Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone say, “I don’t do conflict.” It’s the type of statement that can be mindboggling because, really, we all do conflict. Everything from two drivers each thinking it’s their turn at a 4-way stop to ending a complicated, long-term relationship falls under the umbrella of conflict. Whether small and fleeting or the only thing you can think about for months, we are all in some way or another doing conflict every day. It’s just that some of us seem to manage it, address it, and resolve it better than others. So what’s the difference between us and them? Well, for starters there are some habits (or skills, if you will) that those who are considered conflict competent employ with ease.
First, they don’t take anything personal. They don’t attack people and when they are attacked they don’t respond with similar, hurtful retorts. Instead, they get the conversation back to the problem; because they know that is what will resolve the issue. Instead of reporting that Dave is an imbecile and can’t get the work done, they look at infrastructure, the scope of the work, the process, and Dave’s approach to the work.
They are willing to take responsibility: If you’re in a conflict, you have some ownership in it. Period. Maybe you let things go too far or go on too long. Maybe you’ve made the biggest blunder of your career and are so embarrassed that all you can think about is finding the nearest rock to crawl under until the storm passes. Sure, a conflict competent person feels those feelings but what she does instead of running away is stand up and admit her wrong-doing (along with multiple ideas for solutions).
They leave the blame game to others: A conflict competent person doesn’t automatically shift to blaming when a problem arises. Instead, they look at all factors; people, places, and things before giving opinions. They quickly move to exploring how this happened as opposed to who made it happen.
They know how to say no. There’s nothing more irritating than getting a “yes” that over time reveals itself to be a “no.” So, conflict competent people have learned to say no when they mean no. They can even make you feel good about denying your request! Phrases like, “I’m going to have to pass on that,” and, “I won’t be able to do that, but here’s what I can do” are secret weapons for the conflict competent.
They think before they speak: Whether they take a breath, take a second, or simply listen a little longer, a skilled conflict resolver knows not to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, they silently work through a decision tree, edit possible responses, and consider the potential impact of their words before they say anything.
They understand different perspectives: Of course we all know that we’re supposed to put ourselves in others’ shoes but to get to a lasting solution these conflict superheroes begin with the other perspectives and work their way back to their own point of view. They are comfortable with the idea that understanding someone else’s position doesn’t mean they agree with that person; and that identifying what’s important to all involved is a great place to start.
They make the first move to resolve: A standoff at the OK Corral makes for a good Western movie but it doesn’t work so well in real life. A person who knows how to resolve conflict recognizes that waiting for the other guy to do something about it may have you dealing with unresolved issues for quite some time. They are smart about when and where they make that first move and then they move forward.
They know how to apologize. It’s rare for conflicts to settle if there’s no mea culpa offered and conflict resolvers know that getting the sorry train started is the best way to get folks moving. They use a three-part approach to their apologies that starts with a description of what they’re sorry for, an assurance that it won’t happen again, and a request for an opportunity to make it up to the other person.
Who doesn’t have a list of things they’d like their manager to do differently? Everything from the way he slurps that first cup of coffee in the morning to how he plays his staff against one another is a frustration. Though it’s possible to make adjustments in any working relationship, there are still going to be some things that don’t change; no matter your efforts. What then? Here are a few ideas.
Give it one more (different) try: Before you give up completely give it another shot. But, this time try something new. If the silent treatment hasn’t worked in the past, perhaps actually talking about the issue will. Or, if you’ve asked him to stop doing something, maybe asking him to start doing the opposite will help him visualize what it is you’d like. Be careful, though, not to gang up, speak for others, or be underhanded in your new approach. The point here is for you to examine whether or not your method is getting in the way of a resolution.
Stop complaining: The amount of energy you expend talking about, worrying about, and obsessing over your manager’s behavior is only draining you. Plus, you may be alienating others with your constant complaints or myopic view of what’s happening. Lamenting about your manager at work erodes your reputation and doesn’t change a thing. If he gets wind of your criticisms from others, rest assured he will not be open to your assessment of his behavior; and he even may set out to prove that he’s the one with the power here, thank you very much. Instead of becoming mired in your desire to change him, look for a different outlet for your attention and put your energy there.
Find the positive: If the aforementioned coffee slurping manager has great mentoring skills, concentrate on that aspect of your working relationship and let the other stuff go. See if you can find a learning opportunity in the situation. Maybe this is a chance for you to step outside yourself and extend a little compassion to him. Even feeling dumped on with extra work and big projects allows you to beef up your resume if and when you’re ready to leave.
Adapt: If your boss is significantly set in his ways you may not be the first person to come along and try to change things. Instead, try changing how you react to what’s happening. Look for ways to respond to him when he pushes your buttons that won’t escalate your anxiety or cause your blood pressure to spike. Is it possible that your expectations are what are causing your frustration? Adapting to personal preferences for how another person behaves isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible.
