Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
The other morning at 7am I was ready to hit the treadmill when a reporter from Australia called. Quick! He wanted to know the top five tips I would give someone who was facing conflict at work. Here’s the finished article… http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/blogs/work-in-progress/working-with-the-enemy/20100709-102ia.html
What’s with the name-calling these days? On blogs, news programs, reality shows, and just about everywhere else I turn someone is calling someone else a name. I find it interesting that when I read what is supposed to be a serious news article and then scroll down to see comments left by other readers, it’s difficult to find an opinion that sounds mindful or well thought out—regardless of the person’s position on the subject. Am I the only one who thinks the pattern of ignoring an item’s content and choosing instead to blast anyone remotely attached to the story on a personal level is getting old? Are we really that small-minded that we can’t have a discussion without calling each other idiots, pinheads, losers, and then going for the jugular with some comment about one’s looks or mama?
There are plenty of people I disagree with and plenty of news reporters I think have a lot to learn about reporting real news, but for heaven’s sake, calling them all pinheads doesn’t make my perspective any more right, does it? Actually, I think it might make me look like a pinhead.
I was traveling last week and sat behind two young women on a flight back to Seattle. As they chatted with each other I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. They were discussing another friend who, in their eyes, wasn’t a friend at all because she had dared to date the first girl’s long-time male friend. To make the storytelling easier, let’s call the two on the plane Suzie and Amber, the third person Kate, and the male-friend David.
So anyway, I gathered from what I heard that Suzie and David had met in kindergarten and throughout elementary school had been best buds with little crushes on each other. David was actually her first “boyfriend” in the 3rd grade and had stepped up later when she didn’t have a date to the freshman prom in high school.
Moving the story along, it seems Suzie, Amber, and Kate met at college last year. They threw a party where Kate met David. He liked her, she liked him. He asked her out and this is where it goes downhill. Suzie is now furious that Kate is not adhering to the unwritten rule that you don’t date a friend’s boyfriend, love interest, crush, etc. And, because Kate has overstepped that boundary in Suzie’s and Amber‘s opinion, they felt the need to trash talk her the entire flight.
For a while the conversation was entertaining and then I wanted to intervene. I wondered, when it comes to unwritten rules, if there a rule that states what the statute of limitation is regarding how far one can go back to stake a claim. And, if one is relying on unwritten rules to place expectations on another’s behavior, does she get to amend the rules with her own spin? It seemed a little unreasonable, to me anyway, that Suzie was demanding Kate stop dating David based on a schoolyard crush and a platonic date that took place years ago. The discussion made me want to examine the ever-changing expectations we place on others.
I’ve often thought unwritten rules are both necessary for and obstacles to effective relationships. I suppose they’re a way of placing boundaries around behaviors that keep us from seriously harming one another, but is it also possible these same rules can become perspectives that cause more harm than good? As I began to deplane I made a mental note to take inventory of my own unwritten rules, determine how many I’ve amended to fit a particular circumstance, and maybe press myself to toss a few in the trash. However, I’m definitely keeping my new unwritten rule that states you’re not allowed to date your best friend’s boyfriend the day after he breaks up with her but it’s certainly okay for your new sorority sister to date your 3rd grade crush. Just sayin’.
A recent newspaper article described the scene at a public hearing as, well, awful. It seems the crowd was ready for a fight and those in charge may have had their guard up due to the real possibility of aggressive barbs being thrown their way. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s natural to want to protect yourself from heavy verbal attacks and develop a plan to “cut them off at the pass.” If you find yourself in a lion’s den you may be inclined to yell back, call names, or storm off—even though that’s not really how you conduct yourself in your everyday life.
As I read the article, I tried to put myself in the organizers’ situation. I recognized that there would be a point at which my (human) blood would boil, which made me think, “Wow, if I wanted to get through a similar scenario with the best possible outcome, I’d really have to have a plan that would keep me calm while making sure I didn’t just stand there in a daze letting the loudest voices take over.” I reminded myself that I would do that by listening to their concerns and being open to hearing ideas for resolution.
