Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
Turns out there are smart, engaging mediators outside my circle of colleagues. Who knew?! (grin)
I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the Idaho Mediation Association’s annual conference and met some amazing people over the weekend. How lucky am I to be inspired by the attorneys, mediators, and BSU students who were brave enough to sign up for my sessions? Thank you to everyone for enthusiastically participating in the “Dollars and Sense: The benefits of exploiting the opportunity in workplace conflict” plenary presentation as well as those who hung in there with me during the “Little Red Wagons”” and “Collaborating Makes Us a Team and Other Fibs that Cause Workplace Conflict” afternoon sessions. And, thank you to Paul Litow, Lance Coumerilh, Rachelle Koon, Tracy BSU Student Organization, the conference volunteers, and the attendees for making a Washington gal feel welcome and, yes, kind of important (another grin).
The weekend was a great investment on my part because I now have loads of new ideas for my mediation practice, this blog, and my life. I just love when inspiration unexpectedly comes my way!
I participated in a good discussion last week about forgiveness. Okay, I admit it was with two of my nieces on Facebook, but it was a good conversation nonetheless. We went back and forth trying to define forgiveness and as it turns out it’s easier to describe what forgiveness isn’t than it is to define what it is. And, that got me thinking.
For years I didn’t get the concept of forgiveness because I was stuck on something. I thought that if I said I forgave someone that would mean that I was saying what they did to me was okay, or that I deserved it, or that it was all right to tread on me without any consequences. So, I didn’t forgive and instead I carried the burden around while (seemingly) my perpetrators happily skipped along never giving their bad acts a second thought. The possibility that they weren’t suffering just made me more hurt and frustrated. I once heard that not forgiving was like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I was definitely drinking enough poison for the both of us.
So, I decided it might be a good idea to find a definition of forgiveness that resonated with me so that I could actually do it. Here’s what I came up with. I decided that in spite of what anyone had done to me and in spite of any good fortune that may come their way, I would have the best life I could create. I told myself that no matter what happens to them (good, bad, or indifferent) it will have no bearing on whether I’m able to move through the hurt and come out the other side. If the other person never apologizes, never throws themselves at my feet begging for my forgiveness, or never takes out a full-page ad in USA Today detailing the 101 ways they stink and I’m great, I’ll be fine. I decided in that moment that forgiveness to me was leaving their bad acts and intentions piled up on the sidewalk for them to collect if and when they wanted. And, I decided that in my definition of forgiveness it would make no difference to me whether or not I ever knew what they did with their stack of ugly.
I also decided that I could never really hurt someone enough for hurting me. What I mean by that is no matter what I did to the other person it wouldn’t erase my sense of betrayal or disappointment. As much as I wanted to believe that my creative daydreams about their ultimate ruin, public embarrassment, or financial disaster would make me feel better if they came true, I knew that wasn’t the case. Wishing ill on others did nothing to erase the acts for which I needed to forgive so I decided just to let life take care of that.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. I also gave myself permission to let go of the need for an explanation. A smart guy once told me about a disappointment from his childhood and then said, “My parents did what they did.” I expected him to continue with the standard line about parents doing the best they could with what they had at the time and was surprised when he didn’t. I asked why he stopped short of a full explanation and he replied because his parents didn’t do the best they could. They just did what they did! He went on to say that there would never be a reason sound enough or big enough or perfect enough that would pull everything together for him and make the situation hurt less. Like I said, he’s a smart guy.
Fast forward. I finally came to the conclusion that forgiveness is something I give myself. I don’t need to know everything about everything in order to forgive. I know that my definition needs to make sense for me even if doesn’t work for anyone else. Whew, what a relief!
What definitions or approaches to forgiveness have helped or hindered you?
This is an edited version of an email I received awhile back. There was a lot more to it, but I wanted to share the gist of it as well as part of my response. I’m curious what you think.
Q: How do you deal with grown women who are bullies? My husband, Tom’s, childhood friend’s wives, Terri and Jennifer, are really getting to me. Jennifer seems to be the one calling the shots, but they’ve both behaved badly so many times I’ve lost count. In fact, when I first met Jennifer at a party at Terri’s house, she glared at me the entire time, wouldn’t say hello, and never returned my smiles. It’s gone downhill from there!
My husband has a serious health condition and Terri has made fun of it right in front of me. On other occasions she’s said degrading things about our jobs. I could go on with many more examples of bullying behavior from the both of them, but the bottom line is I can’t deal with this any longer. I’ve been given advice to ignore them. What do you think I should I do?
A: My first thought is to wonder what Tom thinks about all this. These are his friends and their wives, after all. He’ll need to have an opinion about which approach you take because he’ll need to support your decision 100%. Leaving you to deal with it on your own shouldn’t be an option (and you can tell him I said so ).
First, you could take the aforementioned advice and ignore them. Ignoring, though, will mean more than turning the other cheek when a snide remark is made at a party. What it may mean is not attending any events for an extended period of time. Only allowing yourself to drink just a little poison will still make you sick and for now maybe you need a clean break. That’s not to say you couldn’t jump back in later, though.
If you and Tom decide that you’d like to continue the relationship with his buddies and their wives, you could work to resolve enough of the issues to be able to handle the occasional get-together. Of course, I’m always hopeful that people can get to a point where they do more than just tolerate each other, but I completely understand if you want to take baby steps here. So, to begin, I would think in terms of individual relationships rather than the entire group.
I would probably start with Jennifer because Terri seems to take her cues from her. I would email her and ask her to meet for coffee. I like the idea of making appointments like that even with family members and close friends because it sends the message that what you have to talk about is important. Then, choose a place where you can actually talk so don’t opt to meet up at the middle table at Starbucks at 9am on a Saturday morning. I would follow this with the same request of Terri.
