Image Exchange … in Conflict Resolution

Conflict ResolutionOver the many years of my career, I have made many notes on scraps of paper about various aspects of human behavior. One particular note resurfaced recently, but I did not note the source and am unable to properly attribute the idea to the originator.  Never-the-less, I discuss my understanding and usage of this technique.

Image exchanging is a behavioral technique that is used to reveal the perceptions or images about those engaged in conflict. During interpersonal conflicts, people are very aware of what they dislike about each other. If asked to prove that the other person is at fault, they could probably specify the offending acts and when they occurred. Yet, these people are surprisingly unaware of their own contribution to the conflict.

How the Process Works

The individuals involved in the conflict describe their own image and that of the other person. Each person lists the behaviors that led the other to arrive at these images. The individuals exchange both sets of descriptions written as sentences or a list of adjectives. The individuals exchange lists and discuss the written responses to decide how they can reduce the discrepancies between self-image and the image held by the other person. Realistic goals are set to improve the relationship, reduce conflict and increase cooperation.

To illustrate how Image Exchange works, let’s use a fictional exchange of a team leader that required two subordinates, Charles and Gary, to describe themselves and each other.

Charles’s Self-image: Hard working, conscientious, dependable, quality-oriented, perfectionist, and good company orientation. Image of Gary: Loud, crude, hard-working, bad with people, ambitious, stubborn, careless, intelligent, and blames others for his mistakes.

Gary’s Self-image: Smart, tough, hard-working, ambitious, strong, “can-do” leader, self-reliant oriented toward high production, impatient, and a real fighter. Image of Charles: Slow, sneaky, mean, careful, excellent mechanic, loyal to the company and his team, stubborn, unwilling to change, has old ideas, wants quality above everything else, and not promotable.

When they finished their lists, Charles and Gary exchanged their perceptions. You can imagine the shock they received when each had read what the other had written.

Charles wrote: Gary’s image of me is not flattering. I agree that my department is slow, but that’s because I demand quality work and it bothers me that he thinks I’m sneaky and mean. He might think that because, I sometimes try to get even with him for embarrassing me in front of my team. When he embarrasses me, I do slow down and look for other problems with the machines. But that’s my only reaction to his yelling and I realize that I shouldn’t do that.

Gary wrote: Charles’ image of himself is too flattering. He makes himself sound like Rambo and The Red Baron. He’s confusing all the hot air he blows with results he thinks he’s producing for the company. Charles believes that he’s more important than anything else, and that’s just wrong. By pushing too hard, Charles not only hurts other people, but he hurts the company as well.

Now, here is what the team leader observed about the images that Charles and Gary had of each other:

Charles’s image of himself is not that far off from his behavior. He’s a slow and careful guy, but he neglected to mention some of his bad traits. Sometimes, one can be too slow and careful. Charles thinks these machines belong to him, but Gary wants him to repair the machines faster and be less of a perfectionist. Then, he’d really be the company man he thinks he is.

Gary feels that Charles’ image of him is all wrong. He feels that I’m selfish and would walk over my grandmother to get ahead. Gary admitted that he is stubborn and that he is tough with people who don’t do a good job. He also realizes that he “flies off the handle” sometimes, and that behavior is inappropriate. He realizes that Charles is right when he perceives that I “sound out of control.” But that’s not how I am most of the time.


Image exchanging is not designed to change personality or core values. Instead, it allows those involved to explore perceptions and interpretations of behavior, items that typically lie beneath the surface in the average work-place. When people know how others see them, they can begin to reduce some of their annoying behaviors and mitigate the possibility of at least some interpersonal conflicts.

However, we should be cautioned that Image exchanging can open up a “can of worms” or turn “mole hills” into mountains. If you decide to experiment with this technique, proceed cautiously. Try proposing the exercise to two team members with whom you have had long-standing relationships. Explain that you are evaluating this creative technique and would like them to participate. Ensure them that you will keep the results confidential. However, don’t worry if you can’t make it work the first time because it will take some practice to become fluent.

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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