Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
Have you ever noticed that adults could use a time out for childish behavior every once in a while? Being a working mom (stay at home or otherwise) brings a certain level of stress and frustration that can spill over into interactions with others. No one expects that every mommy from the Wednesday morning dance class will become the best of friends, but nasty looks and equally nasty remarks sometimes make me wonder what sort of examples we’re showing our kids about how to get along with others. If asked, would you be able to answer your child’s questions about a tough relationship with his best buddy’s mother? You could start by talking about point of view.
The way another mom sees the world is largely due to a combination of her experiences, background, and values—just like you, by the way. When the gal sitting next to you sees the world through a similar lens as yours, it’s easier to develop a friendship with her than it is to be friendly with the woman you think looks at the world through a busted kaleidoscope. Her unique point of view doesn’t necessarily mean she’s wrong, though, it just means she’s seeing things differently. Plus, you never know what’s going on in other areas of her life so to assume that her thoughtful expressions are scowls directed solely at you or that her motivation for heading up the fundraiser is to get back at your best friend for personal reasons may be all wrong.
We all know that facial expression and body language can speak volumes. Think about the times others have made you feel small. What were they doing? Not looking at you, preoccupied, or using a sharp tone of voice? If you have a tendency to do those things, work to correct them and be a little forgiving if you see another mom using sour expressions or biting language. When I observe that kind of behavior, I often ask, “Are you having a rough day?” If she is, she almost always melts, and if not, she at least knows she’s doing it. Of course, any time I ask I do so with the intention of being compassionate, not judging (which isn’t always easy, by the way).
So why bother to improve your relationships with other moms? No man is an island and no mom can go it alone. We need each other! The best thing about getting to know other moms is realizing how normal your struggles are. Plus, moms not interested in developing other mommy friends could be wasting their own talent and knowledge. There’s always going to be a mom experiencing a road you’ve yet to travel and another one who will be following on the path after you. Share what you know and be open to learning more.
Keep in mind that if a conflict arises between you and another mother, she’s not against you, she’s simply for herself. That means that if she’s disagreeing with you she’s probably defending something that’s important to her; like maybe respect or security. Seeing things from her perspective (which is not the same as agreeing, by the way) helps you figure out a solution that would work for both of you. Also, the words you choose can make a big difference in resolving issues. Use “and” instead of “but”; “I” instead of “you”; and be especially careful with words like “always”, “never” and phrases such as “that was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.” That kind of language just makes the conflict about the words and doesn’t get to the core of what you really need to resolve.
Lastly, look at conflict as an opportunity. Many people see disagreements and tension between moms as a symptom of something that’s wrong. I say it’s an indicator for an opportunity to model good behavior for the kiddos. Improved relationships, better play environments, and strong alliances with other moms are all things that have the potential to come out of conflicts. The sooner your little one knows that, the better. Oh, and I realize dads have their own issues; but that’s another story.
Twenty years ago Rodney King uttered the now famous line, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I’ve been thinking about his question for a couple of weeks now as I’ve watched my television for updates on the unrest in Egypt and Libya. Plastered across the screen are images of some pretty angry people on all sides; and from the comfort of my couch I wonder how mediation will eventually help the situation. I then wonder what it would be like to participate in peacemaking on such an important level. This leads me to another thought, which causes me to chuckle to myself as I realize that it’s time to come clean about something.
Before you think I’m going to get too serious here, let me say that I’ve never had any delusions of grandeur about being plucked from obscurity to change the world on such a large scale by helping countries like Egypt or Libya define their futures. Nah, I’m more likely to change the world one mediation at a time in my own backyard, thank you. With that being said, what I need to come clean about is the hope that I’m not the only mediator who gets sucked into anything on television and thinks that news teams, sitcoms, dramas, and reality shows could really use a good mediator on staff.
So, I wonder…am I the only mediator who thinks the writers on certain dramatic shows could have come up with a better (mediated) solution than the one that wraps up in the last five minutes of the program? Or, am I the only one who knows the spat that’s too easily solved on a sitcom won’t last long because the characters’ core values haven’t been met? I admit I watch my favorite reality shows and am often tempted to write in to offer my services off-camera because I can’t stand to watch the relationships between these real people disintegrate any further for the sake of entertainment. What mediator who’s ever watched the family mess between father and son on American Chopper hasn’t simultaneously felt like a voyeur and an interested student of conflict? I know I have. The viewer in me picks a side…the mediator in me knows better.
