Communication Conflict resolution Self management

The (Difficult) Conversation: What’s your contribution?

How often have you heard the following complaint: “I’m not the one with the problem, S/HE’S the one with the problem!” If you had a nickel for every time, I bet you’d be retired by now. But we all contribute to a conflict in some way, even when we don’t think we do. Moreover, there’s a good chance that we are fuelling a dispute especially when we don’t think we are. (Think of it as the conflict resolution equivalent of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.) No one is completely faultless in any given conflict situation – otherwise, there likely wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Although each is 100% responsible for their 50% of any interaction, few are eager to fully own their half.

Even when someone genuinely believes they’re trying to defuse a situation, there’s a good chance they’re stoking it. Telling someone to “Calm down!” or minimizing the issue usually has the opposite effect. And aside from obvious button-pushers like interruptions, sarcasm, or insults, there’s paraverbal communication: tone, volume, and body language. Subtle and mostly unconscious, these signals can trigger a negative reaction as easily as a hasty choice of words. Seemingly small things can make a big difference, shutting down receptiveness as effectively as accusations or judgments. (For examples, see my previous posts on “I” language and “Kick ‘But’.”) Every claim of “You’re not listening to me!” can be countered with, “The message wasn’t delivered in a way that I could hear it!”

Because factors like language and paraverbals are external, it’s relatively easy to monitor and manage them, with the help of some corrective feedback and focused attention. But there are more insidious, internal things people may unwittingly contribute to conflict, including their beliefs, values, assumptions, expectations, and subjective notions of “truth.” Too often perceptual filters screen out inconvenient information when it might help solve the problem.

This is beautifully illustrated in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation. In it, surveillance expert Harry Caul (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) develops a theory about his current case. He’s committed to his interpretation of past events to the point where it prevents him from discovering the real meaning of a particular phrase that he has caught on tape. Even though he listens to the eight simple words over and over again, he fails to really hear them. He’s so convinced of his rightness, in fact, that it deafens him to what’s actually happening until it’s too late.

Art imitates life, and this same dynamic is played and replayed offscreen in homes and workplaces around the world. It’s hard to shift out of our own perspectives and see things from another angle, especially when emotions run high; blaming is easier. So the next time you’re embroiled in a conflict and you find yourself instinctively blaming the other person, take a few moments to consider your own role. Ask yourself the following questions as part of an essential reality check, to help you assess your contribution to the problem:

• What have I said, done, or not said, not done? (For example, as long as you avoid a difficult conversation with someone about their problematic behaviour, the issue may be more yours than theirs.)

• What might my perspective prevent me from seeing or hearing, and thus create a barrier to understanding? (Think Harry Caul’s obsessive take on his overheard conversation.)

• What awareness would be useful for me about my tone, body language, or other signals I may be sending consciously or unconsciously?

• What feelings, prejudices, stereotypes, prior experiences, or other obstacles might be preventing me from assessing the situation differently?

• What might I need to give up or let go of if we are to achieve any sort of agreement?

• How is my pride, identity/self-concept, shame, embarrassment, etc., influencing my thinking or fueling my reactions?

• What assumptions am I making, or expectations that I have, that aren’t necessarily shared by the other party?

• How well can I truly distinguish objectively observable and independently verifiable facts and events from my interpretations of them?

• How deeply am I entrenched in my position? To what extent am I genuinely willing to collaborate on a mutually satisfactory solution?

• Is being right about something that happened in the past more important to me than a more friction-free relationship in the future?

• What am I prepared to contribute toward the resolution? (Be honest.)

There are other internal and external mechanisms that can stoke a conflict, not least of which are individuals’ conflict response roles, but there’s little point in cataloguing them all here if they’re just used to find fault in others. First, we should be willing to admit that some of the responsibility for a conflict might be ours. When we are finally able to examine and adjust for our contribution to the problem, we get that much closer to achieving real understanding. Unfortunately for him (and some innocent victims), that’s a lesson the renowned Harry Caul didn’t learn soon enough.

Communication How-to Self management

Three things that trigger conflict escalation – and how to avoid them

How often have you found yourself muttering, “Well, that escalated quickly”? Despite the humorous memes it’s seldom funny when you’re on the receiving end of an unexpected outburst. But we can keep disagreements from spiraling out of control if we understand how conflicts typically escalate, and thereby avoid doing the things that cause them to become conflicts in the first place.

