Seeing the wood from the trees.

February 17th, 2016


Can’t see the wood from the trees” is a commonplace saying; one that I sometimes use myself and one that can often apply to those that I meet who are  in a conflict situation, whether in the context of a mediation or conflict coaching.  So this got me thinking, what does this saying mean, where did it originate from and how does it apply to the work that I do in conflict resolution.


One meaning that I came across is  “If you can’t see the wood for the trees, you can’t see the whole situation clearly because you’re looking too closely at small details, or because you’re too closely involved.”

The saying is reported to be at least five hundred years old being first recorded in 1546 in John Heywood’s ‘ wonderfully named A dialogue Conteynyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue.  However it is highly likely that the phrase was in common use for many years before this time; it has therefore been around for a long time and is very well used is everyday language today.

I see this as being very relevant in the work I do. I view part of my conflict resolution role (whether as a mediation or conflict coach) as enabling others to find some clarity or learning; a way through the wood maybe. It also applies in the workplace investigation work that I do. In coming to my findings, seeing the wood from the trees is something I keep firmly in mind! Here’s my thoughts on how it relates to my work in conflict resolution.

  • Individuals who are in a conflict situation often feel that they are stuck there. They have become so used to relating the story of the conflict and focusing on the positions that they have taken that they cannot see the big picture. Often they will have lost sight of why they have taken the positions that they have and  are focusing on the details of the factual dispute (the he said/she said bit). True conflict resolution gets underneath the factual dispute and to what is really important, namely to the emotional aspects of the conflict. This is referred to as the needs and interests which are the things that are deeply important to all of us as human beings.
  • Those in conflict will also almost be in a stress state which means that they will not be thinking logically, are less able to listen, jump to assumptions and default into a flight or fight mode of response. All this conspires to prevent us seeing things clearly. Mediation and conflict coaching attempt to create an environment which reduces the stress state, promotes active listening and enables a broadening or shifting of the perspectives from which people are viewing the situation and the other person/s.
  • The  mediation skills, conflict coaching models or tools that I use are mechanisms to help individuals unpick the situation and think differently about it;  this could involve challenging assumptions, questioning the truth of conclusions about others motives and empowering individuals to think about the future or what they can do themselves to resolve or manage things for themselves better.  These techniques help individuals to view things from a new and different perspectives,  looking at things from the others perspective or that of others around them. In this way they are taking a step away (mentally) from the situation and viewing from farther afield.
  • As a mediator, my neutrality and independence means that I am viewing things objectively, without judgement and from both sides. In this way I can see the situation differently to those closely involved. It is not for me to resolve the issues or judge them but this stance allows me to question from a position which is not too closely involved and which in itself may allow the individuals concerned to gain some clarity and understanding of the bigger picture.
  • With workplace investigations, managing my independence and evaluating the evidence are crucial in keeping me in a position where I can view things clearly. The main tool that I use to ensure that I can see the wood from the trees is to constantly go back to the very clear terms of reference that I always agree upfront. This is the framework for all that follows. Similarly going back again and again to the relevant definitions is also very helpful to maintain focus as are such things as preparing chronologies and cross referencing the evidence collated in a logical and sensible way.

So seeing the wood from the trees is something that I either try to do myself or help others to do so on a pretty much daily basis.

Finally, this post was inspired by the rather lovely picture (my subjective opinion!) I took as part of a 52 week challenge that I have embarked on having recently joined a photography club. My challenge is to take a themed photograph each week; this one being “fruit or veg but not as you know it”. There may be more to follow.


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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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