Sometimes I ruin shows for those watching with me because Little Miss Mediator feels the need to let anyone within earshot know the questions she would ask of the characters to help resolve their differences or because I can’t help but point out the inconsistencies in what the evening news interviewee says he wants and the actions he took. I go on and on about how a good mediator could help the (fictional or real) players better understand their own perspectives so they could better communicate their needs to the others on the screen. Yep, I get sucked in and wonder, along with Rodney King, about our capacity to get along. But, rather than repeat his question, I’ve developed my own: “Can’t we all just get a good mediator?”
The more someone tells me to stuff my emotions, the more I want to let them out. I’ve noticed the same in others. When a person is trying to tell his side of a story and everyone around him is telling him to calm down or tries to interrupt him with their own opinions on the subject, a bunch of unfinished thoughts pile up and it becomes almost impossible for him to get beyond whatever it is that brought him to this state.
If you can relate to that sort of censoring or editorializing because it’s happening to you, I say go ahead and have a spit spewin’, snot flyin’, let-it-all out kind of fit! Sometimes the more we try to measure our words, speak softly, or give off subtle hints instead of saying what it is we really want to say the more frustrated we become. I know in order for me, personally, to get to the bottom of what’s really bothering me about a situation, I need to turn on the fire hose and let out a random stream of consciousness that includes more than a few comments about every angle of the mess. I use a lot of “and another thing!” or “and you know what else bugs me about this?” or “who does he think he is”-type of phrases when I’m doing my best spewing. I can go on and on and then at some point in the tantrum I realize that the fire hose is getting more focused and it becomes easier for me to aim it at an imaginary sieve that helps me determine which of the nails I’m spitting across the room are most important to me.
No, it’s not the most adult or professional thing to do but I’d rather see myself and others flop around the carpet kicking and screaming than see them stuff emotions or have arguments go on for decades with neither party truly understanding what the real issues are. So, if you’re part of an unresolved conflict, consider giving this method a try: with a few ground rules, of course.
1) Don’t aim the fire hose or spit nails at the person(s) involved in the situation. You could do irreparable harm while you’re letting out every thought you have in no particular order of importance to you. The other person could get confused, misinterpret what you’re trying to say, or glom onto the wrong point. Choose someone you trust and let them know you won’t be asking for their opinion; you simply need a witness for your ranting.
2) Be open to discovering that what you thought was upsetting you the most isn’t the issue at all. I’m sure you’ve had experiences in which you start out describing your emotions one way and then discover later that you weren’t really angry (or whatever) you were embarrassed (or whatever). In order for the outburst to work, you’ll have to let go of preconceived assumptions and let the rant take you somewhere else.
3) Organize your thoughts when you’re just about finished. Whew, you’re spent! So, now what? Out of everything you spit out, what would you most like to express to the other person(s)? Get clarity around the issues and prioritize them.
4) Pull yourself together and do something about it. How will you communicate what you’ve discovered? Sometimes it’s enough just to let everything out and maybe you’ll realize that the relationship with the other person isn’t something you’re interested in. Usually, though, there’s some important information that surfaces that will help you repair a relationship, set boundaries, or communicate more effectively. You’ll want to share that with those involved.
Feel free to add a few more guidelines like time and place considerations (at the park in front the kids might not be the best decision) so keep those in mind. Wear comfortable clothing, avoid alcoholic beverages, and let ‘er rip!
I don’t know about you but I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced a stand-off that’s gone on a little too long. What starts out as a brief cooling off period turns into what feels like a permanent restraining order handed down by the Court of Preposterous Solutions. The cold air rushes in, sides are chosen, and you both spend a lot of energy letting others know just how little you’re thinking about the other person and the situation. But, with so much time, space, and emotions piling up, the task of making the first move can feel overwhelming. You may be uncertain about how to make sure your point of view is heard without coming across as petty or aggressive; and maybe you’re more than a little nervous about what the other person will throw your way. Rather than letting your uncertainty hold you back, consider these tips.
Be ready to be turned down: Just because the timing is right for you it doesn’t mean that the other person is going to want to talk or make nice. Choose language carefully so you can craft a message that fully expresses your desire for the two of you to discuss what’s happened and your willingness to find a solution that works for both of you. Simply saying, “I think we should put this behind us” may be what you’re feeling but the other person could interpret that to mean, “Your feelings are unimportant in this and I’ve made a decision to ignore them.” Not good. If you get turned down, be sure to let the other person know that you’re leaving the door open for a conversation when she’s ready.
