“Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.”
This quote gave me a smile because I often hear situations from clients in my conflict management coaching practice about interactions that happened long ago with the person they are currently embroiled with in a dispute. They can easily describe the details as though it happened yesterday. This is often while saying that these matters had been resolved. For instance, clients might use this expression – ‘buried the hatchet’ – to indicate the previous dispute is over and yet, the same feelings seem to prevail. It sounds as though that hatchet didn’t really get buried!
In some research I did a few years ago, I found that the initial altercation or even a set of circumstances that started tension between many people can begin a trajectory that escalates over time (even if no external conflict occurs). That is, once irritated about certain behaviours, words or attitudes, we often tend to continue to react to similar or even different triggers with that person and build on our annoyances until they turn into disdain.
At these times, it is evident that attributions about the person’s motives often become increasingly negative such that they have little chance of redeeming themselves. At some point we may engage in a discussion in which our (mutual) feelings are shared, and the issues are seemingly resolved. But it happens for many that things aren’t fully resolved, and the hatchet is not always buried.
If you can think of a situation about which the hatchet has not been yet buried, this set of questions might be helpful to reflect on:
What is that situation about which the hatchet is not yet buried?
What is the hatchet for you?
What more specifically makes that unresolved for you?
What are you not letting go of or forgiving?
What are you gaining by not burying the hatchet? What are you losing?
What would things be like if you were able to bury the hatchet?
What could the other person say or do that might help you facilitate the burying of the hatchet?
What might keep them from saying or doing that?
What might the hatchet be for the other person?
What might you do to facilitate burying of the hatchet for that person?
What keeps you from doing that (your answer to the previous question)?
What else occurs to you as you consider these questions?
Conflict is a predictable part of virtually all relationships. It can also be a significant source of stress. Therefore, with most conflicts, it’s important to find a resolution. This seems like a statement of the obvious, but many people suppress their anger or just ‘go along to get along.’ Some think that by addressing a conflict, they are creating one, and simply keep quiet when upset. Unfortunately, this isn’t a healthy long-term strategy.
Unresolved conflict can lead to resentment and additional unresolved conflict in the relationship. Even more important, ongoing conflict can actually have a negative impact on your health and longevity.
Unfortunately, resolving conflict can be tricky as well. Handled improperly, attempts at conflict resolution can actually make the conflict worse.4 For example, researcher John Gottman and his colleagues studied the way couples fight, and can actually predict which couples will go on to divorce by observing their conflict resolution skills—or lack thereof. (Hint: Couples who are constantly criticizing their partner’s character, or shutting down during arguments rather than working through conflict in a proactive, respectful way, should watch out.)
For those who weren’t born into a family where perfect conflict resolution skills were modeled on a daily basis (and—let’s face it—how many of us were?), here are some guidelines to make conflict resolution more simple and less stressful.
Get in Touch With Your Feelings
An important component of conflict resolution involves only you—knowing how you feel and why you feel that way. It may seem that your feelings should already be obvious to you, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you feel angry or resentful, but don’t know why. Other times, you feel that the other person isn’t doing what they ‘should,’ but you aren’t aware of exactly what you want from them, or if it’s even reasonable.
Journaling can be an effective way to get in touch with your own feelings, thoughts, and expectations so you are better able to communicate them to the other person.6 Sometimes this process brings up some pretty heavy issues, and psychotherapy can be helpful.
Hone Your Listening Skills
When it comes to effective conflict resolution, how effectively we listen is at least as important as how effectively we express ourselves. It’s vital to understand the other person’s perspective, rather than just our own if we are to come to a resolution. In fact, just helping the other person feel heard and understood can sometimes go a long way toward the resolution of a conflict. Good listening also helps for you to be able to bridge the gap between the two of you, understand where the disconnect lies, etc.
Unfortunately, active listening is a skill that not everybody knows, and it’s common for people to think they’re listening, while in their heads they’re actually formulating their next response, thinking to themselves how wrong the other person is, or doing things other than trying to understand the other person’s perspective. It’s also common to be so defensive and entrenched in your own perspective that you literally can’t hear the other person’s point of view.
