Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
The movie, Argo, recounts events that took place during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. Since it’s based on a true story I’m not letting the cat out of the bag when I tell you there’s a scene at the Tehran airport in which six Americans, posing as Canadian filmmakers, work their way past armed guards in the hopes of returning home safely. The scene is dramatic; very dramatic. I was on the edge of my seat as the group was questioned, their story verified at the last possible moment, and then again when the plane is chased by zealous militias who have discovered the cover is a ruse. Oh my!!!
A few days after seeing the film I read an article about two of the Americans involved. They said that even though they were horribly nervous and afraid during their ordeal, what actually took place at the airport was nothing as dramatic as what is portrayed in the movie. In fact, the truth is a bit of a yawner.
As I read the article, I realized that the way in which my mediation clients talk about conflict is often more in line with a Hollywood script than it is with the potentially boring truth. It seems to play to the audience better if one uses the phrase “attacked me” rather than “snapped at me.” Or, when I ask someone what they think may be behind a co-worker’s behavior, I almost always get an answer that implies some sort of complicated, sinister plot rather than a thoughtful reply with a less exciting explanation. My daughter and I have an inside joke that whenever one’s story begins with, “There I was, just minding my own business…” you know the description of the evil villain is coming sooner rather than later.
I’m not saying I’m above telling stories with a little Hollywood flair, because, well, I’m not. I’m working hard at being mindful of the picture I paint, though, and I’m getting pretty good at editing my version of what happened. Still, some days I just need to shout, “Cue the crescendo!”
There’s an old saying that actions speak louder than words; and I try to live by that adage most of the time. In reality, though, it can be a pretty lousy way to communicate; especially when I expect others to guess why I’m taking a particular action or when I expect them to take a hint from my silence, .
Sometimes the only way to get a message across is to speak; to use words over actions. If you’re holding back and expecting your actions to speak for you, doesn’t it make sense that the real issues aren’t being discussed? When problems persist I know that’s a sign that it’s time to say what I need to say—everything I need to say.
If you have a lingering problem with someone, chances are you haven’t let it all out. Be mindful, be kind, but have the entire discussion; not just the part where you say only half of what you need to say and expect your actions to make up for the unspoken part. If you’re still unable to resolve the issue, feel free to revert back to letting your actions speak for you…walk away, rise above, and get on with the good stuff.
I haven’t written a blog post in a very long time and decided with the political season in full swing I was itching to say something. But, I admit I was worried about how to share my opinion without offending the other side of the aisle and decided I didn’t have the energy to try. Then, I saw this come across my desk and thought, “Why reinvent the wheel? This is a great way to say what I’ve been thinking.” So, freely admitting I lifted this from www.storypeople.com here’s a little something to think about. They titled the piece, “It’s the Middle Things.”
We’ve had to do a whole lot of thinking about some of the political let’s-be kind-and-call-them-arguments we’ve come across this summer. More than a few times, we scrolled through comments that were all diatribe and provocation until all we could do was snap at our computer screens: Stop it. Stop it!! Stop the insults, the abuse, the viciousness. As you’d expect, nothing happened.
Finally, to our big relief (and kind of surprise), we settled into acceptance. People will do what people will do, even if we think they ought to do something else. Then it occurred to us: maybe this is a kind of gift. Maybe we’re supposed to lose it, go ballistic, be crazy judgmental, vengeful and awful. Maybe we’ve got to see our lesser selves before we get the message – loud, clear and in no uncertain terms. Our lesser selves are lesser in every way.
Our lesser selves are ugly and, as big and monster-like as we feel when we’re letting loose with them, they make us small. Our lesser selves are the parts of us we get to regret. They give us the chance to ask for forgiveness for doing and saying and thinking things that are really crappy. Unfair. Diminishing. The whole experience of being our lesser selves is humbling.
Once we thought that, we forged on (because that’s just how we are) and wondered about our middle selves.
It’s hard, if not impossible, being our best selves all the time. Okay, or most of the time. We have so many things bugging us, so many people clearly asking for our opinion and judgment. Why, after all, do they have to dress like that? Talk that way? Buy that stuff we’d never buy? Go there? Have that haircut? Read those books? Watch those movies? Laugh so loudly? Interrupt so often? Park that way, vote that way, believe that way? Sigh. Yes. There are so many people. And that’s the point. We don’t like believing it, but they’re figuring out stuff, too. All the stuff we’re wrestling with? So are they.