Be ready to admit your part: Approaching the other person with an admission of what you could have handled better is a great way to deflate a stand-off and create the space for him to do the same. He will likely be wary of your intentions so make sure you use “I” statements such as, “I felt hurt about the things that were told to Susan” rather than, “You really messed things up when you told Susan those things.” Be genuine and leave the excuses (you may call them explanations) for later. Offer a full apology that includes a commitment that you won’t repeat your actions.
Be open to considering the other person’s perspective: You likely have a lot of points you’d like to make. Perhaps you’ve even jotted down a few notes or created a list of items you’d like to talk about. Hold that thought. Start any conversation with a sincere invitation for the other person to tell you, from her perspective, what happened and how it impacted her. When she’s talking, consider what she’s sharing (not just listen for an opening so you can jump in) and let her talk as long as she’d like before you ask questions or explore further.
Be clear about what you’d like to see happen: So, now what? If you don’t have a master plan to hold hands and walk off into the sunset, at a minimum you might suggest that the two of you can be cordial or have the capacity to be in the same room without making others uncomfortable. Do a little thinking beforehand about what “putting it behind you” looks like to you and ask if the other person is willing to hear your description. You may want to get back to being friends but be open to something less than that until trust is rebuilt. Remember, you’ve had time to consider the full conversation so let the other person get up to speed and don’t try to rush things.
If you’re a small business struggling with an ongoing dispute between two or more employees, check out this contribution from American Express Open Forum
Like it or not, the big boss often stands between us and paychecks or promotions. Logic tells us that it’s a good idea to keep anyone with that kind of power on our good side, right? But, in reality, we’re often our own worst enemies when it comes to knowing how to turn our managers into our biggest fans. Instead of working to keep bosses happy, many of us make common mistakes that end up turning a boss against us faster than we can say, “I need a new job.”
Ignoring: Treating your boss as if he and/or his ideas are inconsequential to your success is foolish. Not showing up for meetings or dismissing his requests will rile him up in a way that he won’t soon forget. The same is true for missing deadlines or refusing to follow through on assignments. And, ignoring any problems that exist between the two of you will only make them worse. You may feel you’re 100% in the right, but rest assured he’ll place the blame for issues squarely on your shoulders.
Sabotaging: Not doing your best on a project you think isn’t worth your time, not asking for help when you need it, or treating clients and vendors poorly are all acts of sabotage that are sure to anger even the most level-headed supervisor. Sabotage can be overt like saying you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure xyz doesn’t happen (and then doing it), or it can be stealthy like not using key contacts or not sharing information to ensure a project doesn’t get off the ground. Oh, and saying, “I told you so” in the voice of a third grader is a good way to sabotage morale, future projects, and your reputation.
Going over, around, or behind him: Communicating in any way that treats your boss like the enemy falls under this category. Actions like speaking to your manager’s boss about your manager, going behind your boss’s back to promote yourself with clients, or leaving her out of the communication loop at any step of the way are all ways to maneuver around a supervisor. Not speaking to her directly lets others do the speaking for you and when they let her in on what you’ve done (and they will!) rest assured she’s going to be furious.
Admittedly, sometimes it feels easier to ignore bosses and just do what we would do if we were in charge. But, the truth of the matter is, we’re not in charge. Sure, you can sabotage projects you don’t believe in and gloat afterwards, or take the opportunity to bad mouth your manager during a chance encounter with his boss in the elevator, but in the end that type of behavior doesn’t do anything but make you look bad and make your manager really mad.
If you’d like to have a boss who’s more your advocate and less your nemesis, make his ideas work even when (actually especially when) you don’t agree with them, respectfully say what you have to say to him rather than to others, and show up for everything.
Perspective is everything. In the early 1900s, Pablo Picasso and George Braque created cubism. According to a website about Picasso’s life, “cubist painters were not bound to copying form, texture, color, and space; instead, they presented a new reality in paintings that depicted radically fragmented objects, whose several sides were seen simultaneously.” Several sides seen simultaneously?!? What great inspiration for yet another way to talk about perspective in conflicts!
So, let me get this straight. Picasso wanted us to recognize that we have the capacity to see an object (or situation) from many angles simultaneously. In fact, the majority of his paintings insist we do just that. I love this idea as it relates to conflicts and mediation because it does two things.
First, it insists that we have the capacity—we have it in us—to see things from another person’s perspective. We can choose to walk to the other side of the room, stand in his shoes, and see things from his point of view. We can see “the larger picture” which means we don’t have to limit ourselves to only one perspective.