Okay, that sounds nice, but how does one do that? Following a few tried and true steps helps. First, take a minute before going into any potentially volatile situation and remind yourself that the only person you can count on to behave maturely is you. When the spit is flying, listen respectfully, pick out what you think is at the core of the issue for the speaker, and start asking open-ended questions. For instance, if you hear, “I can’t believe you’re so stupid you think that’s the right answer,” respond with, “I can hear your frustration. Tell me how you would have reached a decision.” Now listen. Somewhere in what the speaker is saying is the clue to what’s most important to him; be it safety, respect, autonomy, etc. Keep asking open-ended questions until you understand his perspective and then ask if he’s willing to help you come up with a solution that meets both your needs (not just his and not just yours).
In the case of this particular public hearing, a decision had already been made that angered the attendees, but I think there was still room for discussion. The crowd was concerned about safety and rather than being told that their concerns were unfounded, perhaps the officials could have heard ideas on specific actions or assurances that would meet the citizen’s needs and address the specific concerns. The audience could have demonstrated that they were actually willing to discuss their concerns instead of presenting feedback down a one-way street by shouting out one-liners from various points in the room. And, perhaps the two sides could have taken some time to have a discussion about how to make these types of decisions in the future.
By the time I finished the article, I was even more convinced that listening doesn’t equal weakness any more than screaming from the back of the room equals strength. Rather, listening to each other allows everyone to expand his view of the problem and its possible solutions. Peace!
A few months ago I had lunch with a good friend who discussed some of the challenges she faces working with volunteers. After much discussion we came to the conclusion that all workers–paid or volunteer–are motivated by such things as recognition, reputation, and teamwork, but volunteers often place more importance on their unique motivating factors than paid employees do. If a paid employee isn’t getting the recognition he believes he deserves, he may say, “Well, at least I’m laughing all the way to the bank.” That fallback position isn’t true for a volunteer and thus his need for getting his values met amplifies, which can cause unwanted conflicts in the group.
Take a look at how to spot and work with common volunteer personalities:
The Fine Upstanding Citizen: Interested in building or keeping a solid reputation he may volunteer for too much because he wants to be seen as someone who can be counted on or he may want to focus on just a few things because he would rather do one thing well than a lot of tasks half-way. If you need him to do more, or less, appeal to his desire to keep his name in good-standing when making your request. And, recognizing his contributions with a simple plaque or mention in the newsletter will almost always motivate him to keep up the good work.
Mr. Fix-It: New volunteers who want to swoop in and fix everything they perceive is wrong with the current program make the old guard uneasy and run the risk of alienating the very people they need to help them make changes. There’s nothing wrong with ideas that have the potential to yield higher returns, but there’s a method to helping others hear what one has to say. If you have an over-enthusiastic recruit spewing ideas left and right, suggest that his ideas be shared by first addressing the group and stating what is working, sharing what the proposed change would yield for both the organization and the other volunteers, and stating how much of the work he’s willing to take on himself. His ideas will be received better if he speaks to specific changes rather than suggesting everything is wrong.
Keeper of the Flame: Often known as the traditionalist or old guard, a Keeper may say, “It doesn’t matter whywe do it that way; what matters is that we’ve alwaysdone it that way.” She may be resistant to change because she values tradition and the status quo (and probably boundaries, too). Perhaps she feels she and others have put in a lot of work to hone a well-oiled machine and consequently will take any suggestion for change as a personal affront. Let her know her service and opinions are still appreciated and speak to what her role would be with any changes. Often breaking down proposals into more palatable steps is easier for a Keeper to accept, so suggest a few changes and get her opinion about where you might start.
Social Butterfly: Most organizations have folks who are less concerned about program efficiency than they are making sure everyone has a fun experience. However, meeting timelines or financial goals and building friendships don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You may be better served by utilizing her skills on activities that don’t require timely reports or consistent attendance. Give her permission to bow out of a task and, of course, be okay with having the occasional good time Charlie in the group because, let’s face it, they’re often the ones we appreciate most when it’s time to host the party and build enthusiasm for an event. Whoopee!