In this context, a conflict escalation means an increase in the level of emotions – fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, distrust, etc. – for those involved. Left unchecked, overheated emotions can have deleterious short- and long-term consequences for any creative team or organization. (The costs of conflict are widespread, significant, and largely hidden, which is a topic for a future post.) The illustration below shows how emotions can blow up quickly– and unintentionally – even in a simple disagreement or misunderstanding:

Conflict escalation diagram

At the first level, a productive conflict devolves into personalized conflict when the focus of debate shifts from the original topic, problem or issue at hand to the individuals involved. It’s “personalized” because it’s no longer about the original problem, it’s now about the people. This stage is characterized by frequent use of the pronoun “You” followed by some form of blame, accusation, exaggeration, or insult (ex. “It’s your fault,” “You screwed up,” “You’re always doing that!” etc.). There may also be an assumed (and probably incorrect) attribution of motives (ex. “You don’t care about what I want,” or, “You’re trying to make me look bad.”). When thus accused, the natural inclination is to defend against such attacks, and our fight-or-flight mechanisms kick in. Up goes the adrenaline and intensity.

Destructive conflict is triggered when one or more parties starts dredging up the past or issues that are unrelated, or only tangentially related, to the topic at hand. Suddenly the person on the receiving end finds him/herself fending off attacks on several fronts, and you can imagine how this too provokes heightened emotions.

Hostile conflict occurs when outside parties are dragged into the fray. Common forms of this include “triangulating” (evoking sympathy or validation from a third party); “forum-shopping” (seeking a friendly arbiter, like a child playing parents off each other); and rumour-mongering (“S/He must be sleeping with the boss!”). Hostile conflict can also be triggered by copying others on email, back channel conversations, and going straight to the boss without first trying to resolve the conflict with those directly involved.

At the highest level of intensity, polarized conflict is activated when one or more parties refuses to work or communicate with the other or their associates. In these cases, battle lines are firmly drawn. Clearly this is the costliest form of conflict at a personal, team or organizational level because interaction can grind to a halt. In the creative industries, this can spell disaster.

In summary, there are three main reasons conflicts escalate:

1.    Using the word “You” followed by blame, insult, accusation, exaggeration, attribution of motives, etc.

2.    Proliferating the issues by bringing up past problems or arguments, unrelated issues, etc.

3.    Involving others through gossip, back-channel conversations, copying others on email, etc.

There are other potential triggers including interruptions, which are irritating enough when a conversation is light and congenial. Some are subtler but equally powerful, like closed body language (defensive postures such as arms crossed in front of the body), or using the word “but” because it negates anything that has come before it. For example, “I know you think we should do it that way, but I think we should do it this way.” In its place, use the word “and” because it’s inclusive; it allows both perspectives. Note the difference: “I heard you say you think we should do it that way, and I think we should do it this way.” The effect of these triggers is magnified greatly when used in conjunction with the big three.

Avoiding the conflict escalation triggers

Knowing this, there are three specific we can do to help avoid triggering an escalation:

1. Speak using “I” statements. This can be challenging for many of us, because families or cultures may encourage modesty and teach us that talking about ourselves is impolite. Or it may be that we’re simply uncomfortable expressing and asserting our own needs.

The power of “I” statements is twofold: in addition to avoiding use of the trigger word “you,” “I” statements allow people to say what they need to say without compromising the dignity or safety of the other. They allow individuals to be both assertive in expressing their needs and respectful at the same time. Furthermore, you can never be wrong if you speak about your own experience, whereas it’s easy to assume incorrectly when imputing others’ motives or actions.

Here is one model of an “I” statement:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss].”

For example:

•    “I’m nervous about how fast the decision was made, and I’d appreciate if we could set up a side meeting to discuss it before implementing it.”

•    “I am embarrassed about being reprimanded in the meeting in front of the group, and I’d appreciate if we could sit down and talk about what happened and how to avoid it in future.”

•    “I feel frustrated by interruptions, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to figure out how we can discuss and debate respectfully.”

A related strategy for avoiding inadvertent conflict escalation is active listening, which involves paraphrasing or restating the other person’s words to reassure them that they’ve actually been heard, and understood accurately. If there is a misapprehension, it allows for correction. This alone can bring the temperature of a conflict down a few degrees.

2. Limit the conversation to a single issue. Focus on the problem or subject that originally sparked the conflict. Remain alert to any temptation to dredge up past grievances or throw other complaints into the mix, especially if or when you feel yourself being triggered.

3. Work it out between you first. It is perfectly acceptable, in many cases advisable, to express your emotions and your needs to the other party(ies) in a conflict, as long as you assert yourself respectfully. Resist the urge to vent to a third party or CC the whole office, otherwise you risk inflaming the situation. Most people have the capacity to negotiate a satisfactory outcome to a conflict without having it spiral out of control, but they don’t always feel they have the skills. Or they fear the strong emotions that come with conflict. Now that you know how to avoid using escalation triggers or how you can be triggered, you have some basic tools to enable a calmer, mutual problem-solving and decision-making process.

That said, there are legitimate instances where a third party may need to be involved. You can find a free Conflict Assessment Worksheet available for download here; it will help you determine whether you should seek outside help navigating a conflict, and what type of assistance may be appropriate.