Secondly, it gives us permission to see all aspects of a situation…the good, the bad, and the ugly. I love this idea as well because I think sometimes when I’m mediating the parties want to side step, ignore, or outright deny the icky, ugly stuff. For instance, family disputes can be about money and old wounds and revenge and wanting to feel whole again. Workplace disputes can be about the location of your desk and respect and feeling isolated. Conflicts rarely, if ever, are just about one thing; and too often people want to force the larger picture into a small, 4×6 frame.
These thoughts about perspective came to me while visiting a Picasso exhibit a few weeks ago. While I was walking about, I noticed that some of his paintings are pretty straightforward. Yep, it’s a lady sitting on a chair. Others appeared on the surface to be a big fat mess of color and unrecognizable objects. Those were the ones that led me to think that in order to understand a perspective one must first see it. Which means we need to walk around it, check it out, stand where our opponent is standing, and take in his point of view. I decided that where Picasso helps us out the most is insisting that we look at the two perspectives and then go stand somewhere unexpected and look at it again. Conflicts and relationships may look like jumbled messes at first, but taking the time to stand in a different spot can only enhance the view.
I may not be a fan of everything Picasso created, but I’m certainly a fan of his perspective on perspective.
Some people may be surprised to learn that even in today’s economy, employee turnover for small businesses is a very real problem. You’d think that people would be clinging to the jobs they have, but that’s not always the case. If you’re a small business owner and would like to keep folks around for longer than a few weeks or months, consider taking a look at what you might be doing to work against yourself. Look at a number of areas for clues to things you could improve.
Start by considering your hiring process. If you’re not able to offer the same wages and benefit packages as larger companies, don’t feel that you need to apologize for it and hire anyone who’s willing to take the job. Over- or under-selling a position only results in hiring the wrong person. If you’re honest about the job and take your time to find someone who wants to do that job (not the fantasy one you’ve created for the interview), he’ll be more apt to stay with you. Make sure you have documented policies in place that clearly outline mission statements, goals, job responsibilities, etc. It’s okay to treat employees in a small company like family, but run your business like a business—even if you have only four employees. You can never go wrong with clear communication.
In the screening process ask really good, open-ended questions that get prospective employees talking. Make a list of the usual yes/no questions you ask and turn them into conversation starters. For example, rather than asking an interviewee if she likes to work with numbers, say something like, “Tell me more about the detail work in your last position.” While you’re at it, give a few real-life examples from your company and ask how she might handle similar situations. Let other employees participate in the interview process. Ask them to concentrate on specific areas for feedback like the person’s skill level or his ability to handle stressful environments. If they have had the opportunity to participate from the get-go, they may be more likely to embrace the person once he’s hired and therefore create an easier training and transition period.
After you’ve taken on employees, let them do their jobs. I often mediate cases for small businesses because too often they’ve taken a committee approach to an individual’s work; causing employees to step on, over, and around each other. If you’ve hired someone to do your marketing, let him do it. Having to wait for a staff meeting to get consensus on the background color of the new brochure or to decide if an ad should be taken out in the industry rag is an easy way to get your marketing guru to run the other way. Ideas from others are great, but he should make (and be responsible for) the final decisions.
Additionally, find ways to praise and reward your staff often. Taking 30 minutes to have a one-on-one with an employee or bringing in a box of doughnuts costs very little and goes a lot way in making employees happy. Have regular staff meetings and make sure to mention what people are doing well. They can’t read your mind, so be specific. I worked with a company once that had a Wall of Fame near the front door on which managers would post positive feedback they’d received from customers and vendors about employees. For a few dollars in frames the worker bees could see on a daily basis how much pride the company took in their contributions.
And, when things aren’t going so well? Address employee problems as soon as they arise. All your employees watch how you handle difficult situations. If you let one person get away with poor behavior, others make a note of that; and those are the types of things that play into job satisfaction. If you’re not comfortable with conflict, get comfortable! (FYI, my book has lots of pointers to help you on that front) Stay committed to seeing a problem through. Tell an employee what to do rather than what to stop.
Finally, if you do have to let someone go or an employee decides to leave, make sure to debrief with the others. Talk about what happened, let people process their emotions, and let them help you build a plan to fix whatever might need fixing.
Are you getting into a big fight trying to solve a problem? Brainstorm!
Wait. Not sure how to brainstorm without getting into a big fight? Try these tips:
1) Clearly identify the problem. Be specific. Stating that you need to do something about the kids is vague. Stating that you need to ensure the kids adhere to their curfew is specific.
2) Brainstorm only one problem at a time, please.
3) Agree to attack the problem not the person. Get out of the blame game and into solving the issue at hand. Add “how to avoid this in the future” to the next brainstorming session if you need to, but for now stick with the solving what’s in front of you.
