Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
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.
I help resolve all sorts of conflicts but the ones I get questioned about the most are the ones having to do with the workplace. Granted, most of the questions come in the form of hushed tones coupled with clandestine gestures that I’m supposed to recognize as some sort of universal sign language, but these inquiries always remind me of just how difficult it is sometimes to maneuver through our jobs. So, back to the topic I go.
You know that being an employee isn’t always easy so just imagine what it’s like to be the poor shmuck stuck between the higher ups and those she manages. Often she’s damned if she does and then damned if she doesn’t. There’s no pleasing everyone all the time, right? Even so, there are middle managers who do some pretty ineffective things that chip away at their reputations as leaders. For example:
Blames the team. When called on the carpet for lost sales or poor performance, blaming the team only makes the manager look ridiculous. If the group of people you’re managing is so awful, what are you doing with them? Where’s your executive ability? Sure, if you’re being raked over the goals in the first quarter after taking over a new job, go ahead and explain how the existing staff may not be the right folks for the goal; but be sure to talk about how you’ll remedy the situation so you can showcase your strategic abilities rather than highlighting your bruised ego.
Never admits mistakes. You’re not fooling anyone when you defend a mistake on your part; no matter how enthusiastically you argue. You’re wrong and everyone knows it. Admit it, own it, and then share your plan not to repeat the blunder. Taking ownership quickly and with a good plan to cure the mishap makes you look smart and professional. Plus, it moves people off the topic of your faults and onto something else.
Gives power and then retracts it. Telling the team that they’re empowered to do their jobs in the way they see fit feels great in the moment. Cheers erupt and everyone stops by to say how grateful they are for the freedom. Then the other shoe drops when they realize you didn’t really mean it. You made it sound like all decisions are up to them when, in fact, only certain aspects of the project or work day activities are in the “anything goes” category because, let’s face it, you have a boss, too. Being clear about your need to troubleshoot or manage quality control is much better than saying “you decide” and then changing the decision.
Some days my inner voice does a great job calming me down and helping me act like an adult by giving me the right words to say. And then there are those days when the voice of reason sounds more like Satan’s cheerleader rooting for me to say anything *but* the right thing. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to have a handful of go-to responses at the ready that I can use in pretty much any situation. I’ve learned the hard way that not having something nice to say doesn’t always keep us from saying nothing at all (or so goes the old adage). With that in mind, here’s a little something to get you started with your own list of better replies.
When you feel like yelling, “Liar!” try responding with:
- I had a different experience.
- What I saw from my perspective may not be what you saw from yours.
- I have a different recollection of that.
- I was told something else.
When you want to shout, “Shut up already!” calmly say:
- You may not realize that you’ve said that already…what can I do to signal I’ve heard you?
- I really need to get a complete thought out; are you okay with hearing me out?
- You may not be aware that every time we talk you bring that up.
- To each his own!
When you’re ready to let loose with a big “You’re crazy!” change it up with:
- I don’t think we share the same feelings on this one.
- I respectfully disagree and that’s okay.
- It sounds like we’re both pretty entrenched in our points of view.
My parents are both from small towns in the Midwest and raised me to exhibit that small town attitude even in the big city. One of the most basic ways they did that was by teaching me to greet anyone who crosses my path—especially if the crossing is a sort of one-on-one situation like passing in a hallway or walking into a store. Turns out, there are a lot of people I encounter who are seriously lacking in that basic social skill and kind of freak out if I say hello or toss a smile their way. What’s up with that? I didn’t ask you for spare change, I don’t need you to sign my petition, and I’m not selling cookies so why not simply return the smile and say hello. I don’t get it.
When you don’t respond to my acknowledgement of your existence it makes me think you’re a jerk. That’s probably not fair of me, but I think it anyway. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt and wonder if you didn’t hear me or if your mind is in another place, but it doesn’t always work. I can’t help but extend your rudeness to the rest of society and wonder what’s wrong with us. How have we become so isolated or so self-important or so paranoid or whatever it is that we can’t even return smile? Then, I let your dismissal rub me like sandpaper and feel myself sliding into a bad mood unless I make a conscious effort not to do so.
This is my plea for you not to ruin my, or anyone else’s, day by ignoring a pleasant greeting. In return, if you’re craning your neck so hard you’re on the verge of whiplash while you attempt to avoid acknowledging my existence, I promise to walk by as if you really are as invisible as you’d like me to believe.
Here we go; round and round. That’s the sound of the all-too-familiar family whirlpool in which one person (usually the woman) asks that a chore get done and the other person (usually a man) seems agreeable but never quite gets it done. She starts tip-toeing around the subject, he avoids it, she gets louder, he acts like she’s a nag, and now they’re on spin cycle with no forward progress in sight.
The last gzillion months have been like that in my house over the washing machine. Apropos, don’t you think? It started with me mentioning that the unit works fine if you have a full load but if there are just a few items, it won’t drain and stops mid-cycle. My man, who can fix anything by the way, took a look at it and I could tell immediately this wasn’t going to end well. He didn’t repair it right away, though he did move a bunch of tools into the laundry room and stack them neatly on the counter—where they’ve stayed for, well, a gzillion months.