The strategies discussed here are not guaranteed to work in all situations, and they require practice to be effective. It can be tough and lonely taking the high road, but someone has to take the lead and set a positive example; too few people have the necessary skills for successful conflict resolution, especially in the heat of the moment. It’s not easy when someone is pushing your buttons. But the short-term challenge is worth the longer-term peace of mind that comes from preventing a conflict from spiraling out of control.  – kda

Emotional intelligence (EQ) How-to Self management

Four Signs Your Working Relationship is Going Sideways

One of the challenges of conflict is that creative teams or workplaces are often fully engulfed long before they’re even aware something’s happening. Therefore, a crucial first step in dealing with conflict is to simply recognize the signs it may be occurring. This is easier than it sounds, but it’s critical because the earlier an emerging conflict can be detected, the sooner steps can be taken to resolve or manage the issue(s) effectively and prevent further harm.

There are four categories of warning signs: emotional, physical, behavioural, and relational. Think of these as concentric circles spiraling outwards from within and progressively manifesting externally if unnoticed or left unchecked. Each successive set of indicators, if ignored, inevitably leads to the next level, with ever-increasing consequences. Four warning signs of conflictIt’s like your cat trying to tell you it’s feeding time, going to greater lengths to get your attention, only it’s not funny (and hopefully will never wind up on YouTube).
Let’s examine what each of these sets of signals mean and why they happen. The analysis can provide useful insight into the individuals involved in a conflict at a personal level. In observing and interpreting the warnings we can apply the knowledge not only to ourselves but also to others (namely, our colleagues) and take appropriate, timely action.

Emotional signs

The first indications of a problem in a working relationship are internal: our emotions. Feelings are a reliable barometer that things aren’t OK. If my normal state is one of comfort, happiness, relaxation, engagement, calm, and/or contentment, then it’s easy to tell when I move away from that baseline. I can usually identify or describe any uncomfortable feelings I’m having. When trouble is brewing between myself and another person, this discomfort is going to be the first sign that all is not quite right. We may have a conflict, which itself is simply a signal that something needs to change, occurring when something we care about is about to be affected in some way. Time to pay attention!
Feelings will, of course, vary according to each individual involved and each situation. For example, a situation that might seem humorous when it happens to someone else is usually not so amusing when it happens to you. The intensity of the feeling might also vary from one instance to the next. You might feel confused by multiple feelings occurring simultaneously. The range of possible emotional reactions is virtually limitless; there is no definitive feeling or combination of feelings. The bottom line is that any emotions at all outside the normal comfort range are probably a warning.

As such these feelings should not be ignored or repressed. Some find it easy to overlook them because society prefers that we avoid expressing unpleasant feelings. We may downplay what’s going on inside when we experience them; we put on a brave face and say everything is “fine” when we know it’s not. Whether or not you choose to divulge them, it’s important to recognize that these feelings are a kind of internal gauge of whether or not the person you are dealing with, or the situation you are in, is psychologically healthy and safe. They’re like the VU (volume unit) meters on a mixing board: when they’re pushing into the red zone, you know the signal is “clipping” and you need to do something because unwanted noise and distortion are being introduced into the signal. If your emotional VU meter is tipping into the red when you are with a particular person or in an uncomfortable situation, that’s your signal to act.

Sometimes this means temporarily stepping away from the person or situation causing the discomfort, taking a time-out, and putting some physical or emotional distance between you. That may be all you need for your feelings barometer to return to its baseline and to once again feel calm, relaxed, engaged, happy, or whatever your normal state happens to be. If that’s genuinely the case — after a good night’s sleep the discomfort is truly gone and not merely repressed— then you may not actually have conflict. But if the feelings persist, it could mean there is a problem between you and that other person. Avoidance or masking feelings with food, distractions or addictions won’t help. Trying to “rise above” or “be professional” about the uncomfortable situation are among the countless ways to cope with unpleasant feelings. But when there is a genuine conflict between two or more people—one in which the relationship is being challenged (if not damaged) in some way—then the feelings are not going to go away on their own.

Physical signs

If the emotional warning signs continue unheeded, another natural protective mechanism kicks in. The manifestation of physical symptoms is your mind and body’s way of issuing a more urgent set of signals that are more difficult to ignore.

Again, everyone will experience physical warning signs of conflict differently, but some are quite common. There are those that seem trivial, such as nervousness or sweaty palms. Others are more noticeable and worrisome, for example, difficulty in sleeping. Depending on the individual, the opposite may also be true: you may find that you begin to sleep more than usual, either as a way of avoiding the conflict or recovering from the stress and anxiety it brings. These are two opposite but equally valid physical signs that are more evident than emotions, precisely because they affect not only your mind but your body. Frequent headaches can be among the common physical warning signs of conflict, as are subconscious activities like smoking, eating, or drinking more than usual. These strategies provide bodily sensations to mask the unpleasant emotions we may be experiencing, if only temporarily. (Here the standard disclaimers apply: always check with your doctor if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of any kind; there may be other physiological causes that should be ruled out.)

