Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
Every day I check the internet for news. I’m looking for real news—like the kind of stuff that steers the direction of the world or announces advances in science that will cure some awful condition I might get one day. Instead of the hefty stories I’m looking for, I much too often see headline after headline talking about how some poor sap feels he was mistreated on a plane, in the local coffee shop, or at work. He was asked to leave, he was overcharged, he’s being forced to follow the rules of the contract he signed when he took the job, etc., etc. Gah!
At first I would read the articles in their entirety. Then I started skimming them. Then I just got irritated. When it finally dawned on me that the media outlets reporting such things wouldn’t know about these situations unless someone brought it to their attention, I got really irritated. Let me explain why.
First, you should know that I’m a big proponent of speaking up. I’m not one to sit back and watch bad behavior and not say something. I’ve never been that way so if someone is poking someone else in the eye, I’m fine to tell them to stop no matter how big and scary they look. If someone is cheating on a test and I know about, I believe I have a responsibility to say something to the teacher. If I encounter a troublesome situation with a company, I am the first one to reach out to customer service to get it resolved because I believe that if an organization doesn’t know about such things they can’t fix them. Bottom line—you don’t get to behave badly around me and watch me walk the other day without a word. So, why do I become so irked over these media stories?
To me there’s a difference between calling out bad actors for the benefit of the greater good and tattling on someone with the intention of being unfairly rewarded. And, that’s exactly what I think is happening with the tattletale epidemic. Something didn’t go your way? Alert the media! Without trying to resolve an issue professionally and privately we seem to be immediately heading to social media and then sitting back to wait for the big check to arrive.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really disappointed in this approach. It feels one-sided and selfish and, well, just wrong. It also feels lazy and dishonest. So, because I mentioned earlier that I’m not one to sit back and not say anything, I guess this is my way of publically calling out the tattletales. And, no, the irony is not lost on me.
It has taken me a very long time to figure out the best way to deal with dramatic, toxic, and otherwise undesirable folks in my life. Here’s my evolution:
For what seems like eons I was caught in the web of other people’s issues. I would have opinions, try to help, get frustrated when individuals would ask for advice and then not take it, and often I would compassionately hold the hand of the person falling in the same holes over and over and over again. Their problems consumed me! I would lay awake thinking about solutions, hoping things would get better, and then eventually resent the person when progress wasn’t made.
Then I thought I got smart. I decided that someone else’s journey was not my journey so I stopped sharing my pearls of wisdom and brilliant ideas that were sure to fix everything. This approach was very clunky, though, because I didn’t have a plan for what to do instead. I still listened to and participated in the drama. I knew all the details and as much as I liked to think I wasn’t carrying any of their garbage with me, I was. I could still smell it.
The next step involved me learning to say, “Oh.” I became stingier with my input. I would listen and respond with an acknowledging nod (because it would be rude not to let someone know I heard them, right?). Then I would break out my “oh” as a placeholder for all the other things I really wanted to say. This method worked a little bit, but it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for.
Then I became an expert in changing the subject. Want to tell me about all the drama that seems to have been on auto-repeat for the last decade of your life? At the first sign of a rerun story, I would quickly say that I wish everyone well and then ask the drama reporter if they’ve seen the latest episode of Downton Abbey or something as banal as that. Unfortunately, my strategy didn’t always work because somehow the conversation would come back to the drama, no matter how much I tried to take the wheel.
The answer finally came to me in an unlikely way. After harboring resentment toward me for my observations about a particular person’s behaviors, I got smacked with the Facebook unfriend. I no longer knew what was going on, didn’t have the background when others wanted to gossip about so and so, and could truthfully say (and feel) that I was removed from any emotional investment in the situation. Bingo! I started hiding people left and right, unfriended some, and became invisible. It really is true that what you don’t know can’t hurt you.
Now I focus on healthy relationships, take care of myself, worry about my own stuff, and carry my invisibility cape with me at all times. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I wish I had known that I had the power all along. Apparently, the invisibility cape was hiding in the back of my closet but, wow, am I glad I found it!
If you’re on the Internet at all, you’ve probably seen those quotes floating around social media that are supposed to give you strength, inspire you, or simply provide a chuckle here and there. Some of them can be quite thought provoking; enough so that I often share them myself because I think they’re a quick way to remind us all to be our best, try our hardest, and to generally calm down while we focus on the good things in our lives.
Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that on more than one occasion I’ve had a negative reaction to some of the quips. There is one in particular that I have seen too many times that always rubs me the wrong way. There are various versions of the quote but generally it reads, “What others think of you is none of your business.” Really?! I’m not buying that one at all.
I wholeheartedly believe that what others think of us is not only our business but it’s also our responsibility to seek out those thoughts and to do something about them if they’re not so good. Before I go on, let me say that I know there are plenty of people and situations in our lives that we can’t control and sometimes it’s true that no matter how hard we try our first impressions aren’t so good or that we can’t know about every piece of baggage someone is toting around in their childhood red wagon. So, I can somewhat understand the thought behind the quote if it’s intending to say we can’t walk around taking on everyone else’s issues.
But, can we agree that for the most part what others think of us is based on how we make them feel? If that’s the case, then this particular quote sounds like a lazy and self-absorbed way to keep one from maturing, growing, and becoming the best person they can be. It makes me imagine that the author is someone who bulldozes his way through life with little to no regard for others and then wants to blame (if you will) any negative feelings about his actions on the very people he’s damaged. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty confident that if I tried to share my negative perspective with him, he would say it’s none of his business. So, instead, I’ll share it you.
A few months ago Yahoo Style published an item by Sloane Bradshaw that talked about how letting the little things go in her relationship ended her marriage. The headline caught my eye and, as I began to read, I expected to recognize small warning signs in my own relationship. My goal was to address whatever was contained in the article before the snowball effect took over and our issues were too big to resolve. I didn’t want to end up like Sloane and her husband heading for divorce court (or whatever people in long-term relationships who aren’t legally married head toward). So, I was ready to accept whatever the blog had to offer. Bring on these little things that can end a marriage—I will meet them head on!
But, I didn’t find any little things. Instead, what I found were some pretty big signs that her relationship had been off track for years. Reading along, I couldn’t help but feel for this lady as she described her sadness and disappointment while filling out parenting plans and asset division paperwork. And, yet, I couldn’t stop shaking my head over her view of these so-called small things. She gave a number of examples of how she had endured years of playing second in her husband’s eyes (like the year she turned 40 and he completely ignored her birthday). I get that we are all second to someone because, well, it would be creepy weird for them to put us first all the time. But none of the time? How is that a small thing?
When it comes to little things we could work on, I thought she was going to say that some nights they were too tired to kiss goodnight or that her husband never offered her the last cookie in the package before gobbling it up himself. Maybe she was going to say that he spent just a little too much out in the garage on his projects. Or, that even though she could count at least a dozen times she had asked him not to put the big spoon in the dishwasher slot right in front of the soap dispenser because the spoon stops the dispenser flap from opening all the way and then the entire cycle is ruined because nothing gets clean, he does it anyway. Oh, wait, those are the little things in my relationship.
I know comparing relationships isn’t necessarily a productive activity, but after comparing the small things in her relationship to the small things in my relationship I came to the conclusion that I have a much better relationship than I thought. At least this man who watches too many Barrett Jackson auto auction marathons remembers my birthday and lifts heavy objects. I’ll take it!
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.