Not everyone, you say drily. There are some real dopes out there and they’re not trying to do good, be good, grow or learn. That might be true. That might be not true (although it probably is). Whichever it is, whatever those other people are doing, has got nothing to do with being our own best selves. (Told you we thought about this, looking for a loophole, wishing pretty hard there was one.)
It’s easy to snuggle into the middle, being our okay, not-too-bad selves. The middle self is the optimal position. The middle self is accepted everywhere.
That’s all the reason we need for staying put, isn’t it? It’s the story most others recognize, that we recognize in others. It’s the story that will get us sympathizers and allies and party invitations. (How many angels are known for their hilarious antics and withering sarcasm, hm?)
Let’s just be honest. Being accepted is one thing. Accepting the world and still imagining with all our heart and mind a brighter, beautiful future is something else.
That’s what we think today. And you?
Everyone knows that employers don’t appreciate disgruntled, whiny employees, right? But does the average person know how the organization does want them to behave? Should one suck up, agree with everything, or leave all the decisions to others? Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
One of the most important skills employers look for is the ability to problem solve. Knowing how to approach a problem—any problem—is a talent management values. If an employee is able to take a personal reaction out of a messy situation and instead define, investigate, and resolve an issue with a level head, their manager will notice and reward them for the approach.
Showing your trustworthiness is always a good idea. Saying what you mean and meaning what you say as well as doing what you’ve said you’re going to do will earn you high marks with management. Under- or over-stating your abilities, the available resources, or the team’s capacity will get you into trouble. Instead, tell it like it is when it comes to making commitments based on skill and resources and your boss will know that she can trust what you say in other areas as well.
Believe it or not, employers actually value opinions. What matters to the boss, though, is in how that opinion is delivered. Pointing out everything that’s wrong without providing solutions (notice there’s an “s” on the end of solution) isn’t what he’s looking for. He wants to see that your opinion considers the bigger picture and demonstrates a desire to make positive changes within the confines of available resources.
And, finally, attitude is everything. Employers have enough to think about without having to deal with sad saps and complainers. Coming in every day with the best of intentions and demonstrating that you’re happy to be there gets you noticed. It’s not unusual for a lesser qualified person to be promoted over a peer with a great resume simply based on attitude. Show that you’re up for any job by smiling, graciously accepting performance critiques, and demonstrating a willingness to learn more about not only the tasks at hand but those beyond your current responsibilities.
Sometimes you just have to admit that what you’re doing is obvious. This is one of those times. Here’s a blatant plug for two new products my partner and I just launched at www.anytimeseminars.com.
The Dirty Dozen: 12 Behaviors that Cause Conflict (and what to do about them). This webinar gets to the point really quickly, so from start-to-finish it’s under an hour. Everything from micromanaging to dishonesty is addressed. You’ll get a little bit of theory and you’ll get a whole lot of practical advice, too!
Employee Conflict Resolution: the Basics. This webinar was created for any individual in any size organization who is interested in understanding, and doing something about, conflict on the job. The entire program takes about an hour so you can get back to work and put what you’ve learned into practice the same day!
Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Whether it’s a neighbor, a new PTA member, or a coworker, sometimes we just don’t know how to get beyond awkward interactions with certain individuals. It’s not so much that there’s a full-blown conflict at play; rather it’s more of a hinky feeling that things just aren’t right. I’ve certainly had my share of lop-sided connections and uncomfortable exchanges, that’s for sure. The one thing I’ve learned along the way, though, is that if anything is going to change between the two of us, it has to start with me. If you’re ready to get passed the awkward stage with someone, here are a few tips you may want to try.
The most obvious place to start is simply with your general demeanor. Remembering common courtesies like saying good morning and acknowledging everyone you see at the community mailbox can go a long way in how others view you; and whether they’re interested in knowing more about you. Letting others know that you’re open to more than a friendly wave or head nod opens the door for more.
Practice extending common courtesies into open-ended conversation starters. For instance, rather than just saying, “Good morning” or “How was your weekend”, try to elicit a response that goes beyond one or two words. Ask what the highlight of their weekend was and then ask a few questions related to the reply. If time allows, share a brief story of your highlight. It may feel strange at first, but keep in mind that relationships are built on the mundane.