Not surprisingly, the physical indicators have their own knock-on effects, especially when piled on top of the emotional stuff. Consider the consequences of eating, drinking, or smoking to excess, for example. The short-term results may be stomach aches, hangovers, or smoker’s cough, and the longer-term impacts can be far more severe, even deadly. There are many possible causes of physical ailments, one of which is that the original problem hasn’t gone away of its own accord. The physical manifestations are harder to ignore so that you’ll finally be moved to do something about it before worse things happen. Even sleeping too little or too much can have consequences extending beyond personal health. In workplace scenarios, one typical result of unmanaged conflict is an increase in chronic lateness or absenteeism.

Behavioural signs

If the physical warning signs of conflict go unheeded and the core issue remains unaddressed long enough, the next set of signals kicks in. These behavioural indications are overt and more readily observed by others. The subtle logic of the psyche’s strategy is this: if you can’t (or won’t) take care of yourself, you will get someone else to do it for you.

How does your subconscious enlist others in your conflict caretaking? Here, too, the range of possibilities is wide, but examples of the more common tell-tale behaviours might include a normally calm and serene person appears agitated and on edge; a typically patient individual becomes short-tempered and easily triggered; someone who is otherwise engaged and outgoing begins withdrawing; and so on.

You might notice, for example, that a team member who usually goes out socially after work starts making excuses to go right home, or one who normally participates in team discussions and decision-making stops contributing. They may just shrug and say, “Whatever. I don’t care.” Conversations tend to become more difficult, more tense, more strained. Electronic communication may take much longer to get answered, if at all, or responses are more tersely worded than usual. Eye contact may be avoided. You don’t need to be an expert at conflict resolution to detect behavioural changes; the untrained eye can usually spot the signs. We just don’t always recognize them as indicators of conflict.

Abnormal behaviours could be symptoms of another issue or problem, but you won’t know for sure unless you ask. Even then, they may not respond (at least not immediately or candidly), but a change in communication style is sometimes a cry for help in disguise. Unusually difficult behaviours may be indirect and inarticulate invitations to assist, but nonetheless that’s what they are. Uncharacteristic conduct is a way to draw others in because it inevitably affects them one way or another.

Relational signs

If left too long, the logical consequence of behavioural issues are the relational warning signs that manifest. The relational signs are the most difficult of all to ignore because they’re the most public. Now it’s not just the individual who is affected but others in the relationship. Like the previous three categories they may also appear different for everybody, since no two individuals, conflicts, or situations are identical.

Still, you can spot some common relational warning signs. A person feeling uncomfortable or in conflict may begin avoiding specific people, primarily the person(s) with whom they are in conflict. In a work setting, this might mean he or she takes a different route to the cafeteria or the washroom in order to bypass the other party’s office. They might ask the boss to put them on a different team to reduce the likelihood of interaction with the other person. There are many variations on this avoidance behaviour that people typically employ when in conflict, but they might be hard to spot at first precisely because “out of sight is out of mind.”

Generally, the relational warning signs are easier to detect because they impact multiple individuals, entire teams or companies. As with the other three sets of warning signs they will vary greatly, from deliberate unresponsiveness to singling others out for criticism or verbal attacks, belittling others’ perspectives and contributions, or shooting down their ideas. There may be open disagreement, challenge, argument, or outright hostility. Other nonverbal cues may include eye-rolling, crossing arms or other defensive postures, and deliberate distractions. There may be rumour-mongering, idle gossip, or complaints to others in an effort to win sympathy and support. You can probably identify other examples from your own experience.

Clearly, the relational symptoms affect not only the person with the initial conflict symptoms, but they also impact the others in the group, team, or company. Innocent bystanders often become embroiled. Stakes are much higher by this stage, and if things don’t get resolved soon the whole workplace gets involved one way or another.

Pay attention now, or the pay consequences later

In the midst of a conflict, it’s hard to stop to take proper stock of the situation or retrace steps to figure out how things devolved to the present state. But in learning to recognize these early warning signs, you can remain alert to whatever may be happening right now that requires immediate attention. The internal warning signs tell you it’s time to take care of yourself in some way – often just by asserting your needs – and the longer you put off taking action, the more intense they become. Invariably they will become more outwardly noticeable, which can only cause further discomfort or damage.

It’s understandable that many are uncomfortable talking candidly about their feelings with colleagues or co-workers, because of the additional sense of vulnerability it can bring. Some are only comfortable discussing their feelings with therapists or other professionals, if not with life partners. (Some find even that hard to do). But feelings should be acknowledged and honoured, if not celebrated, because they play a vital role as part of an early warning system. The initial discomfort may be unpleasant but the alternative is greater pain and distress for everyone in the long run.