Plan your exit: When you simply can’t handle your current situation, consider what’s important and follow a strategy for a period of time that feels comfortable and right for you. Your plan may include eventually leaving your present work environment, or you may decide that staying where you are is the best thing to help you reach your goal for a secure retirement, continued health benefits, or simply a good letter of recommendation. Knowing what you want (and when) helps you look beyond the current situation and temporary problems to something that more closely matches your needs.
I’m lucky that I’ve had so much training and experience in mediating issues between others. It’s impossible to be a part of the mediation community and not learn a thing or two about oneself in the process. So, today I’m going to share, in no particular order of importance, ten things I’ve learned along the way.
1) Gossip is boring. I don’t mind people sharing updates about family or friends with me, but when it turns into a conversation that has too many oohs, ahs, and smirky faces, I’m out. My threshold for listening to someone jabber on about others is low because I have learned that if they talk about other people like that, they probably talk about me like that. No thanks.
2) Everyone cares about something so much that they’ll do crazy stuff to defend it. In the world of mediation those things are called core values, but without going into too much detail about them, I now know that when someone reacts to a small situation in a big way, it’s because something they value is being threatened. And now, rather than jump back at them, I’m curious to find out what that “something” is.
3) I don’t have to like you. I struggled for years trying to find the good in others, feeling guilty for being too critical of some people, and beating myself up for not making more of an effort with difficult folks. Now? I’m good not to like every single person on the face of the planet.
4) I don’t have to fix everything. It’s okay, and I mean okay, for me to let other people work out their own issues on their own timeline. I’ll just be over here focusing on my own life, thank you.
5) Everyone is a mess. I read a quote once that said something like, “everyone has a life and no one gets out of it”, meaning that every one of us experiences sad, bad, and lousy events that mess with us. We all have issues and we’re all trying to mask them, deal with them, or sometimes share them in the most inappropriate ways.
6) I can work things out when I’m ready. It’s okay to lick to my wounds, think about things, vent to my trusted confidants, wait a while, think about things some more, and then resolve issues with others. It doesn’t have to be on anyone else’s timeline if it doesn’t feel right for me.
7) Giving space to others doesn’t mean I’m giving up. If I’m willing to give myself the time and space to think things through, it’s certainly okay for me to do that for others. Everything doesn’t have to happen right now, right here.
8) Sometimes it’s not possible. Mental health issues, addictions, and things greater than all of us really can, and do, get in the way of mending relationships.
9) I truly can be happier walking away. After so many failed attempts to build a relationship that feels authentic and genuine, it’s okay for me to let it go. I mean really let it go. I’ve discovered that the empty feeling I thought would be there is actually a space that gets filled with contentment and peace.
10) I can think whatever nasty thoughts I want. Yes, it’s true, over the years I’ve become much better at editing my critical thoughts about others. I’ve also become much, much better at editing how those thoughts sound when they exit my mouth. But, there are those days when I give myself permission not to edit thoughts. I’ve learned that I can think whatever I want about whomever I want and that doesn’t make me a bad person. In fact, last I checked, it makes me human.
This is just a quick thought for today.
I’ve noticed a pattern during the private meeting portion of the mediations I manage. The intention of this one-on-one is to uncover what’s really at the heart of the matter and to help the person share that issue with the other party in a meaningful way when we’re all back in the room. This confidential conversation starts with me asking a question or two and often results in a ride down a road littered with signs demanding that the other guy change. Of course people should ask for what they want—that’s an important part of resolving conflict—but hurling out demand after demand after demand makes it nearly impossible for two people to get it together.
So, I have found myself asking a simple question: “What would you do if you had to create a solution that didn’t involve change for the other person?” I’ve come to realize that there is truth in the adage that states that in almost every situation you can only change yourself. I’ve also come to realize that the bonus in adopting that philosophy is that when you change yourself you absolutely change the other person.
I’m just sayin’.
I just got back from a holiday with my significant other and as I get ready to take a long weekend with family, I’m thinking about how fortunate I am this year to be taking so much time off. I realize not everyone has the same opportunity, so I thought I’d share some ways in which one can take a vacation at work without actually taking time off.
First, don’t sign up for things. If you’re the person who is always volunteering or stepping up to take on a task because everyone else at the conference table doesn’t seem to be picking up on the importance of getting things done, just wait a minute before you say yes. Believe it or not, sitting in awkward silence for even a few seconds just may be the thing that catapults others into action.
Be okay with not being included. Don’t feel like the last kid picked in gym class if you’re not part of the project committee or pout if you don’t have a role in the big product launch. No need to create work; enjoy the free time!