If you find that you have a particularly strained relationship or you got off on the wrong foot with someone, be careful not to talk too much about it with others. Asking another person to take your side or participating in any form of gossip rarely ends well and can create some pretty solid boundary lines that are hard to erase. It will be difficult for you to build a closer relationship with a PTA committee member if he knows you’ve spoken poorly of him to other parents.
If you’re trying to build better relationships on the job (paid or volunteer) look for ways to create cross-departmental work groups. Even if there are no work projects to focus on, there are always opportunities to create task forces on building safety, employee morale, or even the holiday committee. Offer up help without looking too eager wherever and whenever you can.
Last but not least, offer unsolicited, but sincere, bits of praise to others. If you can make people feel good about how you view them, they’re more apt to feel good about you and reciprocate the goodwill.
Santa has mad skills when it comes to deciding who’s naughty or nice, but I’ve been wondering lately how the rest of us determine such things. After listening to loads of people both in and out of conflict situations, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we do is collect lots of information and then funnel the bits into an internal meter. The device considers everything we know (and some things we don’t know) and then the arrow points in one direction or the other. Some of the criteria we consider actually aren’t very nice on our part, but that’s beside the point.
To get the meter to stick clearly on the nice side someone has to do what we want them to do, when we want them to do it, and they can rarely complain about anything. They will stay on the nice end of the spectrum if they make us feel good about ourselves. And, it’s a bonus if they almost always put us first and make personal sacrifices in order for us to get what we want.
On the other end of the meter is the naughty spectrum. It’s easy to say someone “isn’t very nice” if they tell us no, if they don’t go along with our plans, or when they see things from a viewpoint that frustrates us. People are naughty if they make us feel bad when we’re around them. Anyone can accomplish getting our naughty meter to ring loudly if they toss a barb or two our way, point out our flaws (real or imagined), or lie to us. Santa wouldn’t appreciate that kind of behavior and neither does the naughty or nice meter in all of us.
What this all boils down to is that a nice or naughty meter is an internal mechanism that measures how much we trust a person has our back. If you say what you mean and you mean what you say; and then you do what you said you’re going to do, we trust you and think you’re nice. When you take our feelings into consideration each and every time you talk to or about us, even if you’re telling us something you know we won’t like, we still think you’re nice. If you disagree with us without being disagreeable, we trust that you care; we presume that you’re nice.
If we can’t trust you to tell us the truth, or if you appear to be unconcerned about the impact your words or actions have on us, well, then you’re just naughty. Obviously immoral and illegal things are naughty, but on an interpersonal level we often put lesser considerations into our nice or naughty meters. If you overstate your abilities; if you boast, brag, or talk only about yourself, that’s not nice. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of middle ground with these things because often anything that’s “not nice” hits squarely on the naughty end of the meter.
Santa’s meter may be much simpler than our nice or naughty meters; we are complicated beings after all and the way in which we measure such things can be as complex and unique as we are. The one thing we do have in common with the jolly old sort, though, is that we often wish we were all nicer more than we are naughty. Let’s work on that.
Suddenly it comes to you; that great idea that solves a tough problem or helps the company move to the next level, or just make everyone’s job a little easier. Your thought is innovative, well-presented, and then, yikes!, ripped off.
Idea theft can put you in an awkward position. How do you take back ownership of your intellectual property without looking like a toddler grabbing back her favorite teddy bear from a kid on the playground? I like to start by treating the act much like I would if I suspected my friend’s husband was cheating on her. You could do the same. Go to the person you believe has hijacked your idea and start the conversation by saying you’re just checking on something. Then outline the events that have caused you to believe the person took credit for your idea. Be open to the possibility that you have misinterpreted what’s happened so ask a question like, “From your perspective, how was that idea generated?” followed by, “Do you remember us talking about it in my office?” If he tells a different story, say something like, “Maybe we’re remembering it differently” and then share your recollection. The purpose of asking the questions and sharing your perspective is to create the space for the person to talk openly about what happened without getting defensive.
After you’ve completed the fact-finding phase, clearly state your expectations moving forward. For example, state, “In the future I’d like any ideas we discuss together to be presented together. As far as this instance goes, I’d like you to let (whomever) know that this was my idea. You can do that on your own, we can do it together, or I can do it on my own. Which would you prefer?” If you end up doing it on your own, avoid sounding like a tattletale. Go to your boss and say you’d like his advice on how to handle something. Briefly go over the events and say that how the idea was presented was surprising to you. Ask, “How should I deal with this so that I’m setting good boundaries but not upsetting the group dynamics?”
