate a sense of dimensional complexity. “It is not easy to arrive at a conception of a whole which is constructed from parts belonging to different dimensions. … It is difficult enough, oneself, to survey this whole, whether nature or art, but still more difficult to help another to such a comprehensive view. (Tufte, at p.15, 1990; Klee, P., p.15, 1948)

While technically still two-dimensional, the graphic display—drawing a picture of the conflict or issues—by the mediator or the parties themselves, allows for the contours, ridges and ruts to emerge off the page. Visual display gives a depth of field perspective so that the complexities and connections of the parties or groups involved—the background politics—can be fully appreciated. A graphic illustration, done by the mediator and participants, allows each party to see herself with proximity to the others, and a more realistic sense of the boundaries, blocks, resistances, and alliances in play, as well as the direct and indirect resources available. As a direct result, subsequent discussions and consideration of options, are all the more likely to be better informed, focused, and efficient. In short, the whole picture of the situation can be taken in at once in a way that mere verbal description and exchange alone can not provide. The visual display of the conflict can be the single most effective means of breaking-down the entrenched patterns of thinking that often choke off the opportunity to see matters from a different and fresh perspective—literally and metaphorically.

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” -Gary Winogrand, photographer

While unfortunately under-utilized, this art form should be at the core and the beginning point of almost every strategic approach to problem solving. If the issues involved are of the Type-I variety (‘technical/convergent’), with “high levels of agreement on both the definition of the problem and the range of possible fixes,” graphics are, at the very least, a helpful organizing tool. For more complex issues of the problem Type-II (“value/divergent” or Type-III (“Wicked/Intractable”) forms, where there is less clarity or agreement on the problem definition or on possible solutions, graphics are essential and indispensable as a point of departure to chart the difficulties. (Adler, P., 2004; see also, Heifetz, R., 1994) It should come as no surprise, that in our ‘tecno-rational’ Western culture, the more linear “problem-fix” approach, effective with Type-I problems, is all too often foisted upon Type-II and III issues. The results are sometimes disastrous; simplistic solves may do little more than encourage the onset of unintended consequences. Edward Tenner has catalogued many such circumstances. One recent example gaining attention is the overuse of anti-biotics which has resulted in more resistant and virulent strains of viral infections. (Tenner, 1997).

“A problem…”, says Edward de Bono, “…is simply the difference between what one has and what one wants. It may be a matter of avoiding something, of getting something, of getting rid of something, (or) of getting to know what one wants.” (Bono, p. 58, 1970.) The enigma and difficulty of problem solving in many disputes lies in that last phrase—“getting to know what one wants.” The faulty assumption, too often made by mediators and other conflict management practitioners, is that people in fact know what they want, can articulate it clearly, and what they say they want is what they want. Jennie Holzer, a post-modern conceptual artist, poignantly shouts out the point in an installation series of large scale neon signs placed strategically in prominent locations, such as, Times Square in New York City and on the front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, one of which read: “Protect Me From What I Want.” (Survival Series, 1986).

The most critical part of problem solving is in gaining some sense of what the real issues, concerns and fears of the parties, that may or may not be the same as the stated interests and needs. The trick is to set up the issue(s) in a manner that is susceptible to considering options that are outside the natural patterning behavior of their minds. To do that first requires the mediator to disrupt the thinking frame of parties sufficiently so that they are willing to allow consideration of different constructions of the problem and admit other options. For example, experienced mediators realize that many parenting disputes are money disputes in disguise; health treatment disputes are frequently as much about the absence of doctor-patient communication as they are about the outcome; and similarly employment grievances and discrimination cases are often the outgrowth of feeling treated like little more than a machine part. Bringing those confusions to the surface can often be more effectively done with graphic displays, than with verbal statements. On a most basic level, pictures allow the parties to ‘see’ and recognize for themselves what the dispute may really be about as opposed to being told. That kind of learning is invaluable

Cognitive art allows and encourages the ‘lateral thinking’ essential for problem solving.