Communication How-to Self management

How to Keep Your Head From Exploding

Have you ever stared in disbelief at someone’s completely incomprehensible actions? Been bewildered by another’s disproportionate reaction to events? Or felt like your head was going to explode because a colleague kept making the same mistake over and over again? Every now and then we all experience the frustration of behaviour that seems utterly irrational or bizarre, whether it’s misplaced anger, resistance to ideas or change, sabotage, or some other form. If this sounds familiar, keep reading — this post is for you. I’ll consider it a public service if I can prevent at least one more exploding head and, I hope, generate a little more empathy and understanding.

The solution is in these four words: All behaviour makes sense.

Repeating this short phrase to myself like a mantra has helped me through many a difficult encounter. It reminds me that no matter now challenging another person’s demeanour, words or deeds, there is some underlying cause that I simply don’t yet know — and it often has nothing to do with me. This simple statement of fact always piques my curiosity, opening my mind (and heart) to whatever might be going on for him or her beneath the surface.

This is important because as long as my curiosity is actively engaged I stay out of judgment. Otherwise it’s far too easy for me to label the other person, objectifying them as a “jerk,” “lazy-ass,” or “crybaby,” and seeing them as the problem instead of attacking their behaviour which is invariably the real issue. I also sometimes make it about myself, when in many cases — if not most — the behaviour really has little to do with me, at least not directly. Or I make (incorrect) assumptions about what’s causing the other person to act out. My false attributions might be based on how I would act (or react) in a similar situation, but of course we all have different perspectives, cultures, family histories, and other baggage that shape our responses. Any such assumptions are bound to increase the mutual misunderstanding and frustration in an already fraught encounter. Curiosity is a powerful antidote.

Even if it doesn’t make sense to me immediately, any questionable behaviour still has its own logic. Considering all possibilities keeps me from rushing to an unhelpful conclusion. The only thing I need to do to avoid getting sucked into an emotional vortex is to stay curious about that driving force. It sounds hard, especially when feeling triggered by the behaviour, but even the most outrageously incomprehensible behaviour is essentially the outward manifestation of an inner need: We satisfy thirst by drinking. When tired, we sleep. Picking up the phone to order a pizza is just one of myriad behaviours that can address a hunger, and so on. The same is true for whatever is bothering you about the other person’s behaviour: there’s a motivation, it’s just hidden from you. “All behaviour makes sense” is an effective reminder that he or she is just trying to tell you they need something, albeit in an awkward and uncomfortable way. The trick is to figure out what the unmet need is or, where necessary, help them do it.

At the basic biological/physiolgical level the causal connection can be relatively plain to see. (That said, it took me years to finally join the dots linking my cranky mood swings with low blood sugar. Who knew “hangry” was an actual thing?) Where the need-behaviour connection becomes more opaque is in the higher reaches of Maslow’s hierarchy: abstractions such as self-esteem, belonging, or self-actualization are more difficult to surmise from a person’s outward behaviour, even to the well-trained eye. We can appreciate another’s anger and defensiveness when their physical safety or security is threatened, but it’s tougher to comprehend when it’s their identity, self-concept or some other invisible, interior thing that’s at risk. All it may take is the slightest suggestion that he or she may be wrong, for example, and the self-preservation instinct kicks in with a vengeance. Even though it’s just a cognitive threat, the primal brain still delivers a burst of adrenaline and the injured party can react as if life itself were on the line. When that happens we can only be certain of the visible, external signals: we can generally interpret the tense facial expressions, harsh language, sour tone, and other cues. What we can’t know for sure is the underlying cause.

Diagnosing the root problem is a challenge because the presenting symptoms can have a number of possible motivations. The aggressive bully might crave a winning feeling, or he might be seeking respect; the chronic latecomer may be exerting a semblance of control otherwise lacking in his harried life, or he may secretly like the attention that follows his habitual tardiness; the apparently shy introvert who seldom contributes to meetings may be retreating into safety and security amid the noise and chaos of brainstorming sessions, or may simply want time to collect and process more data. Depending on the people and situational specifics, the unmet needs could be more process-oriented (ex. the need to ensure equal input in a creative decision) or people-oriented (ex. the need to be right, to save face, to preserve a relationship, etc.).

Caution is key because asking direct questions to surface the unmet need(s) risks unintentional provocation and can result in defensiveness; gentle, appropriate questioning is both an art and a learned skill. Further complicating matters, the person exhibiting the difficult behaviour may not be consciously in touch with their own underlying needs. They’re frequently unaware of the problem behaviour in the first place. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that in typical creative collaborations, team or organisational situations the list of most commonly frustrated needs is relatively short. It includes the need for validation or recognition; the desire to be heard and understood; the hunger for acceptance and belonging; and variations on these themes. With the right sensitivity and training you can learn to better identify the underlying needs and therefore satisfy them, reducing or eliminating the unwelcome behaviour. Getting to the precise root of the issue is easier, of course, if you have a trusting relationship and an environment that encourages open, honest dialogue.

