Most of us sit down together to sort out tension and conflict. We meet over coffee, or gather at the conference table, or sit down for a family meeting. We might well benefit more from walking than sitting, and here’s the science to explain why.
A man died, leaving 17 camels to his three sons. The first son was to receive half, the second son was to receive a third, and the third son was to receive a ninth.
They were unable to figure out how to divide the 17 camels as their father wished, and they argued about it quite a bit. Eventually, they decided to consult a wise old woman they trusted. She offered to lend them her one camel.
Of the now 18 camels, the first son took nine, the second took six, and the third son took two.
One camel remained, so the sons gave it back to the woman.
This story comes from Jay Rothman, who works with and teaches about identity-based conflict. I’ve loved it since I first ran across it over two decades ago because it represents the kind of creative solution we all aspire to when faced with an apparent impasse. Who wouldn’t want to be that creative, wise woman?
There we sit, in our meeting rooms and living rooms, hoping we’ll experience that kind of inspiration. Unfortunately, that very sitting may interfere with the inspiration we’re craving. It feels very professional and refined to sit at the conference table, but if our goal is calmer and more creative problem-solving, we’re better served by going for a walk.
Walking offers benefits not just for our health. It offers excellent benefits for inspired conflict resolution.
The benefits of walking conflict resolution
1. Walking boosts creative thinking
In well-known 2014 research, Stanford researchers concluded that walking boosts creative inspiration and increases creative output by an average of 60% compared to sitting.
Walking particularly increased divergent thinking, the thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. The wise old woman in the camel story displayed sublime divergent thinking. The researchers also determined that tasks requiring a fresh perspective benefit from walking.
2. Walking in nature reduces amygdala activity
Maybe you’ve heard of forest bathing, the Japanese practice of taking restorative walks in the woods. Research out of the Max Planck Institute in 2022 confirmed what forest bathing proponents have long touted: Going for a walk in nature can trigger beneficial effects in the brain regions associated with stress.
Said one of the study’s authors, “The results support the previously assumed positive relationship between nature and brain health, but this is the first study to prove the causal link.”
After walks in the woods, study participants showed reduced activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a primary role in emotional responses like fear and aggression. In conflict, the amygdala can release a cascade of stress-related chemicals that can lead to emotional hijackings, so an activity that reduces reaction in the amygdala is very helpful for conflict conversations.
3. Walking together creates subtle alignment
When we’re walking, we’re facing forward together, a subtle but potentially powerful alignment. When we’re seated facing one another at a table or in a circle together, it feels more natural to figuratively push back and forth. But that’s harder to do when walking side by side in the same direction.
I’ve got no research to quote on this, just long experience. Years ago, I took two mediation clients on a long walk through Boston city streets when they were very stuck and frustrated in the conference room. It changed the conversation quite dramatically. I’ve done it many dozens of times since, and I’ll do it dozens more.
Tips for conflict resolution walks
- Try going for a walk together while you talk things out. If they can’t or won’t go with you, take yourself for a walk before meeting with them.
- Aim for walking at least 5 to 15 minutes before tasks that rely on creative output. That’s the length of time studied in the Stanford research.
- If you can walk in nature, aim for about an hour to reduce the stress responses in your body. The 2022 research found that just 60 minutes had beneficial effects.
- Walk indoors if there aren’t other options. The act of walking is more important than the environment. Even study participants on a treadmill in a tiny room showed more creative output than seated participants.
- If you’re too tense to talk, walk together without the pressure to talk at first.
- Use walks to prime your creativity and calm. The effects last for a bit of time after a walk, so you can still benefit after you sit back down.
This article was originally published in 2015, and updated and revised in 2023 to reflect recent research.
Disclosure: One or more links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, which means I receive a few dimes from Amazon if you buy the book (at no extra cost to you). And, of course, I just turn around and spend those dimes on…more books. Which then inform my writing for you. It’s a beautiful cycle.