4) Ignore the saying that no idea is a bad idea. Good ideas become bad ideas when they don’t have anything to do with reaching the goal. If you’re trying to find ways to keep customer service phone calls under five minutes and your idea is about what to serve for lunch at the next team meeting, you’ve derailed the process. That’s a bad idea.
5) Be okay with not coming up with the best solution in the first round. I like to have two sessions. One to get going with initial ideas and then another in the next day or so. Keeping the time between meetings to a minimum ensures that the topic is still on everyone’s mind but they’ve had time to step away, sleep on it, and reconvene with clearer thinking.
6) Quickly (and I do mean quickly) discuss the pros and cons of each suggestion after you’ve created a list (not after each idea is suggested).
7) Choose an idea with the agreement that everyone will get behind it. Do everything you can to make the idea work even if—and especially when—it wasn’t your idea.
Usually blurted out in a moment of frustration, “How would you feel if I…?” is often a last ditch effort by the speaker to be heard, validated, or understood by the listener. I admit I’ve said it myself when I’ve fumbled around for the right words to express the hurt or disappointment another person has caused me. Hearing myself or anyone else utter something akin to, “How would you like it if I did that to you?” or “If I treated you that way, you wouldn’t be very happy!” almost always makes me wince because I know the question rarely moves a conversation forward. In fact, it frequently does just the opposite—and here’s why:
1) You’re asking someone to feel exactly how you feel; to have the same emotions, the same perspective, and then agree with you. If they don’t concur (and they probably won’t) you end up in a circular debate in which the other person finds new ways to discount your feelings. Replies such as, “Well, I would know that it was just a joke and I wouldn’t be such a baby about it!” or “I wouldn’t care so neither should you” most certainly won’t bring the two of you any closer to resolving the issue.
2) You’re asking someone to read your mind, to know the impact of every action that’s ever happened to you, and then know how that historical impact is being applied to the current situation. They can’t do that–only you can. Asking the other person to make the leap from “You wouldn’t like it if I took you to my company picnic and left you to fend for yourself” to understanding the issues you have with unpopular memories from high school is unreasonable if you haven’t explained yourself. People really don’t just know things; we have to tell them.
3) The question muddies up the conversation because the two of you start debating whether or not the statement is true. Responses that include odd and old examples like “that one time when you did that thing that’s sort of like the thing we’re talking about now and I was okay with it” only cause huge distractions and completely derail the discussion.
When “how would you feel” questions are inserted into a debate, the best one can hope for is a response with some level of understanding. And, that happens sometimes. But then what? It may seem you’ve gotten through to the other person but keep in mind that there can’t be that much understanding taking place because you haven’t spent any time discussing what the action brings up for you-i.e. the real issue. Rather than continue down the path of assuming synchronicity I think it’s beneficial to stop and reconsider whether the point is to get the listener to agree with you that they would feel exactly the way you feel or if the point is to gain understanding based on something deeper. I vote for gaining understanding based on something deeper.
When I’m the person ready to blurt out “how would you feel if…” I stop myself and reconsider. I take a moment (okay, sometimes I take days) to figure out what the real issue is for me. Then I own it. I will re-enter the conversation by admitting that what I have to say may make no sense at all to the listener but it’s how I feel and it explains why I’m having such an emotional reaction. I talk about what the situation brings up for me and I let go of the need to have the other person say she’d feel the same way in my shoes. Rather, I explain myself and ask if she will agree to do or not do xyz in the future now that I’ve shared with her where I’m coming from and, more importantly, why. Oh, and I make sure to include a discussion about what the issue brings up for her as well.
If I’m mediating and one of the parties starts in with a “how would feel if…” question, I help both parties through the same process I use for myself. I acknowledge the question by asking what the issue brings up for both them. Though it may seem obvious to focus only on the speaker, I know that there is also something at play for the listener. Perhaps she has no experience with the issues the speaker is bringing up or perhaps she’s applying her own historical event to today’s issue. The two don’t need to agree on how one should feel about the issue; they simply need to spend some time listening to each other’s expanded perspective on it.
Providing clear explanations about how and why an action affects you (or not) is a great way to set boundaries around possible solutions and agreements. Not understanding why one shouldn’t leave her partner alone at the company picnic makes it easier to come up with ideas on how to ease his anxiety with your co-workers than it is to smother him with embarrassing attention at the next event. If she knows how mingling with others without her makes you feel, she’s more apt to honor your request to stay nearby (or take the trash out without being asked, or pick up the kids from daycare on time, or refrain from rolling ones eyes behind your mother’s back, or…).