Practice Assertive Communication
Communicating your feelings and needs clearly is also an important aspect of conflict resolution. As you probably know, saying the wrong thing can be like throwing fuel on a fire, and make a conflict worse. The important thing to remember is to say what’s on your mind in a way that is clear and assertive, without being aggressive or putting the other person on the defensive.
Seek a Solution
Once you understand the other person’s perspective, and they understand yours, it’s time to find a resolution to the conflict—a solution you both can live with. Sometimes a simple and obvious answer comes up once both parties understand the other person’s perspective. In cases where the conflict was based on a misunderstanding or a lack of insight to the other’s point of view, a simple apology can work wonders, and an open discussion can bring people closer together.
Other times, there is a little more work required. In cases where there’s a conflict about an issue and both people don’t agree, you have a few options: Sometimes you can agree to disagree, other times you can find a compromise or middle ground, and in other cases the person who feels more strongly about an issue may get their way, with the understanding that they will concede the next time. The important thing is to come to a place of understanding and try to work things out in a way that’s respectful to all involved.
Know When It’s Not Working
Because of the toll that ongoing conflict can exact from a person, sometimes it’s advisable to put some distance in the relationship or cut ties completely.
When dealing with difficult family members, on the other hand, adding a few boundaries and accepting the other person’s limitations in the relationship can bring some peace. In friendships that are unsupportive or characterized by ongoing conflict, letting go may be a great source of stress relief. Only you can decide if a relationship can be improved, or should be let go.
While family relationships can bring support, joy, and other wonderful benefits into our lives, these relationships can also bring stress, particularly when there’s unresolved conflict. Because it’s more difficult to let go of conflicted relationships with family than it would be if these relationships were mere friendships, unresolved conflicts with family members can be particularly painful.
We have certain expectations of trust and closeness toward family members, and it can be more than merely disappointing to realize that this may not be possible with all family members.
The Stress of Unresolved Family Disputes
Unresolved family conflicts bring additional stress at family gatherings in particular. Past unresolved conflicts can become the elephant in the room, felt by everyone, but not directly addressed in the situation. This can be stressful for everyone before and during the family gatherings, sometimes leaving a lasting sense of stress afterward as well.
Without a heartfelt discussion, an apology or another form of resolution, the trust on both sides is compromised, and may not know what to expect from this person in the future. (For example, that one time your mother-in-law criticized your cooking may come up in your mind every time she comes for a visit, and others may sense your tension.)
This leads many people to assume the worst when they interpret each other’s behavior in the present and future interactions rather than giving the benefit of the doubt like most of us do with people we trust. Also, references or reminders of past conflicts can sting and create new pain.
Once a conflict has gone on a while, even if both parties move on and remain polite, the feelings of pain and mistrust are usually lingering under the surface, and are difficult to resolve: bringing up old hurts in an effort to resolve them can often backfire, as the other party may feel attacked; avoiding the issue altogether but holding onto resentment can poison feelings in the present.
What You Can Do to Ease Conflict
So what do you do at a family gathering when there’s someone there with whom you’ve had an unresolved conflict? Just be polite.
Contrary to how many people feel, a family gathering is not the time to rehash old conflicts, as such conversations often get messy before they get resolved — if they get resolved. Again, be polite, redirect conversations that get into areas that may cause conflict, and try to avoid the person as much as you politely can.
Even if everyone else fails to follow this advice, if you are able to focus on handling your end of the conflict in a peaceful way, you can go a long way in minimizing battles at family gatherings and promoting peace. You may be surprised by how much of a difference this can make in the overall feel of your family get-togethers, and in your personal feelings and stress level leading up to them.
In future dealings with this person, you can take one of three paths:
Try to resolve the conflict. At a time when all the family isn’t gathered, ask the person if they’d like to discuss and resolve what happened in the past. If (and only if) you and the other person seem to want to resolve things and are open to seeing one another’s point of view, this could be a constructive idea. Seeing where each of you may have misunderstood the other or behaved in a way you would change if you could, offering sincere apologies, and in other ways resolving the conflict can heal the relationship for the future.