A core operating premise our cultural heritage, drawn from Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and the Enlightenment, is a near fanatical faith in the power of reason and rational thinking. Not entirely without good reason, in many respects it has served us well and allowed for great strides in science and technology. Yet, that belief has lapsed over into our approach to mediation and conflict management, where strict notions of reason can be problematic, especially when dealing with complex issues or problems embedded in emotional tissue and political muscle. Nonetheless, the predominant approach to problem solving remains a linear, rational, or as Edward de Bono terms it, ‘vertical’ thinking frame. (Bono, p. 57, 1970)

We rely on the power of logic and persuasion as a primary means of conflict management. The unwarranted assumption that follows, often undermining the negotiation process, is that that people who are stuck in ‘unreasonable’ positions in a dispute are merely lacking in sufficient information, misguided or stubborn. We need to believe that with enough logic, they—the other person—will see reason and be persuaded to change their minds. (Ross, Lee and Ward, 2001). Of course, if they continue to refuse, that is proof positive of either stupidity or a blinding fanaticism. Ironically, our belief in rational discourse is almost irrational. Most experienced mediators recognize that the least effective means to convince anyone of anything, let alone people in the middle of an emotional dispute (and all disputes are emotional), is logic. Sometimes, the mediator contributes to the problem by trying too hard to be rational and logical in their approach. (Benjamin, R., 2004)

Bono does not dispute the value and importance of vertical, rational and analytical thinking. He simply insists that vertical thinking must be complemented by “lateral thinking”, an intuitive, creative thinking frame. Allowing vertical thinking to take hold too soon squeezes out the opportunity to see the situation in a different way. The risk is that the problem solving process will be caught in the strong cultural gravitational pull of pursuing the right answer and pressured to ‘cut to the chase.” The ‘lateral thinking’ frame encourages a restructuring of the thinking patterns that are often a source the conflict. However, to those heavily invested in being rational and practical, engaging in lateral thinking can initially appear to be little more than a digression or distraction from the “real” work of finding an answer to the problem.

Drawing a picture of the conflict terrain can be a very useful form of constructive deception. While appearing to be directly relevant to the task at hand, it allows for the onset of lateral thinking to take hold–thinking about the situation differently. Lateral thinking in general, and especially the use of cognitive art techniques, carry with them a piece of ‘crazy wisdom’. (Nisker,W., 1990). The former Poet Laureate of the United States, Howard Nemerov, captured the essence of lateral thinking in his essay, “On Metaphor:”

It is like being told: If you really want to see something, look at
something else. If you want to say what something is, inspect
something that it isn’t. It might go further, and worse, than that:
if you want to see the invisible world, look at the visible one.
If you want to know what East really is, look North. If you have
a question concerning the sea, look at the mountains. And so on.
( Nemerov, p. 223, 1991)

Techniques and Applications

Cognitive art is at once a strategic approach that emphasizes the importance of accessing intuitive, lateral thinking, and an applied technique requiring practice and skill. Visual display and other techniques that allow for the experiential or kinesthetic integration of information are central to the strategy.

The applications are endless. They can include storyboards of the “facts” at issue, chartings of options with comments about the attendant risks and advantages of each, or drawings of the biggest “monsters” in the field and ways to circumvent or confront them. The most basic, however, begin with an in-session diagram, with the participation of all parties, of the conflict system. This involves initially noting the boundaries, all necessary groups and individual parties, consultants, connections, and their place in the organization or family structure, and brief histories of significant relationships. This allows all concerned, including the mediator, to follow along as the story unfolds, and for everyone to maintain a common focus on the same graphic. At the next level, brief notes can be made next to particular players in the system about their relative degree of resistance, available resources or other considerations of relevance. In the end, the diagram should reflect the politics of the situation.

Graphics allows for visual learning, provides tangible "anchors" to reference back to important concepts, and focuses the parties on a common problem. (Benjamin, 2002) Graphics are helpful in the following ways:

  1. Compels the mediator to be organized, and helps him or her to stay focused on the task .

  2. The graphic, left on display, allows the parties to constantly wander back to looking at the picture; to add new dimensions and perhaps see the situation from a different perspective, even when that is not the direct focus

  3. The appearance of structure and organization gives parties a sense of movement and progress toward an end. The illusion of progress leads to the reality of progress.