And, speaking of bosses, what if the idea thief is your boss? Admittedly, that’s a little trickier than dealing with a coworker, so start by deciding if it’s worth it to you to say something at all. Is this the first time he’s taken credit for your plan? Is it a somewhat small idea? Could it have been an oversight on his part? If the answer is yes, make a mental note and see if it happens again. Then, wait a bit to see how thing unfold. Your boss may still have plans that include you so see if she’s going to ask you to take the lead, share your idea with the group, or take an active role in determining next steps. Again, make a mental note and watch the path the idea takes.
If your boss misses opportunities to give you credit or fails to acknowledge your contribution in other ways, do a few things differently moving forward. Share any ideas you have with an audience and ask how the idea will be shared with others. Saying something like, “Would you like me to present the idea or provide a few slides for when you share my idea with everyone?” sends the message that you’re making note of the fact that this is your idea and you have an expectation that she will include you in the opening credits. You can even try something a little more lighthearted to make your point by saying, “I’m making a note of this so that if the idea gets used, I can add it to the plus side of my review!”
If you’ve decided that you’re okay addressing the issue with your worth boss, a private conversation is the only way to go. Start by letting him know that you’re excited the idea was used, that you had hoped your name would have been mentioned, and that you were disappointed when that didn’t happen. Then shut up! Give him space to respond and keep the door open to talk about how the two of you will handle similar situations in the future.
Let your boss know about what motivates you (recognition, job security, job growth, responsibility). Let him know that you believe your job is to make him look good while building your own career. Ask if, in the future, there could be a way for him to present ideas that reflect well on both your reputations.
Finally, keep in mind that ideas in the workplace don’t necessary belong to us. There’s a balance between doing what’s right for the company and doing what’s right for you as an individual. And, because of that you should never gossip about the situation to others, keep good ideas only to yourself, or become really angry at others you think are treading on your territory. Trying to hurt the organization almost always ends up hurting you and your reputation—and that’s not an original idea on my part at all!
When it comes to conflict we probably share some regrets. Regret for the things we said, regret for the things we didn’t say, and certainly regret for more than our share of poor reactions. I saw this article a long time ago and stashed it away to share with you when it felt right. It feels right; so here’s a slightly edited version of it.
This article was written by Bronnie Ware, who has worked with a countless number of patients who are sadly seeing their last days on earth. When Bronnie had questioned the patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
The Top 5 Regrets
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard – This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.
Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings – Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends – Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
When people don’t know what’s happening they often get a movie going in their head that helps them explain the situation. The film versions they conjure up are rarely romantic comedies; rather, most resemble horror movies with terrible endings. A lack of honesty or openness at work can put everyone’s mental movie-making skills to the test.
I love a dramatic film as much as the next guy but when it comes to resolving conflict, I know I need to set my desire for a good story aside and focus on what’s real. With that said, we’ve probably all had coworkers who like to make even the most mundane topics sound intriguing and captivating. As long as you know that about them, don’t get too worked up when they want to send out those “I know something you don’t know” messages. If what you’re experiencing goes beyond that, address your concerns privately and give the person an opportunity to let you know if they’re in a position to share information. Accept that sometimes people are sworn to secrecy for a certain amount of time or that they may be in the “thinking” stages and need to explore a number of options before making an announcement.
Withholding information is one thing; one’s words not matching one’s actions is another. We’ve all had occasion to feel blindsided, disrespected, or embarrassed because we took someone at their word and then something else actually happened. When you find that someone has been less than honest give them a (private) opportunity to explain what happened. Our sense that someone didn’t tell the truth isn’t always accurate, so certainly give people the benefit of the doubt. If it turns out that your suspicions are true, let the person know that you expect more and that you’re willing to work on trusting them again. Move forward with an agreement that it won’t happen again.
We’re all human and when you find yourself in a circumstance in which you’ve been less than honest or were unnecessarily closed off about particular information, make whatever apologies you need to make, come clean, and be better than that from here on out. Keep in mind that you’re the star of your coworker’s mental movie, so work on creating a better ending.