Forgive and forget. If it looks like such a civil meeting of the minds is unlikely, don’t push it. It’s probably a good idea to try to forgive the other person and let it go. Forgiving doesn’t mean opening yourself up to feel wronged again; it only means that you let go of your feelings of resentment and anger. You can be careful in what you expect from this person in the future without actively harboring resentment, and you’ll be the one to benefit the most.
Minimize contact or cut the person out of your life. If what the other person did was abusive and there’s absolutely no remorse or reason to expect things to be different in the future, you can severely limit your dealings with this person, or cut off contact altogether. This is normally a last-resort choice, but in cases of abuse, it’s sometimes a necessary one to make for your own emotional health.
It’s that time of year again. Love is in the air… But shouldn’t everyday be Valentines day? Steve Baik (MCC, RCC) – Clinical Counselling / Stress & Lifestyle Management, gives us two tips this week on how to diffuse conflict with your partner.
Steve is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (R.C.C.) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. He has a B.A. in Psychology from Simon Fraser University and a Master of Counselling Psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology, Vancouver.
“I enjoy getting out and experiencing the natural beauty of BC. I stay healthy with running, swimming, snowboarding and going to the gym.” – Steve
“Be my Valentine…”
Yes, love begins with emotion that is sweeter than chocolate and fuzzier than rose petals. Similarities prove how you and your partner are a perfect match, and differences create excitement in your romantic relationship. Unfortunately, the same similarities often turn your repeated daily routine into boredom, and the differences become triggers for arguments over time for many couples. When anger steps in, it is difficult for us to think clearly, and we end up saying things we regret. Here are two tips that will help you diffuse conflict with your partner.
Take a Time-Out.
A Time-Out is used when one person is too upset to continue the conversation or when the conversation turns into a screaming match. It can be very effective if it is used correctly. Both partners need to plan procedures and rules for a Time-Out ahead of time. The purpose of using a Time-Out is to stop the escalation of emotion and allow both partners to calm themselves down to regain their sense of control. Therefore, it is important for both partners to agree on the goal of using a Time-Out and to talk about what they will do during the cool-down period. A Time-Out starts with a statement (not a question or threat) like, “I understand that we need to talk about this issue, but I am too upset right now. I need a Time-Out.” Your partner must agree with the length of the Time-Out and the place to reconvene. Usually 20 to 40 minutes are enough for us to physiologically calm down, but the duration can be adjusted according to the couple’s preference. The length of a Time Out should be less than 24 hours. The rules you decide upon for your Time Out must be strictly followed, and both partners need to come back and finish discussing the issue to find a solution.
Say goodbye to assumptions.
Humans are created to be very efficient. Our brain uses selective attention to filter out unnecessary information, and uses grouping to store and retrieve useful information efficiently. Assumptions are another tool we use to reduce the amount of information we need to exchange with others to carry out tasks. However, it does not guarantee 100% accuracy as it is created on our very personalized understanding of self, others and issues. Making incorrect assumptions on what other people would think, feel and/or do can yield disappointment for both partners. A simple way of preventing this disappointment is minimizing assumptions. Express your feelings and thoughts. Ask and check your partner’s opinion. Try to learn each other’s history and understand the differences between you and your partner. You will be surprised to find out how incorrect your assumptions were.
Two tips above may seem simple, but putting them into an action may not be so easy. Love (romantic relationship) is an extremely complicated relationship where two lives with differences created over decades meet. It is a life-long process of learning and adjusting, and qualified professionals such as counsellors can help you understand this process a bit easier. Stop living a life in a battlefield. Start living a life where every tomorrow is another Valentine’s Day.
Failing to apologize for your mistakes is a big sin in the workplace. It can cost you good coworker relationships—or worse, your job. But on the other hand, constantly apologizing, starting sentences with “I’m sorry…” or prefacing everything you say with “Sorry…” can make you seem weak, insecure, or indecisive. Politeness is one thing, being a doormat is another. It’s also not advisable to use “I’m sorry” as conversation filler, just like you wouldn’t use “like” or “um.”