Absent those, genuinely seeking to make sense of another’s behaviour nonetheless forces us to shift into a different, more productive problem-solving mode. Rather than trying to change the person (which is never successful anyway) we can refocus on influencing the behaviour. The alternative is being triggered by the behaviour and getting dragged into a downward spiral. So when you’re struggling to understand someone’s words, actions or inactions, remind yourself that all behaviour makes sense (yes, even Twitter and Facebook trolling). Remaining curious makes room for empathy and reduces the likelihood of conflict, blame, or other counter-productive, enervating attitudes — including Exploding Head Syndrome.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) Self management

Small distinctions can make big differences

If the number and content of comments generated are any indication, my previous post clearly struck a chord with some readers. One flat-out said that it was wrong to suggest that there could be hidden value in conflict. Others challenged my definition of conflict, presumably because the word carries so many (well-deserved) negative connotations it cannot possibly be beneficial. All in all it was healthy, invigorating discussion, and one that shows the importance of defining terms carefully. At the risk of reopening debate I’d like to clarify and expand my previous definition of conflict slightly, and parse a few other related terms in order to provide fuller context.

In the original article I defined conflict as something that begins when something we care about is affected or threatened in some way. To take a rather mundane example, let’s say you and I are discussing where to meet for lunch. If neither of us has any strong taste preferences, food allergies or other needs that might conceivably be challenged by the lunch decision, then all we have is disagreement. Our relationship can remain whole, untouched, and fully functional. According to our definition there is no conflict because neither of us particularly cares one way or the other; there is no emotional “heat” in the situation. If, on the other hand, we both have more strongly-held beliefs, attitudes or opinions about where to dine then we are potentially headed for conflict. In this case something that one or or both of us care about — namely, our choice of lunch location — is or could be impacted by the other’s.

To that let me now add another definition of conflict that I have used in previous posts: it’s simply a signal that something needs to change. By this I mean something about the relationship, or how we are handling a given situation, needs to shift in order for us to return to a healthier, conflict-free state, or else experience continued discomfort and risk potential escalation. Thus if we merely disagree about lunch venue options then nothing needs to change; obviously we need to somehow render a decision before we both starve, but otherwise the situation and relationship remain normal, cordial, and healthy. If we’re in genuine conflict over restaurant options then we probably need to change how we’re making the decision or managing our relationship. For example, each may need to stop insisting on getting his or her way; we may need to consult a third party to help us settle the matter; or I may need to stop constantly deferring to you so I don’t start resenting you for picking the restaurant every time we lunch.

To get a better idea of the distinction between the two, it may help to think of disagreement and conflict as being two places on a continuum of emotional distress and discomfort, as shown in the accompanying illustration: conflict continuum of emotional distress

On the left is a normal state: things are fine between us and our relationship is not suffering. There is no emotional pain for either of us. On the contrary, we enjoy mutual respect, admiration, perhaps even affection. If we shift slightly to the right on the continuum into disagreement, it may cause a little stress (especially if it’s a minor issue such as the one in our example above) but it’s not damaging or fatal to the relationship and it certainly doesn’t cause either of us to feel threatened in any way, emotionally or physically. We just disagree. We still feel positive about each other and the relationship.

Further on is conflict. This is where one or both of us feels significant discomfort or emotional distress as a result of a real or perceived threat to something important, whether it’s our identity or self-concept, our physical well-being, or an infinite array of things both concrete and abstract that may be affected. Needs like self-esteem, a sense of belonging, or acknowledgement are common trigger points in conflict. These are important to us. We care deeply about them and when sense they’re about to be infringed or transgressed, we react. We feel pain. Imagine the case of two co-writers working on a new song or screenplay, each feeling very attached to their own creative “children,” i.e., their respective contributions to the collaborative work: each feels very strongly about the value or importance of their input and may push hard to ensure it survives the editing process. In such a conflict the working relationship itself may also now be in jeopardy, but it doesn’t automatically mean it’s over or that the co-authors can’t still create together. Something needs to change in order for the situation and/or our relationship to go back to the way it was before the issue(s) arose, i.e., a healthy, calm, pleasant state free of distress or discomfort.

Note that even within the one state we call conflict there can be a range of intensity in the pain and discomfort. On one hand we might experience productive conflict, such as one might experience in a passion-filled brainstorming session: team members may want or need to feel their ideas are valued, valid, and heard, even though they realize that not all ideas emerging from the brainstorm can be implemented. On the other hand is destructive, personalized conflict where the participants are actively interrupting each other, dismissing or judging each other’s ideas, or belittling the people putting forth the same ideas. In both cases, according to our comprehensive conflict definition, something we care about is being impacted or threatened, and something needs to change in order to reduce the pain and discomfort of the situation or relationship. Some sort of healing or repair needs to take place if the creative brainstormers are to return to a normal, pain-free state.