I used my mediator magic to keep the conversations positive, to ask for realistic deadlines, to seek out information that was standing in the way (e.g. user manuals, advice from experts, etc.) and still I was wringing out the new red t-shirt and my hand-wash-only unmentionables. Finally, I decided to face reality. Clearly, my Superman is not chomping at the bit to resolve this issue and, clearly, this issue isn’t something I’m willing to end our relationship over, so the appliance repairman is coming this afternoon. It’s time we end the cycle (pun intended).
Lies of omission are my least favorite lies. Not that I enjoy any type of lies or have a favorite; but there’s something about leaving out an important piece of information and then what happens afterwards that just burns me.
We all know that lies of omission come with the standard betrayal and disappointment found with other types of untruths, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the added elements specific to omissions are what irk me the most. First, there are the ridiculous attempts at rationalization like, “You never asked me, so I never told you” and “Well, I didn’t said I didn’t do it.” What?!? That’s some serious self-absolving going on there.
Then there’s the thought that what I don’t know won’t hurt me. Again…what?!? Newsflash: I will find out and it will hurt me. I’ll be embarrassed that I thought one thing and that you (and perhaps others) knew otherwise. I operated as if you were telling the truth and you weren’t; and that’s wrong. Whether you set out to humiliate me or not, I will feel stupid at having believed something other than the truth. I don’t like feeling hoodwinked.
Finally, lies of omission erode my trust in you because I now think you are one sly, sneaky, master of deceit. Maybe you’re not; but I now think that. It will be difficult for me to consider your name and the word trustworthy in the same sentence ever again. And, that makes me sad.
I get that lies of omission can start out innocent (enough) because you didn’t speak up in that split second you may have had to come clean. Then time and circumstances turn the tidbit into an animal that you feel you can no longer corral. I also get that it takes a big person to reel in the fish story, but maybe by reading this you’ll feel inspired to do just that. If you’ve got one or two or more lies of omission floating around out there, please take the time to set the record straight. Please.
I’ve heard that a death in the family brings out the worst in us; and I now know that firsthand. My Dad passed away a few weeks ago and I have enough siblings, in-laws and outlaws in my tribe to cover the possible spectrum of reactions, responses, and retorts that come out in a family crisis.
My Dad was an old guy—87 years old—who, because of a severe health condition should have been gone a long time ago. For some reason I always thought he would live into his 90s and I would get a call one day that he didn’t come down for breakfast and, having passed at some point during the night, was found by a staffer who went to check on him. That’s not what happened.
Daddy-O went from chatting it up on a Sunday to being admitted to critical care on Monday night, then transferring to hospice on Thursday. The one thing I know for sure about this group I call family is that we are individuals and each of us needed something different from the experience. Family came from all over to say goodbye, settle their scores, support one another, and have a few fights along the way. Then Dad passed a week later and we fell apart. Big fights (and I mean big!) ensued. Some of us wanted to keep anything and everything in Dad’s apartment and some simply wanted to savor their memories. Some jumped in to plan his funeral while others left town to grieve on their own. We were emotionally all over the place and didn’t make much room for our differences.
For whatever reason, any skill I have in resolving problems went out the window at the most crucial times. I did a pretty good job calming issues between others but when it came to bombs thrown in my foxhole, I lobbed them right back. Ouch. I did, however, get it together and calmed myself enough to participate in mending fences. But, the experience brought to light that even the most supportive families fight, spit, and yell at the most inopportune times. The good news is, we’re working through it and will get past it. The bad news is, we harmed one another.
We’re sorry, Dad, that we broke our promise not to fight. However, we’re not sorry that we learned from the experience and that we’re slowly coming together as a family that you would have wanted.
Okay, we’re almost a month into 2013 so I say this is the year you stop telling everyone you’re not very good at conflict or that you’re a conflict avoider. Actually, there’s no such thing as avoiding conflict, so let’s challenge each other to take a fresh perspective on everything from those little irritants in the grocery checkout line to the big, emotional issues with the family. Here are thirteen ways to reduce and resolve conflict that should help in the coming months:
1) Be the first to reach out. It’s time to end that icy standoff and if you reach out to say so, you may be surprised with the response. I’m not saying you have to say all is forgiven, but at least not having bad vibes floating around in the universe should give you some peace. Briefly state that you’d like to resolve the tension, state where you think you could have handled things better, and then move on.
2) Be mindful of what you say (and how you say it). Don’t lose your ability to call it like it is; instead choose your words carefully. “I’m concerned you’re not seeing the risk in this” is better than blurting out, “What an idiotic move!”
3) Ask for what you need. Rather than stewing about the fact that your partner isn’t reading your mind, tell her what you need. Sift through your list beforehand so you’re not delivering an overabundance of demands. Decide what’s most important and have a meaningful discussion about one or two items.