Here are 13 particular circumstances in which you should never say I’m sorry:
1. When you’re really #notsorry
People can tell when you’re being insecure. Just like dogs can smell fear. If your sorry is very clearly sarcastic or insecure, don’t even bother saying it.
2. When you didn’t do anything
Aka when you have nothing to say you’re sorry for. It’s not polite to throw in a ton of meaningless apologies for normal things like expressing an opinion or ducking into the restroom.
3. When you’re sticking to your principles
A coworker, or even your boss, is suggesting you do something off your moral tracks. It’s okay to stand up for yourself. You don’t need to preface your “I don’t believe it’s right to lie [cheat/steal/defraud/etc.]” with an “I’m sorry.” You shouldn’t be.
4. When it’s your bad
You’re late or you didn’t finish a project on time. Don’t just fling out a “Sorry!” and hope that you’ll be immediately exculpated. In short: don’t abdicate your responsibility too often.
5. When it plants a bad seed
You may know that you didn’t spend quite enough time on that presentation, but there’s absolutely no reason to lead it off with that fact and an apology. Do the best with what you have and don’t give them a reason to doubt your work before you’ve managed to present it.
6. When you’re not prepared to own it
Sometimes we say sorry and consider it the end of the road. Forgiveness granted! If you’re going to wield the word, be prepared for the apology recipient not to get over it immediately. Some mistakes or wounds take time to heal and build back trust. Recognize when someone is perhaps not ready to forgive you.
7. When you quit
You’re not sorry you’re taking another job. If you were, you wouldn’t be taking it in the first place. Leading with an apology in this situation also opens the door for your boss to try and guilt you into staying. Better to stand firm and get out the door with good feelings on both sides.
8. When you had nothing to do with it It’s much better to save your apologies for when you can and should assume 100% responsibility for the situation. Throwing ‘sorry’s around about things that were not in your control or in any way your fault will just take power away from you when you need to wield an apology for real.
9. When someone asks you to pass their apology along
If someone tells you to tell someone else that they’re sorry for [insert whatever actually bad thing they might have done], just stay out of it. Pass along the information that so-and-so wanted to say something to them or speak to them, and let it go at that. Don’t do their dirty work. If it’s just an innocent “Jane says sorry she couldn’t be here; she’s giving birth to her second child!” then that’s probably safe to pass along. Just stay away from the hairier stuff.
10. When you’re in the middle of debate You’re having a heated argument, or a debate full of passion. The last thing you want to do is throw in a “sorry” to minimize the conflict, i.e. “sorry, I just don’t agree…” It weakens your position and it will almost always ring insincere.
11. When you’re genuinely upset Someone does something legitimately upsetting to you or near you. You object. You’re more than justified in calling them out on their behavior. The last thing you want to do here is to say sorry first. “I’m sorry, but that was wrong” doesn’t leave enough room for the actual apology that you should be receiving from the wrong-doer.
12. When you’re asking for something
“I’m sorry, but could you [help me with/do for me/save the day]” is not a good thing to say when asking for help. If you actually felt bad, you wouldn’t have asked. Instead, after asking simply, humbly, and clearly, say thank you. Which should be what you really mean to say.
13. When the moment has passed Especially if you’ve already apologized and everyone is already over it. Don’t rehash the past. Move forward! If you’re really still beating yourself up over something, then put that energy into making sure you never make that mistake again. No need to dredge up old drama. Keep moving forward instead.
It’s hard not to get worked up emotionally when you’re in a tense conversation. After all, a disagreement can feel like a threat. You’re afraid you’re going to have to give up something — your point of view, the way you’re used to doing something, the notion that you’re right, or maybe even power – and your body therefore ramps up for a fight by triggering the sympathetic nervous system. This is a natural response, but the problem is that our bodies and minds aren’t particularly good at discerning between the threats presented by not getting your way on the project plan and, say, being chased down by a bear. Your heart rate and breathing rate spike, your muscles tighten, the blood in your body moves away from your organs, and you’re likely to feel uncomfortable.
