Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
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.
When I first decided to join the social media bandwagon I thought it would be fun reconnecting with high school pals, friending relatives near and far, and generally creating what I thought would be an interesting community of online connections. That certainly happened, but in the course of logging into Facebook for the purpose of keeping up with people I care about, I also got this:
Posts about your fake life. Did you forget that I know you? Really know you? I know about your financial issues, your messy relationship, and your less-than-stellar parenting skills; so when you post things that show off your newest purchase, gush about how much you love your man, or give tips on how to handle tough situations with a teenager, it makes me wonder what planet you’re living on.
Contradictions. Yes, this I realize this might be the same thing as the above point, but I’m going to take it a step further with an example. Someone I know provides link after link, post after post, about clean eating, organic food, and her obsession with feeding her children only the best of the best. Um, maybe she should have removed the huge bag of Cheetos the kids were clearly munching on before taking the picture she posted. Just sayin’.
Naïve statements. Let’s all agree that we don’t know what we don’t know. If you’ve only lived in one place, never traveled, don’t read much, only watch one news channel, and then blather on about something you clearly know very little about, you may want to re-think how loudly or forcefully you state your opinion on the subject.
Arrogance. I’m over the “shove it where the sun don’t shine” approach to any topic. If your first reaction is to poke someone in the eye or put a boot up their booty, it makes me think you may be a little intellectually lazy.
Single-mindedness. I understand, from your last 50 posts, what your views are on marriage equality, the President, anyone in public office, the military, global warming, your one and only god, and the local sports teams. Is there a box you’d like us to check when we figure it out so you can stop posting about it? Please let me know where I can find it – thanks.
Misuse. Facebook is not a place to post recipes – that’s allrecipes.com or Pinterest. It’s also not a place to post something every ten minutes. That’s what Twitter is for. Again, just sayin’.
FML statements. If you want (repeatedly) to say that your life is “fricked”, please use a better example than having to wait so long at a red light that you were late for an appointment. Or, that you broke a nail. Or, well, you get it.
Thank goodness for that option that lets me hide people! Now, back to my page to remove anything that might fall under any of these categories (smiley face).
When companies consolidate departments or lay-off employees, the action often results in administrative support staff working with multiple bosses. Though the strategic goal is to save money, the act can backfire if the new normal doesn’t quickly fall into place. Assistants play a critical role in how swiftly that happens. Here are a few tips to help:
1) Acknowledge that bosses are unique individuals. Managers don’t all come with the same personality, or work style, or expectations. It’s difficult enough to create a smooth routine with a single manager, let alone two or three. If you’re trying to make your work relationships “one size fits all” you risk not getting the most out of your manager in terms of what she’s willing to do for you. Spend some time getting to know what makes a particular boss tick and you’re well on your way to success.
2) Openly discuss sharing your time and talents. One-on-one working relationships can be tricky on their own but when you add in another boss the solid and dotted lines on the org chart can feel more like a twisted path to Satan’s playground than the reporting structure they’re meant to describe. Relax. Meet with the managers in the same room at the same time with the intention of creating a plan that makes sense for all parties. Conduct the meeting without whining or complaining or pointing fingers. Start by letting them know you’re interested in everyone looking their best and then be specific about items that may fall through the crack or any awkwardness you anticipate regarding what to work on when. Have at least three solutions ready and let the conversation go from there.
3) Throw favoritism out the window. Don’t worry about trying to be fair in the sense of “split down the middle” fair. Instead, concentrate on needs and expectations. If one boss requires less, so be it. If your managers are pretty equal in terms of workload, then talk with them about your ideas on how you’ll prioritize and then get their buy-in on the plan so that you can refer to it later if needed.
4) Be flexible. Everyone knows there’s a certain amount of shifting, adjusting, and modifying that takes place with any change at work. Accept that. If Plan A isn’t working, be okay with going back to the drawing board and reworking, rediscovering, and revising.
5) Stay focused on the work. What you produce is the currency that others are judging your bosses on. Sure, they’re graded on their leadership or people skills, but if at the end of the day they don’t make their sales quotas or are late with reports, they’re penalized. And, you don’t want to be the one responsible for that! Managers have been known to hang on to administrative assistants who have rough personalities but get the work done more than they retain assistants who have great people skills but don’t accomplish anything. (Disclaimer, this is not permission for you to behave poorly, it’s simply an example of how important the work is.)
Lastly, a good thing to remember about managers (or any individual coworker for that matter) is that people are never against you, they’re simply for themselves. Regardless of the reporting structure, look for ways to let people know you have their back. They, in turn, will have yours.