Invite someone to lunch. There’s no rule that says you can’t socialize during the day. Once in a while, take that full hour and just enjoy someone else’s company. If you need to take baby steps in this area, meet for coffee before work or challenge to yourself to have a 10 minute conversation with a coworker in which you talk about anything but work. Hint: let the other person talk!
Close the door (literally or figuratively). If you’re lucky enough to have an office with a door, close it for 20 minutes while you clean up a bit or savor that one piece of chocolate your diet allows. No door? Dare to close your eyes while you listen to a cut from your favorite island music CD or change your monitor’s screen saver to something that represents your happy place.
Inspire yourself. Take 10 minutes to journal ideas that don’t have anything to do with work. What would you do if you weren’t working? What’s next on your bucket list? Find a way to create the essence of big ideas if you don’t have the time or money to bring the big things to life right now. For example, want to float down the Nile? Check out the local museums for Egyptian exhibits or spend 30 minutes during your lunch break reading about the adventures of other travelers.
Ignore the little things. So what if Karen is late again or Dave can be seen brown-nosing the boss? Take a vacation from the junk!
Who hasn’t seen the poster on a break room wall or heard the rally cry at a company meeting that shouts, “There’s no I in team!”? Yep, the quote is everywhere and even though I understand the intention behind it, I say pshaw to that notion!
It’s clear that the quote is meant to evoke enthusiasm for that teamwork thing organizations always seem to be striving for. They want that well-oiled machine that runs on all cylinders, never has a disagreement, and exceeds every goal put it front of it without breaking a sweat. But the idea that individuals don’t matter in a work group is just silly. Of course they matter! When individuals are able to share ideas, be innovative, and take personal accountability for words and actions, the sky is the limit. If employees are supposed to check their “I” at the door, it should come as no surprise that they also may check the level of interest and personal investment it takes for a team to succeed.
The experts at Question Behind the Question tell us to bring out the “I” in a team setting by asking these questions:
- “How can I elevate my performance?”
- “What can I do to move the team forward toward the goal?”
- “How can I support those around me?”
I think those guys know what they’re talking about. Imagine if you approached the next group meeting and started asking I questions instead of team questions. You’d be challenging the status quo, that’s for sure. Demonstrating that you’re willing to take personal accountability for how well (or not) the team does may start a brand new way of interacting within the group. Give it a try and report back, because, well, I would like to hear about the results.
In my line of work we talk about the importance of process. People like to know that we’re following a process; we know that everyone needs time to process, and some say it’s all about the process. Individual journeys are, well, individual and just because you’ve decided you’re ready to apologize or tell someone a thing or two doesn’t mean that they’re at a place in their own journey in which they’re willing to sit on a park bench with you and hear you out.
You’re ready to talk. She’s not. Now what?
First, know that you can’t love, force, or cajole someone into behaving the way you want. Putting pressure on a person who isn’t responding to you only makes you feel better. In fact, that squeeze often makes the other person exponentially more irritated. Yes, you may want to resolve this right now but if you really want things to be better then be willing to wait for a time when things could be better.
Don’t assume you know all the reasons the other person doesn’t want to talk or share his feelings. Of course your assumptions may be right, but you could also be very wrong and if you begin approaching him as if you have all the answers, the clam shell may close even tighter.
Leave the door open for when your journeys might arrive at the same rest stop. If you reach out to someone, be sure to let him know that if he’s not ready to resolve things now, you understand. Ask him to let you know when he is ready and in the meantime be patient.
Why is it that whenever someone shares disappointing or sad news with us our first inclination is to throw on a super-hero cape and deliver the perfect words that will make everything better? No matter our good intentions, what usually happens, though, is that we end up saying really stupid things—meant to be nice and comforting, mind you, but stupid nonetheless. Here are a few examples:
We say: If anyone can handle this, you can.
Why it’s stupid: In your effort to prop up your friend or loved one, you’re putting unnecessary pressure and responsibility on someone who is already feeling the weight of the world. Now they have to get through the situation and deal with your expectations? Please!
We say: Everything happens for a reason.
Why it’s stupid: Not everyone believes in the same fateful, every-dot-connected life you might. The middle of a personal crisis is not the time to burden your friend with the obligation to figure out the meaning of life (theirs, yours, or anyone else’s).
We say: Your loved one can hear you/see you.
Why it’s stupid: Believing, or not believing, in the hereafter is very personal. Even if the other person is staunchly religious, you may be dismissing their sadness or disappointment at not having their loved one with them in the way that they would want.
We say: You’ll be fine.
Why it’s stupid: No one has a perfect crystal ball that shows the accurate outcome 100% of the time. I think it’s one of the most dismissive things you can say to someone. It can also come across as calling the other person a liar, insinuate that they’re exaggerating, or sends a signal that you’re unwilling to listen.
We say: That happened to me, too!