4) Say you’re sorry. Simply put, get rid of the “yeah, but you…”-type responses and admit your shortcomings faster, quicker, and better. If you need the other person to apologize for a specific action, ask for that—but only after you’ve delivered a sincere regret.
5) Say no. This may seem a little out of place here, but simply saying no upfront to certain requests will keep you out of the doghouse later. If you don’t intend to meet the deadline, provide the funding, or meet at six o’clock, don’t agree to it!
6) Find a place for your anger. I often ask clients if there’s enough hurt, harm, or public embarrassment that could be bestowed on the other person to make their own anger or hurt disappear. There isn’t. So, try to find a place for it and then, as much as possible, leave it there. I often visualize packing up the “stuff” from others in a cart (okay, it’s a little red wagon) that I then pull to an imaginary sidewalk that doesn’t belong to anyone. I leave the stuff there with the notion that it no longer belongs to me and that it’s not important to me for the other person to own it. It is what it is and it’s no longer something I’m dragging around.
7) Let go of needing to know why. Of course you should get in the habit of asking good, open-ended questions or inviting the other person to help you understand their perspective, but once they’ve tried and you still don’t get it, it’s okay to stop. If you never know why, then what will you do? It’s silly to think that “why” stands in the way of you moving on.
8) Focus on what’s good; build from there. Is there anything about your relationship with the other person that works? Find the common ground and work to make the most of it.
9) Say yes. Everything doesn’t need to be an argument! Did you do it? Yes. Are you willing to listen to someone else’s idea? Yes. Can you try it his way without sabotaging? Yes.
10) Stop talking about it. Conflicts are what we engage in, they are not what define us. Refrain from giving the problem so much energy. Plus, it may come as a surprise that people really are tired of hearing about it. Venting is great but there’s a fine line between getting it all out and becoming obsessed.
11) Consider the other person’s point of view (whether you believe it to be true or not). I don’t have to agree with you to understand you. For instance, I’ve been dealing with individuals who are struggling with addiction. Do they think the way I do or do they do what’s best for them? Heck no. But, I understand their addiction has a louder voice than that of reason. On a less dramatic note, it’s not that difficult in a small understanding to see how the other person could think you were up to no good. And, their thoughts have a lot to do with the amount of and manner in which information is communicated. Just sayin’.
12) Smile. This one is more on the side of reducing conflict. Think about your demeanor and the message it sends. Are you the crab apple at the grocery store or the person who can’t even conjure up a grunt in the hallway when you pass others? If you’re only going to change one thing about the way you interact with people, this would be it. Greet others with open body language, a smile, and a friendly hello and you can head-off all sorts of trouble.
13) Don’t start it in the first place. Oftentimes we are the ones who cause our own issues (though, I admit, we like to blame others first). Is it really that big of a deal that Sue always uses your stapler or that your kids load the dishwasher from left to the right when everyone knows it should be loaded the other way? Maybe it is; and you should ask for what you want. But, if those little irritants continue, make sure you keep them in the little irritant category and not move them into full-blown conflicts.
Sometimes the inner conflicts I have can be more troublesome than the outright disagreements or problems I experience with others. The good news is, the older I get the quicker I’m able to resolve my inner conflicts so I can apply that learning to interactions with everyone from complete strangers to family members. This last year has been taught me a great deal in that regard. Here are a few examples.
I don’t have to scale Mt. Everest if I don’t want to. I created a mini bucket list and stuck to it…even if other people thought some of my to-do items were lame. I decided that waiting for that elusive “someday” to roll around is no longer acceptable to me so I did things like watch Casablanca all the way through, planted a butterfly bush, and ate biscuits at Lady & Sons in Savannah.
It’s okay to hide, block, or unfriend people on Facebook. Of course the election played a big part in that realization for a lot of us, but I also became conscious of the fact that I don’t need to provide an audience for the negative Nellies, racist, bigots, or anyone I know who is struggling with addiction or mental illness. Let folks do their thing, wish them well, and move on.
My Dad is smart. My soon-to-be 87 year old father blows me away with his ability to assess behavior and motive in others without getting caught up in the drama or unnecessary details. He’s also a really smart guy when it comes to making room for the rights of others because, according to him, you never know if you’ll end up in a category of person others want to discriminate against. A lot of people his age have become so narrow in their thinking that when Dad shares philosophy like this it makes me think his brain is huge!
Good health trumps little irritants. My partner experienced an out-of-the-blue health scare that put a lot of things in perspective for me. ‘Nuff said.
Actions speak louder than words: An extended family member had a premature baby who tested positive for drugs. Child protective services stepped in and began a search for a relative who would care for the child. Of course I said no—I’m too old and I had a nice little life doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Why would I say yes?! Long, long story short, my partner and I started from a place of no and ended up realizing we had no good reason not to help this little guy. Baby smiles are a great way to start the day.
Focusing on the positive rather than on the negative isn’t as hard as I thought: See above.