The Dues Payer: Often the most pragmatic of volunteers what you see is what you get. Many organizations require parents or members to make a volunteer commitment as part of the membership or tuition, so it should come as no surprise when you’re working with volunteers who are there because they have to be. For these folks you may be better served to find out what it is they would like to do and let them do it rather than assigning a task they have no interest in. Let go of the expectation that everyone shares the same level of enthusiasm for the organization that you do. Have these volunteers do what they do best, thank them for their efforts, and wish them well when they move on.
Resume Builder: Similar to the Dues Payer, the Resume Builder volunteers for no-nonsense reasons. Charitable organizations are a great way for the stay-at-home parent or displaced worker to build or expand his resume. A great way to motivate a Resume Builder is to help him create experiences that meet his goals while benefiting the organization. For example, if the volunteer is interested in leadership opportunities, help him develop his skills with group tasks or specific fundraising assignments.
My friend and I also came to the conclusion that it’s rare to find a volunteer with just one volunteer personality or motivating factor. You may encounter a Fine Upstanding Citizen who is fulfilling her child’s tuition requirement while simultaneously building her resume or a Mr. Fix-It hoping to be the next Keeper of the Flame. This may require more investigating on your part, but working to discover what makes a volunteer tick and then managing her accordingly will keep her motivated and minimize conflicts.
“Quarrels would not last long if the fault were only on one side.” – Frances de la Rochefoucauld
I often hear mediation participants say, “There’s just nothing I can do.” And, then they go on to tell me how they’re tossing and turning at night, talking to everyone in nauseating detail about the same old issues, and daydreaming about the demise of their opponent. I suppose that’s one way to deal with a sense of helplessness in an ongoing conflict but it doesn’t really get them anywhere and only acts to keep them stuck in the muck, so to speak.
If you find yourself doing the same–tossing and turning or boring others to tears with yours woes– keep in mind that you always have the capacity to control at least some aspect of that which you believe you can’t. If, despite every effort to resolve a conflict you’re just not able to, here are ten things you can control:
1) Your Plan for the Future
Knowing what you want your future to look like helps you look past the current situation and focus beyond your temporary problems.
2) Your Perspective
Stop and reassess your point of view. See if you can find a learning opportunity in the situation. Or maybe if you purposefully and mindfully examine what’s going on, you can honestly say, in the scope of things, that the issue isn’t really that important to you.
3) Your Responses
I’m sure you know from experience that you can’t control the other person’s actions, thoughts, or feelings. But the good news is that no matter what he’s doing, you always have the option to control your own responses. Consider how you want to be seen by others and choose your responses accordingly.
4) Your Investment
Consider that sometimes, in trying to control everything, you lose your ability to control anything! Do you really want to be more emotionally invested than everyone else? If you answer is no (or even a shaky maybe), then reduce your investment in the drama. Spend less time thinking about it, talking about it, and engaging in it.
5) Your Role in the Conflict
As difficult as it is to admit, you probably have some responsibility in the conflict. Ask yourself, “What have I said or done, or not said or done, that has kept this conflict going?” Change may not happen overnight, and you may need the assistance of friends, family, or professionals to help you through a transition. No need to continue being the bully, the one who stirs the pot, or even the victim. If it takes two to tango and you’re no longer willing to dance, the conflict has no choice but to diminish.
6) Your Expectations
Change your expectations–and change means change, not lower. Is it possible that your expectations are what are causing your frustration and the conflict to continue? Your frustrations will decrease when you stop holding others to standards they don’t know they’re being measured against. It may be time to get a new yardstick!
7) Your Energy
Unresolved conflict (and unresolved emotions!) can be a black hole for energy. Instead of putting 110 percent of yourself into the conflict, look for a different outlet for your attention and put your energy there. Cleaning out a closet, putting together a proposal for a creative project at work, or jumping back into the classes at the gym are all great ways to channel energy and emotions.
8) Your Own Story
When I read a good book, I create what I call “the movie in my head.” I’m the casting director, set designer, and director all in one. When it comes to conflict, you essentially do the same by choosing how you depict the scene to yourself and others. Decide how this particular story will play out and how you’ll speak about it. Give an account without elevating or victimizing anyone. When someone asks about specifics, consider an honest but hopeful response such as, “It’s a difficult time right now, but I’m learning a valuable lesson about expectations,” rather than, “Yet again I’m the victim and no one cares.”