  4. With a visual picture, the mediator can better identify, clarify, and frame the issues.

  5. Working from a ‘single text’—the graphic—minimizes the risk of misinformation and the peripheral conflicts that result from that confusion .

  6. The use of graphics residually provides an effective conflict management technique because it is a constant reminder of the task at hand and the mediator controlling the graphic is visually "in charge." The mediators control is thus established without being controlling.

This graphic mapping of the conflict system is essentially no different from the “war room game boards a general surveys in planning a military campaign, or for that matter, the site plans an architect reviews for design and construction, or a doctors’ review of x-rays and MRI pictures in preparation for surgery. Just as a general will be looking at the topography of the battlefield terrain, including the gathering of intelligence about the enemies strongest and weakest points and logistic requirements to mount, maintain and support his forces in a successful attack, a mediator assesses the topography of the dispute. This includes the history, sources of resistance and antagonism, or alliances and support for the negotiation process. While the general and mediator are pursuing different ends—winning the war versus obtaining a resilient agreement—the strategies and techniques are largely the same. Both, for instance, must always be aware of the necessary logistical support required to maintain the negotiation process or the prosecution of an offensive. (Benjamin, R. 1998) Both the mediator and the general draw from “field “and “systems” theory to establish the basic parameters and markers for the mapping their respective conflicts. Both must be able to visualize the conflict terrain in which they are operating. (Benjamin, R, 2004)

The figures below illustrate the generic elements of virtually every human organization, business, family, agency, or profession. They are:

  • Boundaries of the conflict system. Who is in or out of the dispute is shown graphically. In a family or divorce dispute, the parents are in the core circle defining the immediate boundary of the family, while grandparents or new spouses or significant others are outside the boundary.

  • Hierarchy of the system. Who makes decisions in the family or is the identified head of the organization or family.

  • Inter-actional patterns. How do participants, departments, or individuals communicate with each other in the family or organization? By memo in triplicate or in face to face conversation?

  • Trans-generational patterns—the folklore of the family or organization. Every or organization has a unique culture. “There is a right way and a wrong way, and the way we do things around here.” Brief discussion noted on the picture anchors the awareness of that culture.

  • Subsystems within the organization or family. These associations, generally based on gender, interest, or purpose, can be highlighted. The research and marketing departments, for example, are each a subsystem of a corporation, and depending on the theory of management, encouraged to compete or cooperate with each other. Likewise, in a divorce, the children, parents, grandparents, and sometimes lawyers, are each subsystems of the family system in conflict and should be noted.

  • Developmental pattern. A family or organization is an organism in its’ own right, which is different from the sum of its’ parts. As such, it has a life span where there the focus is different depending on the stage of development, just as an individual progresses through life. In early stages, there is a greater tendency for the organization to take risks, and as it ages to become more conservative. This can be reflected graphically with age notes and comments

An example from each of three different dispute contexts, (figure 1, family and divorce; figure 2, employment, business and organizational; and, figure 3, multiple systems-health and family) illustrates how cognitive art—pictures of the conflict—add essential depth and perspective and allow the mediator to more effectively problem solve.

In divorce and family mediation, figure 1 demonstrates how a graphic can keep parties focus on the larger picture and others affected by the divorce, undermining their myopic focus on each other. The childen and other family members are kept in sight. This also offers two other immediate advantages germane to problem solving. First, in setting other family members outside the circle, boundary issues are clarified with regard to whom the primary parties—and decision makers—are and need to remain. Having this graphically displayed and remaining in view carries more weight than a mere comment to that effect.

In addition, in more than a few cases, both parties will remember as a result of the graphic, that there may be resources in one or both of their extended families that can ease the tension. Her brother, who is an accountant and not a threat to her husband, can be helpful with regard to financial issues,

In an employment or workplace dispute, a “sexual harassment” matter, (which is preferably termed an appropriate conduct dispute), a factor frequently overlooked by the parties and the mediator is the potential for their to be a structural imbalance between the parties. Figure 2 graphically displays the place of each party so that is less likely to happen. If one is in a supervisory position and the other person lower in the organizational hierarchy, then it may be naïve to presume that open and direct negotiations can happen without at the very least , some overt discussion about their respective status in the organization. Specifically, assuming both desire to continue working in the same business, the first question that will come to mind is by whom and how future work performance evaluations will be conducted. This is no mere academic issue; it goes to the heart of the integrity of the mediation process. A graphic illustration where each can observe the structural imbalance, effectively brings this issue into the foreground, and offers hints as to available options and resources to manage the situation and allow the mediation to continue.