So, that happened. I haven’t written a blog in months, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced conflict, used my skills to resolve conflict, or shown my worst self during a conflict. Let me tell you what’s been going on.
About 16 months ago, my significant other and I agreed to take on an adventure. A distant relative we hadn’t seen for a while delivered a baby boy 10 weeks early. The family was surprised to discover that the little guy tested positive for some pretty significant drugs and Child Protective Services (known to us as The Department) stepped in. The Department’s preference is that a child be placed with family before being placed with strangers. After an initial pass on the opportunity my man and I agreed to the adventure. And, what an adventure it turned out to be!
We were naïve enough to believe that within a few months the parents of BabyBoy would make their way through a conditional to-do list and get on with properly raising a child. We were also ignorant enough to believe that The Department was interested in doing what was best for the child. Uh, not so much. It turns out that addiction is predictably unpredictable and The Department coddles the parents, not the baby. Who knew?!
My conflict management skills have been put to the test in ways I never imagined. Walking on eggshells, sitting in courtrooms listening while our character was ripped to shreds, and living with the biggest pile of unknown we’ve ever seen is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to taking bullets from people we thought would be our support system, we’ve now come to realize that the foster care system here is a colossal failure. It’s a joke, people; which is difficult to swallow when your mediation training encourages you to get the truth out so you can resolve real issues. There is very little reality here—just a whole lot of façade, appearances, and glossing over. So sad.
Meanwhile, in the midst of dodging poison darts and monsters in the dark, conflict within our own relationship needed to be addressed. With our different approaches to just about everything, it took a lot of work not to turn on each other while we maneuvered our way through nonsensical processes and absurd decisions. Yet, we’re still standing and I think it’s safe to say that without a willingness to communicate as adults and a solid foundation in mediation we wouldn’t be here. That’s not to say that we never flopped around the carpet and threw colorful tantrums. We simply allowed each other the space to do those things; knowing that we had the capacity to compose ourselves and move on when the time was right.
So, here we are nearing the end of the ride. Even though BabyBoy is now a toddler and returning to his parents in a few days, we can’t imagine a time when we won’t shake our heads at a system that professes to be something it isn’t. Our last words to The Department have definitely shown how immature we can be. And, honestly, in this moment I’m okay with that. So what if I know better, have been trained to act better, and have taught others how they can understand better? In the future I promise to concentrate on the joy and sweetness BabyBoy brought to our lives but for now I’m not apologizing for speaking poorly about a process that took us through eight caseworkers, three visit supervisors, seven department managers, five social workers, and one adorable little soul who we love with all our hearts. Moving on…
The family disputes I mediate can be heart-wrenching. They’re especially tough when I can see how much each parent wants to (needs to!) share with their children the truth as they see it; like when Dad hasn’t paid child support in months but is taking the kids out on his new boat or when Mom moves the kids to a new school and informs the staff not to share information with Dad. Frustration boils over and emotions run high so it can’t be surprising when the children either overhear icky information or get stuck listening to a diatribe delivered by a parent who feels wronged. It’s not surprising but, not to mince words, it’s wrong.
My opinion is that it can be difficult for us as parents to realize that our kids won’t always be children. We need to keep in mind that there will be plenty of time in the future to share whatever sordid details we feel are necessary when the little ones can see things from an adult perspective and can respond to us with the same level of candor we employ to tell our stories.
At some point down the line we parents can create an opportunity to cozy up on the couch with a glass of wine, some comfy throw pillows, and talk about the events that took place over the years as a collective experience; the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can talk about the fact that without the other parent we wouldn’t have had such wonderful children. We can share any good memories our previous partner created throughout the years. And, yes, we can talk about the time the ex- drained the bank account and how it took us years to get our credit straight. Or you can spill the beans about the serial cheating that went on and how devastated you were when you found out about it. You can tell the truth as you see it; just not now.
Why wait? Other than avoiding the possibility of really messing up your kids now, keep in mind that sharing the sordid details in retrospect rather than in the moment gives you the benefit of applying all of your life experience, wisdom, and knowledge to the account. You can share how hard it was to hold your tongue every time something happened, but then you get to add how glad you are that you did just that.
I say buy that bottle of wine now; and when you’re tempted to blurt remind yourself how much better wine becomes with age. Holding off on damaging words will do the same for you!
Here’s a question to “Ask Amy” at the Chicago Tribune that really hit home for me on both a professional and personal level. Since I am often asked the same question, I’ll share what I think is a great answer…
Dear Amy: I have often heard that we must love our family — no matter what. Love to me means (at the minimum) mutual respect, compassion, kindness, joy and truth. If there is someone in your family that does not have these attributes, do you have to “love” them?