To the furthest extreme on our continuum of pain is harassment (and its equally ugly variants including bullying, intimidation and discrimination). The consequences of harassment, bullying and their ilk can be severe; in extreme cases it can result in criminal charges or human rights violations, not to mention considerable psychological or bodily harm caused to the victim. Note that harassment doesn’t necessarily arise out of a pre-existing disagreement, or even conflict.

It’s important, therefore, to avoid interpreting this continuum as a time line. A normal or OK state does not naturally or inevitably devolve into disagreement simply through the passage of time. Disagreements don’t turn into conflict, eventually, all the time — they can end as quickly as they start — and conflicts don’t necessarily escalate into harassment. However, a disagreement or conflict probably will escalate into something more personalized and destructive if it isn’t resolved or at least managed well.

(Here it’s important to make a further distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. The former may be the goal, but not all conflicts can be resolved. They can, however, be managed so they don’t spiral out of control, which is a topic for a future post.)

To many people the difference in meaning between these states is a question of mere degrees. But there is significant difference in how to deal with each situation in order to get the best, most sustainable outcomes. A normal situation or relationship may not require much beyond maintenance and common sense to prevent it from disintegrating, but it takes special skills to prevent, manage or resolve cases of conflict and harassment. While these skills are seldom innate they can be acquired, and much of the work we do at Fifth House Group is in skills development and training. (Better prevention than some other intervention.)

In summary, conflict is a signal that something needs to change, and it begins when something we care about is about to be affected or threatened in some way. A useful analogy is physical pain, which is the body/brain’s mechanism for signalling that something physiological needs care and attention. Chronic symptoms are obviously not desirable, should never be ignored, and left untreated can be fatal. Still, feeling the initial pain or discomfort is a necessary first step to healing because it warns you to investigate and seek treatment. It begins when accident or illness affects the body, threatening physiological health — and it can be a signal that growth is occurring (as they say at the gym, “no pain, no gain!”). Thus I stand by my previous contention that conflict can be valuable: just as pain leads improved health when managed promptly and well (sometimes even more robust than prior to the injury), conflict can also ultimately result in a stronger, more fully functional creative team, group or organisation.

Communication Self management

You’re not listening (you just think you are)

One of the most frustrating experiences anyone can suffer is not being heard. That’s because we all need to feel valued, validated, and have our voice count. So it’s that much more maddening when we feel we’re being misunderstood as a result of someone else’s inability (or apparent unwillingness) to hear us. It’s is a source of enormous stress, anxiety, and counter-productivity in our work and personal lives, and a consistent cause of conflict. Tragically, surveys show that while most of us consider ourselves good listeners, we’re actually quite poor at it.

In our “always-on” environment the obvious distractions include smart phones, email, and ubiquitous TV screens. But the problem is more insidious than that; even the most disciplined among us who manage to put away the devices long enough to hold an uninterrupted conversation struggle to listen. For one thing, we speak much more slowly than we can think so in the span of time it takes for a speaker to get a sentence out, the “listener” has experienced thoughts containing three to four times as many words.

The moment another’s words enter our auditory canal we’re already busy processing: interpreting, judging, evaluating and decoding them. All this parsing interferes with our ability to truly hear. Our expectations and assumptions fill in any blanks, often inaccurately. (In some workshops I conduct an exercise that illustrates this point starkly; few participants score more than 20%.)

But mostly when we think we’re listening we’re really just waiting politely, if impatiently, for our turn to speak. We pay lip service to listening. Sure, we might remain silent for a while, but we’re more likely to be preparing our rebuttal, commentary or defense than to be truly hearing what the speaker is saying. This shouldn’t surprise us; our culture clearly values speaking much more than it does listening. (You’ve probably had public speaking courses in school, attended Toastmasters or taken a workshop in delivering powerful presentations, but when was the last time you were educated in effective listening?) Small wonder there’s so much burnout: we keep trying to get our point across, to little or no avail. “If only they listened to me…”

The solution is simple and, yes, easy too. It lies in cultivating our ability to hear by listening actively: paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying, and providing empathic responses that encourage and validate the speaker. (These critical tools are described in detail in our book.) The only difficulty in implementation is that we’re seldom taught how to hear. We assume that just because we’re born with ears that never switch off, we’re experts at listening. Wrong! Practice makes perfect.

In conflict we can’t always reach agreement — our opinions, beliefs and attitudes may be too solidly entrenched — but we can achieve mutual understanding. These are two different things. The latter does, however, go a long way towards the making the former possible. Even if you are unable to see eye-to-eye with your boss, colleagues, employees (etc.), allowing them to feel heard and understood can take the sting out of a disagreement or deadlock. Active listening will also allow you to move forward and find other ways to work together more pleasantly and respectfully.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) Self management

Your strategies are working… against you

A strategy is, in its most basic form, an approach to a problem or opportunity. There are corporate strategies, military strategies, financial strategies, and so on. Entire academic disciplines have grown up around strategy and countless volumes have been written on the subject. Strategy development is a particularly hot topic in business circles. But what most of us fail to realize – including those charged with formulating and implementing business strategy – is that we all have strategies we apply every day, unconsciously. More importantly, these strategies are most likely working against you, robbing you or your team, group or business of creative vitality, energy, and opportunity.