(Note to reader: I’m going to lump my suggestions for the two meetings into a few paragraphs here). Once the two of you sit down begin by asking if there’s something you’ve done or said to offend Jennifer or her husband. If she says you have, hear her out, ask lots of open-ended questions that keep her talking, and then apologize. If she says you haven’t done anything, then say that you feel the two of you may have gotten off on the wrong foot. Continue with something like, “maybe I just don’t get your sense of humor and I’m taking some of the things that have been said in a way that you didn’t mean them to be taken. For instance, when you said the thing about Tom’s health problems I didn’t know how to respond. Or, when you said those things about our jobs, I have to admit I was hurt.” If you can stick to talking about the impact of her actions and words rather than the accusatory “you did this and then you did that” approach, she’ll be able to hear you better.
Once you ask the questions, be prepared with responses to what she might say or do. If she can’t remember saying any of those things, you might say, “Okay, so I guess then we need to talk about what I find funny and what I don’t. Our husbands are good friends and I think it would be better for us to get along and enjoy each other’s company than to have tension between us.” If she says she was just kidding, you could probably say the same thing. If she says something like, “I never liked you anyway” (which is unlikely but could happen), thank her for at least letting you know and then talk to Tom about how he can have time with his buddies (if he so chooses) outside of the couples’ events and remove yourself from anything that involves her.
Finally, after the discussion with Jennifer, I would suggest you do the same with Terri.
Readers, what other suggestions do you have?
It’s tough finding encouraging and insightful words when a friend comes to you with news that (s)he’s headed for a breakup. I’ve noticed that most people either want to put down their friend’s soon-to-be ex or talk up the friend’s amazing ability to cope with anything. How often have you heard, “Well, if anyone can handle this, you can”? Agh!—talk about pressure to keep it together when everything is falling apart! If it doesn’t feel good for you to hear things like that, you may want to rethink such a response before offering it up to someone else.
I decided long ago that it’s not my place to make people feel better about sad or disappointing breakups—only they can do that for themselves. I finally (after way too many years of poor and awkward responses!) came to the conclusion that when my friends and family face conflict, the best thing I can do is listen, ask good questions, and let them process the disappointments, frustrations, and regrets. I might even say, “Let me know if you’d like me to give you my thoughts” and if they want, I’ll share a few insights. Otherwise, I zip it and let them talk.
What about you? How do you respond?
My mediation practice often sees families in various states of emotional disrepair. They each have unique circumstances, but the couples I see often have a few things in common—namely children and a need to create a sense of family out of what is now a “new normal.” You may be in a similar position and wondering how you can get past the past, so to speak, and create an approach to family you would want your children to emulate in their adult lives.
I’m not a child psychologist or an expert in human behavior, but experience tells me that when there are children involved in a parential dispute, there are certain patterns that emerge at the mediation table. It’s never a surprise to me when I hear comments such as, “He’s just about the money!” or “She’s always trying to control me!” Of course there are variations on how exes describe each other’s motivation and I could create quite an interesting list for you, but the one statement that I hear over and over again from both sides is, “I would do anything for my kids.” The parents will repeat the phrase a number of times and then go on to describe all the horrible things they’ve done (and continue to do!) to each other. Let me be bold here and say that when it comes to “doing anything for your kids” creating a sense of family for them deserves to be first on your list. And, when it comes to building a positive family environment, it’s not what you say but rather what you do that matters.
So, if you’re interested in creating a sense of family after a divorce or separation, adopting a new code of conduct is vital. If you need motivation for changing the way you present the concept of family to your children, please remember that the few moments in which they see you interacting with your ex are the same moments they see themselves as part of a family. It doesn’t matter to them if you were never married, if you have deep seeded resentment toward each other, or if you view your ex as the person who has hurt you the most in life. What matters to your little ones in those moments is how they view their family. If you’re ready to create a family your child can feel good about, make a pledge to follow a code of conduct such as this one:
1) I will acknowledge that my children have two parents whom they love equally (and a lot!).
2) Regardless of how the other parent speaks about or to me, I will remain respectful.
3) I will not participate in efforts to make sport out of trying to get our child to choose a favorite.
4) I will not speak ill of my child’s other parent when my child is within 5,000 miles of me, nor will I allow relatives, friends, or acquaintances to speak ill of them either.
5) I will be careful how I interpret or judge my ex’s behavior and intentions.
6) I will not deliver cold shoulders, mutter snarky remarks under my breath, or do anything that demonstrates poor communication with the other parent during phone calls, emails, or while exchanging our children in parking lots, fast food restaurants, the front door, or any other place for that matter.
7) When asking for a favor of the other parent, I will also present a few benefits, which means I will think about his/her perspective as well as my own.
8) If I experience a problem in any of our agreements, I will present the issue along with three possible solutions.
9) I will be aware that my children love me and may want to tell me negative things about the other parent, step-parents, or my exes’ significant others. I will listen, give appropriate feedback, and approach any subject with my ex the same way in which I would want my ex to approach it with me. I will do this mostly because I am smart enough to know that if my children are bringing negative comments back to me about my ex, they’re probably delivering similar comments to my ex as well.
10) I will conduct myself in such a way that when my children are grown they will acknowledge me for teaching them how to treat others when we disagree with them and, that above all else, I loved them enough to “do anything for them” including creating a sense of family even when I didn’t feel like it.
Don’t worry about adhering to all the points right away. If it seems overwhelming to change your habits with your child’s other parent all at once, try tackling one or two and then adding a few more from the list after you’ve mastered the first ones (or at least become relatively good at them). Also, feel free to add your own points—a list of things you’re willing to do for your children can never be too long.
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.