9) Your Method for Processing Emotions
Talking with a mentor, family member, friends, clergy, or a therapist can be helpful. Keeping a journal, writing letters you’ll never send (my personal favorite), partaking in a vigorous workout, or even slinging rocks in the backyard are all productive ways to process emotions.
10) Your Character
When you say, “He just makes me so (fill in the blank) that I had to (fill in whatever terrible action you took),” you’re giving the other person control over your moral fiber. Don’t give anyone the power to make you behave in a way that is unbecoming, unethical, or dishonorable. Show your best side and not an unbridled series of poor reactions.
You’ve more than likely heard one before and you may have even delivered a few yourself–an apology that isn’t really an apology at all. You know the ones; the zingers, veiled threats, and personal attacks that the speaker believes should earn him points for saying he’s sorry. “I’m sorry that you took what I said the wrong way,” “I’m sorry that you can’t see what you’re doing is a huge mistake,” or any other remark that actually sounds more like a continuation of the fight than it does a sincere attempt to resolve whatever’s amiss between the two of you.
Whenever I hear an apology laden with sarcastic tones or ill-chosen words I try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume the reason he’s delivering such a lousy apology is because he’s uninformed about the must-have attributes of a real one. She may be unaware that a real apology–a sincere one–needs these four basic elements:
1) Explicit details: Stating exactly what it is you’re sorry for goes a long way to setting the stage for an open conversation about what’s happened with the two of you. A friend once told me that she was “sorry for anything she ever did to me.” What? When you’ve hurt someone, even if it’s been over a long period of time and there are multiple reasons to apologize, absolving yourself with a tidy little blanket apology doesn’t cut it. In fact, the thought bubble rising out of the recipient’s head most likely says, “Seriously? That’s all she thinks she has to say and everything she’s ever said or done gets erased? I don’t think so!”
2) A demonstration that your regret is about your actions and not his reactions: Frame your apology with language that will keep you honest and on track. For example, I try not to use the word “that” in an apology because it’s too easy to end the sentence with phrases that backfire on me. Saying things like, “I’m sorry that you felt,” or “I’m sorry that you didn’t,” usually end up with the speaker putting some sort of blame or onus on the recipient. The point is to say you’re sorry for something you did, so replace “that” with “for” and you’ll increase your chances of success. Say, “I’m sorry for embarrassing you at the company picnic,” rather than offering “I’m sorry that you were embarrassed.” See the difference? It may seem subtle but it makes a significant difference to the listener.
3) A promise that it won’t happen again: This is the part of an offered regret that is easier to frame if you’ve been specific about what it is you’re apologizing for earlier on. Vague apologies make it difficult to assure the injured party that you won’t repeat the error because you can’t promise never to hurt someone again or promise that the recipient will never take anything you say the wrong way. Isolating your behavior amid the emotional state of affairs lets you put forth a pledge to change your behavior; not the other person, not the circumstances, not the world.
Of course, be prepared to make good on any promise. If you know you may have a difficult time never raising your voice again, frame your assurance in a way that allows for a plan and an agreement about what to do if that should happen. For example, rather than saying, “I’ll never raise my voice again,” state, “I promise not to let things get to the point where I’m yelling and, if I falter on that, I’d like for us to have a signal that reminds me to bring it down a notch before I continue.”
4) An offer to make up for your behavior: If you’ve made a less than genuine apology or tried to offer vague regrets, this might be a tough area to get past because the other person may pull out some outrageous demands in an effort to make you feel bad, force you to pay for your sins, or use your regret to maneuver into a power position. But, if you’ve done a good job of the other three apology characteristics, chances are your work will pay off and you’ll be let off the hook pretty easily. If you’ve given the other person a chance to see that you understand what you’ve done, that you’ve given the apology and the relationship the attention they deserve, and that you’re ready to clear the air and get back on track, he’ll probably ask for nothing more than setting a few things straight and grant you a reprieve.