Why it’s stupid: There’s no acknowledgement about what you just heard the other person say. It’s also akin to clumping a number of other poor responses into one big blurt (you’ll be fine, you can handle it, it’s not a big deal).
We say: She’s just jealous!
Why it’s stupid: We don’t know the other person’s motivation. And, really, how often have you behaved badly toward someone because you were jealous? I mean really. The reasons are rarely that simple and often have more to do with the way people make us feel than being envious of one’s money, looks, or achievements. This can come across especially stupid when a parent says it to a child; missing a great opportunity to talk about human behavior and the impact of one’s actions.
I freely admit that I am not above saying stupid things (how do you think I came up with this list?!). If I’m on my game, though, when someone shares bad news with me I take a breath—or two or three—before I respond. And, then I do this:
Listen longer than I think is necessary.
Say,” I’m sorry this is happening” and then listen some more. Most people don’t want my advice; they want my ear and my undivided attention.
Say, “How can I help?” only when I mean it. I learned a long time ago that people will say “Let me know if you need anything” and then when you do let them know they’re not really willing to do what you’ve asked. If I’m not willing to do anything they ask, I don’t offer.
Say, “I hope it all works out the way you’d like it to.” Even if I believe the writing is on the wall, making assumptions on how things will end while the person’s head is spinning doesn’t help them. The last thing they need is to get into a debate with others over the details and potential outcomes.
Then, I listen some more. I probably still say stupid things but spending more time listening than I do talking helps me say slightly less stupid things than if I just blurt out what I think sounds nice.
Has anyone else noticed the so-called inspirational quotes flooding the social networking sites these days? Some of them actually do inspire me. Any quote by Maya Angelou is sure to be thought-provoking and insightful and makes me want to be a better person. Dale Carnegie quotes are often straightforward and to the point and help me get on with things. And, then there are the often anonymous quips that sound more like excuses than they do encouragement.
I’m talking about posts or tweets that say “Only God can judge me” or “I am not my mistakes” or any blurb that’s about never regretting anything you do. Really?! Never regretting your word choice or ignoring the impact of your actions on others is supposed to be inspirational? Of course we shouldn’t have to lug around every mistake we’ve ever made, but to perform the rite of self-absolution and give ourselves immunity in one fell swoop seems like we might be missing an important aspect of resolving problems. You know, the part where we make a mistake, learn from it, and do better next time.
The sayings that especially make me shake my head are the ones about how awful it is to be perfect; as if someone asking you to be better wants you to be perfect. Um, not quite. Forward progress would be just fine for all of us. In my opinion, anything that makes the quest for enlightenment sound dull or ridiculous is, well, ridiculous. Imagine what we could achieve if we stopped coddling each other when we didn’t need coddling! Actually, I think that last sentence is a good quote and I just may post it. LOL
I probably could have found a much classier way to state the title of this blog entry but, quite frankly, it’s in response to people asking me how to cut through the crap and settle things. So, here are the unrefined, in your face, things to do.
- Determine the long-term goal. Ask yourself what role this person will play in your life moving forward? Someone who is the mother of your children isn’t going away so think past next week. Your boss may not always be your boss but they may give you a lousy reference (on or off the record) that can haunt you for years.
- Take your own role seriously. With as much objective criticism as you can muster, it’s time to admit you’ve had a role in the conflict. If you want to drag something out, play the blame game. If you want to resolve it, come clean about your actions, your tone, your intentions, and get ready to apologize for all of it.
- Carve out the time and space. Make sure there’s enough time to get to the issues—the real ones. Asking someone to help you fix what’s wrong between the two of you in half an hour only puts a bandage on a serious wound. Face to face is the best way to resolve conflicts. Period. Well, unless the other person’s geographical situation gets in the way; then a phone call or Skype is okay. And, speaking of technology, quit with the multi-tasking. Focus on the conversation and only the conversation. No texting, email, checking the stock prices, listening to the phone jump around on vibrate, or letting others interrupt you.
- Be prepared to speak up. Before you meet with the other person write down what you’d like to say and then doodle on the paper until you can find a way to say it that won’t make the other person run out of the room and straight to the evening news to report what a jerk you are. Most people focus on telling the other person what they want stopped. Instead, come prepared to ask for what you do want. For example; rather than telling your ex-husband to stop being such a donkey when you exchange the kids, say that you’d like to see the two of you say hello in the same tone you might use with a friend and give each of the kids a hug before leaving.
- Sweat the small stuff. The first thing you did was to consider the larger picture (determine the long-term goal). Now, figure out the steps needed to get there. How will you know when you’re there? What will each of you be saying, doing, and feeling? The details of how we get along are often lost in the agreements we make to “just get along” and if you have a different picture of what that looks like than I do, we could find ourselves back to square one. Details, details, details are at the core of successful resolution.
- Do the hard things first. See steps 1-5.