I have a very large family and there are some that I can truly say I do not love. Some of them I don’t even like. With the family members I am close to, I can meet up with them and it feels like not a second has gone by since our last meeting. We enjoy crushing embraces and long, wonderful talks. With the family members I am not close to, our relationship is strained. When we are together, I always engage with them because I do care, even if I don’t like them very much.
I have watched my daughters say “I love you” to seemingly casual friends, so it seems the concept of real love may have been diminished.
I am interested to find out if other families have this same situation and struggle with the concept of love — or if they just shrug it off to keep the family peace.
What do you think?
The most important part of her response:
To address your question, no, you don’t have to love — or like —every member of your family. What you do have to do, occasionally, is tolerate them. The situation you describe is common to just about every family I know, including my own.
Families are like any group of people — some people are awesome, some are troublesome and some can make you feel like every family gathering is Satan’s cocktail party. This beautiful and challenging complication is what keeps therapists (and advice-givers) in business.
My significant other came home today and told me that his supervisor fired him and then hired him back about 30 minutes later. Unlike me, my guy has a job that requires heavy lifting, defending your turf, and probably some sort of expertise in spitting, swearing, and scratching; he works in construction. There aren’t a lot of “let’s sit down and talk through our differences” moments in his line of work and any attempt on my part to give ideas about how he and Mr. Big might resolve their issues just falls on deaf ears. The two drive each other nuts and a few weeks ago I let my man know that I couldn’t take him coming home every day going on and on about everything that’s wrong with Mr. Big and asked that he be selective about sharing details (i.e., stop complaining if you’re not willing to do something about it).
So, when I was told about the firing, I moved my line in the sand regarding listening to painful work stories and gave my full attention. The short version of the tale is that the two had been at odds all week, they had a blow out on the phone, the boss said “pack your stuff and go”, and then he called back 30 minutes minute later to tell my guy to stay.
As my partner continued with the story, he told me that after the apology the two basically fell all over each other with understanding and compassion (my words, not his). That’s great! Except neither one of them took the opportunity to make agreements about how they’ll move forward, tell the truth about what isn’t working, or put some real stuff on the table to sort through and discuss. Grrr.
Something I know about conflict is that when emotions are high, reasoning is low. But, this event taught me another way to look at that. I realized there may be a conflict sweet spot, if you will, in which the parties have just enough emotion to talk about the icky stuff but not so much that their thinking is off or their hearing doesn’t work. I wish (really wish!) that these two men had taken the opportunity to get a few things straight while in that sweet spot. They missed a chance to look at both the big and detailed picture of their working relationship and ask something of each other. Instead, they kissed and made up way to soon and next week we’ll be back to square one. I guess I’ll have to find a stick with which to draw another line in the sand about work stories.
If you’ve ever had any kind of training in how to get along with others, you were probably taught some basic tactics to apply when attempting to resolve an issue. Most of the time, what you know works; and thank goodness the strategies are universal and fit just about any situation. When things go well it’s great, but every once in a while you may find yourself a little perplexed when you try to apply what you were taught and your efforts fail. Three of the most basic conflict resolution approaches don’t always work and may require a bit more effort on your part to achieve success.
Listening. Simply remaining quiet while the other person blathers on about the situation might not get you any closer to resolution. Nor does artfully repeating what you’ve heard. I know that it’s Communication 101 to do those things but unless you understand the purpose and have the wherewithal to do something with the information you’re receiving, you look insincere and run the risk of making the conflict worse. Plus, letting people go on and on and around and around repeating themselves can keep you stuck on a dizzying rollercoaster ride.
At some point you may need to ask the speaker what it will take for her to know that you’ve heard, understood, and are considering her point of view. Saying that you’d like for her not to have repeat herself is a good way for her to get the message that she’s, well, repeating herself.
Being Empathetic. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t work if you really can’t empathize with how he’s feeling. When you don’t share a background, you don’t share a world perspective, or you simply don’t get where they’re coming from, you may end up putting your own spin on how you think they should feel, react, or behave. And, that’s rarely a good thing.
Instead, you may want to be honest that you understand there are different approaches to every situation and that maybe the two of you are just too far apart on this one. Move the discussion to talking about what you do have in common or how you can approach future situations in which your perspectives span the Grand Canyon.
Compromise. Splitting things down the middle is often the starting place with compromise. It’s a great way to resolve things when you’re buying a used car, but not so much when it comes to time with the kids or recognition for work product.
Redefine what it means it to compromise. Let go of the “you give a little, I give a little” definition and look at the bigger picture. Sometimes where we need to compromise most is with our own expectations of others.