Finally, on the most basic level, a graphic allows for the most effective review possible of the necessary parties to a dispute. Specifically, who may be missing and needs to be included in the mediation process if it is to be a competent process. As experienced mediators know, the failure to include a key player—one who upon being left out can and likely will sabotage the agreement— is risky business and a waste of time and money. In fact, leaving out a necessary party not only places in jeopardy the immediate mediation process, but any future process. The left out party always remembers the slight. For example, in a land use dispute, where the issue was an application for a zoning variance to allow a home for the developmentally disabled to be established in a ‘single family’ use area, drawing a picture of the conflict helps to identify a necessary party who may be missing from the process. The group of residents opposed to the variance and intentionally or unintentionally disregarded by the other participants—the agency, the city planning department, the state department of mental health underwriting the group home, and supportive neighbors–may render the process fatally defective. The graphic display anchors the necessary discussion and allows the gathered parties to more fully appreciate the risk of oversight.

In environmental and public policy issues, where there are multiple systems, parties and complex issues (type III problems) involved, a figure 3 graphic provides a beginning point to illustrate the complexity and allow the parties’ to take pause. Just the act of developing the graphic with the whole group allows them to gain a visceral sense of the difficulties inherent in the matter and the need for a collaborative approach if any constructive result is to be obtained.

Commotion and Order

Managing the natural energy of conflict is similar to running the rapids of a wild river. While naïve and perhaps even pretentious to think one can control the river, there are available strategies to navigate the turbulence and maintain a measure of control. One of the most important of these is the site mapping of the conflict—to check the primary obstacles and best channels of flow. Sometimes, the rafter, like the mediator, must choose to intentionally engage one obstacle—a boulder, for example—- in order to avoid a more perilous risk—a sinkhole that can flip your boat in an instant. The use of cognitive art in mediating conflict is akin to site mapping a wild river. It will never be perfect representation, and the river will change course and circumstance from season to season, year to year, and sometimes, day to day. But as any good artist, the mediator must constantly revise his picture.

There are countless applications for cognitive art in mediation practice. Graphical timetables allow parties to estimate and gauge where they are in the process and initially creates an illusion of progress that can become a reality. Charted agendas and assignments prepared in session, copied and given to each party, likewise offer a solid feeling of movement toward a goal all of which is critical for problem solving to take place.

Cognitive art offers a system of notation that translates and communicates the actions, intensity, and responses of parties in conflict and transcribes them onto flatland, permanently preserving the visual instant. (Tufte, p. 114). Visual displays in mediation allow for some order to be brought to bear on the commotion and chaos of conflict without unduly constraining the natural energy of the conflict.


Adler, Peter, “Leadership, Mediation, and the Naming, Framing, and Taming of Type-II and Type-III Problems, in Cooley, J. ed., Creative Problem Solving, 2004.
Benjamin, Robert D. “Guerilla Mediation: The Use of Warfare Strategies in the Management of Conflict,” 1998.
Benjamin, Robert D., Effective Negotiation and Mediation: Applied Theory and Practice Handbook, ninth edit. Mediation and Conflict Management Services, 2002.
Benjamin, Robert D., . “Strategies for Managing Impasse,” in Folberg, J., Milne, A. and Salem, P., eds., Divorce and Family Mediation, Guilford Press, 2004
Bono, Edward de, Lateral Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970
Heifetz, Ronald, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Klee, Paul, On Modern Art, London, 1948.
Nemerov, Howard, The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977
Nemerov, H. A Howard Nemerov Reader, Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1991.)
Nisker, Wes, Crazy Wisdom, Ten Speed Press, 1990.
Ross, Lee and Ward, Andrew, “Naïve Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding”, in Values and Knowledge, Brown and Turiel, eds. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.
Tenner, Edward, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, New York: Knopf, 1996
Tufte, Edward, Envisioning Information, Graphics Press, 1990.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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