These same strategies may have worked in the past, perhaps very recently. But there’s a point at which they inevitably stop serving you and start undermining you. These are the strategies we employ to serve our individual needs in dealing with other people.

To give a personal example, I’ve noticed that my strategy for avoiding the discomfort of asking others for help (and the possible disappointment of getting a “no” for my efforts) is to try to do everything by myself. I justify it by telling myself, “It will take much longer to explain what I want done anyway.” Clearly at some point this rugged individualism must have worked for me; it may have strengthened my self-esteem, proving (to myself if no one else) that I could Do It, whatever “It” is. And so I continued to apply it, long past the point where the DIY mindset was helpful. I still find myself falling back on it again and again even though it comes at a tremendous cost in terms of my energy levels, focus, and ultimately my ability to generate results. I’m pulled in too many directions, and it’s unsustainable.

The good news and the bad news is that I’m not alone in this.

That directive, command-and-control leadership style you’ve mastered may have worked well in some instances; it can be efficient and effective in times of crisis when quick, decisive action is required. (A fire is no time for long, drawn-out consensus-building meetings.) But over time your employees have probably come to resent it, and you may never know it because they’ll never tell you. That same approach deprives your staff of their autonomy, a sense of achievement and satisfaction they might otherwise experience identifying opportunities or solving problems on their own initiative. Their all-important sense of purpose and mission is greatly diminished when they need to do things just because the boss says to do it.

Similarly, your hard-driving, competitive negotiation skills have probably won you many a contract (and perhaps some praise from your superiors), but you may have also noticed that those contracts are seldom renewed. That’s because over time, the unyielding toughness has extracted a heavy price from the other party and weakened the relationship. Your counterparts get tired of being doormats, so they look elsewhere to do business. You can see how the very strategies that serve us well in some situations can be highly counterproductive, or even destructive, in others.

Strategies come in many forms

Self-defeating strategies aren’t just the province of Type A bosses. The quiet, self-effacing avoidance behaviour of the team player that means you never have to step into the discomfort of potential conflict also means being unable to express your feelings and needs to the people who most need to hear it, whether it’s your boss, significant other, or collaborator. Internalizing it eventually takes a heavy toll in the form of stress, illness, absenteeism, or other physical manifestation.

Strategies are developed or adopted subconsciously, so they come in so many different forms. Chronic lateness, for example, may give some people a critical sense of control over their lives – a covert way of saying, “I’ll show up when I damn well want to”. For others, habitually showing up late for meetings or rehearsals may be a mechanism for getting attention, because even negative attention is better than being completely ignored. It’s no wonder strategies are hard to recognize for what they really are.

Chances are the strategy is intended to meet a need from Maslow’s classic hierarchy (e.g. safety/security, love/belonging/acceptance, status, self-actualization, etc.). It’s hard to identify the underlying need when the outward behaviour (i.e., the strategy) is so confounding. We often incorrectly attribute it to something else. For example, we may ascribe a team member’s chronic lateness to laziness or disorganization. But beware of labels. Mostly these are really symptoms masking a bigger issue.

Strategies meet needs

Regardless of their particular form, each of these strategies manifests as a series of behaviours and is designed to get us something we want or need. And these strategies have a way of alienating the very people we need to work with on a regular basis.

So why do we continue to use them? Think of an infant who, unable to use language, cries when in need of food, burping or a diaper change. When it works, the infant begins to rely on the behaviour to meet its other needs, too. But like the man who, armed only with a hammer, begins to see every problem as a nail, a baby will continue to respond to every situation by crying because they simply haven’t developed a more sophisticated approach. Adults aren’t much better at developing new, more appropriate strategies, especially when the tried and true keep working — however dysfunctionally and fraught with unintended side-effects. We develop ruts in our neural problem-solving pathways.

In our book (which, as many readers have told us, is written for a specific audience but is much more broadly applicable) we discuss strategies and how they serve needs in the context of conflict between creative people. These needs often boil down to a variation on one of a few basic ones: the need to be heard, feel validated, acknowledged, appreciated, to win, etc. The conclusion is very much the same: the behaviours we adopt in conflict situations are designed to meet certain needs and, to the extent they might achieve this goal, they’re successful. But they eventually derail even the best and brightest of individuals and teams. If not already in conflict, eventually these strategies will bring them into conflict with others, and that’s when things really get messy.

Our job, then, is to learn to decode these strategies, and to discover and satisfy the unmet needs, whether our own or the other person’s (if not both). This is not easy and requires skill-building. And it’s as critical to your own long-term career success – and that of your group, team or business – as any other strategic issue.