Don’t automatically assume, though, that every good apology ends in you not having to clean up a bit of the mess. Stand ready to do what the other person asks for (within reason) as a way to show you’re ready to move on. Do you need to clarify something with the boss, arrange for a payment plan, or take the wine-soaked cocktail dress to the cleaners? If so, do so willingly, quickly, and with integrity.
Taking charge with a sincere apology replaces the negative spotlight on you with positive attention. When you give the other person the opportunity to witness a true apology, you set the stage for him to offer up the same to you. He’ll be much more likely to deliver the apology you’ve been waiting for if you start the conversation and walk through the four steps than if you continue to hold out for him to approach you. Time may heal all wounds but I say coming in with the right bandages at the right time speeds up the process.
Have you ever noticed that many people want to wait until it feels easy before they do what they might term as ‘the right thing’? I think it’s time we burst that bubble and admit that doing the right thing–like fully addressing a conflict–is rarely easy but the payoffs can be immeasurable. Let this be the week you finally have that needed discussion. Let me know how it goes!
Let’s face it; we often spend more hours with the people at work than we do our family and friends. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, our best friends are our co-workers, but even in the best of times it’s not unusual to be faced with the guy three cubicles down from you who you’d just as soon clobber than look at again. Fold in a heightened sense of tension due to uncertain job security these days and even the smallest disagreements can turn into firestorms. What you do when a conflict at work seems out of control; especially if you don’t have the luxury of delivering a Jerry McGuire-esque speech to the entire office before making your dramatic exit with Renee Zellwegger in tow? Working it out in a way that calms the situation, improves your working relationship, and satisfies both your needs is ideal, but where do you start?
First, keep in mind that whenever you’re in conflict with anyone (at work or anywhere else for that matter) both parties are not against each other, they’re just for themselves. If you can objectively look at the situation and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you’re more likely to see what it is he wants and find a way to deliver that without diminishing your own needs. Asking someone you view as an adversary if he’s willing to find a solution that works for both you often ends with a creative and satisfying solution. Thinking you have to beat him at his own game or publically humiliate him creates a loss for you as much as it does for him. Being seen as a bully or unnecessarily smashing a coworker might feel good in the moment, but it leaves you with a tarnished reputation and you may never know the extent to which others go out of their way not to recommend you for promotions or raises because of it. Bad behavior on your part will only put your name at the top of the list for the next round of layoffs.
Second, think beyond what appears to be the issue at hand. You may have had situations in the past in which you agreed to a resolution only to find that the same problem repeats itself over and over again. If you’re fighting with a coworker about timely reports, chances are you’re really disagreeing about deeper values such as respect and reputation and the reports are only a demonstration of the values you hold near and dear. Try having a conversation about what the issue represents for both of you. You might be surprised to learn that the hoopla isn’t about reports at all but the tone in which you ask for them or that your boss feels you’re disrespecting her authority when you miss a deadline. Keeping a positive line of communication open will keep the noise and chatter down and that can only be a good thing.
Next, control what you can control. If things are going crazy and it seems everyone is at each other’s throats, choose the amount of energy you’ll put into it. Even if the only thing you can control is how you’ll make a graceful exit, put a plan together that has you leaving on good terms when you can afford to make a move. Change the way you look at the problem and talk about it terms of a learning experience with a hopeful ending. When asked, saying things like, “It’s not been an easy time, but I’m confident we’ll figure something out” will move others to see the conflict as resolvable. Heck, they may even see you as a leader, and that’s not a bad thing if a boss has to decide to keep you or a coworker.
Finally, when your expectations don’t fit the situation, even though you’ve tried everything you can imagine to make them fit, change your expectations. Notice that I said change, not lower. It may be possible that your expectations are what are causing your frustration and the conflict to continue. I’m not talking job performance issues here, but rather personal preferences for how another person behaves. Your frustrations will decrease if you can stop holding others to standards they don’t know they’re being measured against. Give yourself permission to get a new yardstick and laugh all the way to the bank; or at least every day that you earn a paycheck.