None of this puts you in the right frame of mind to resolve a conflict. If your body goes into “fight or flight” mode or what Dan Goleman called “amygdala hijack,” you may lose access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for rational thinking. And making rational decisions is precisely what you need to do in a difficult conversation. Not only are you losing the ability to think clearly but chances are your counterpart notices the signs of stress — your face turning red, the pace of your speech speeding up — and, because of mirror neurons that cause us to “catch” the emotions of another person, your colleague is likely to start feeling the same way. Before you know it, the conversation has derailed and the conflict intensifies.
Luckily, it’s possible to interrupt this physical response, manage your emotions, and clear the way for a productive discussion. There are several things you can do to keep your cool during a conversation or to calm yourself down if you’ve gotten worked up.
Breathe. Simple mindfulness techniques can be your best friend in tense situations and none is more straightforward and accessible than using your breath. So when you start noticing yourself getting tense, try to focus on breathing. Notice the sensation of air coming in and out of your lungs. Feel it pass through your nostrils or down the back of your throat. This will take your attention off the physical signs of panic and keep you centered. Some mindfulness experts suggest counting your breath— either inhaling and exhaling for a count of 6, for example, or just counting each exhale until you get to 10 and then starting again.
Focus on your body. Sitting still when you’re having a difficult conversation can make the emotions build up rather than dissipate. Experts say that standing up and walking around helps to activate the thinking part of your brain. If you and your counterpart are seated at a table, you may be hesitant to suddenly stand up. Fair enough. Instead, you might say, “I feel like I need to stretch some. Mind if I walk around a bit?” If that still doesn’t feel comfortable, you can do small physical things like crossing two fingers or placing your feet firmly on the ground and noticing what the floor feels like on the bottom of your shoes. Mindfulness experts call this “anchoring.” It can work in all kinds of stressful situations. For example, for a long time I was afraid of flying, but I found that counting while touching each of my fingers with my thumb helped to get me out of my rumination mode.
Try saying a mantra. This is a piece of advice I’ve gotten from Amy Jen Su, managing partner of Paravis Partners and coauthor of Own the Room. She recommends coming up with a phrase that you can repeat to yourself to remind you to stay calm. Some of her clients have found “Go to neutral” to be a helpful prompt. You can also try “This isn’t about me,” “This will pass,” or “This is about the business.”
Acknowledge and label your feelings. Another useful tactic comes from Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. When you’re feeling emotional, “the attention you give your thoughts and feelings crowds your mind; there’s no room to examine them,” she says. To distance yourself from the feeling, label it. “Call a thought a thought and an emotion an emotion,” says David. He is so wrong about that and it’s making me mad becomesI’m having the thought that my coworker is wrong, and I’m feeling anger. Labeling like this allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: “transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.” When you put that space between these emotions and you, it’s easier to let them go — and not bury them or let them explode.
Take a break. In my experience, this is a far-underused approach. The more time you give yourself to process your emotions, the less intense they are likely to be. So when things get heated, you may need to excuse yourself for a moment — get a cup of coffee or a glass of water, go to the bathroom, or take a brief stroll around the office. Be sure to give a neutral reason for why you want to stand up and pause the conversation — the last thing you want is for your counterpart to think that things are going so badly you’re desperate to escape. Try saying something like, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’d love to get a quick cup of coffee before we continue. Can I get you something while I’m up?”
Keep in mind that you’re probably not the only one who’s upset. Your counterpart is likely to express anger or frustration too. While you may want to give them the above advice, no one wants to be told they need to breathe more deeply or take a break. So you may be in a situation where you just need to let the other person vent. That’s usually easier said than done though. It’s hard not to yell back when you’re being attacked, but that’s not going to help. Jeanne Brett, a professor of dispute resolution and negotiations at Kellogg School of Management, suggests visualizing your coworker’s words going over your shoulder, not hitting you in the chest. But don’t act aloof; it’s important to show that you’re listening. If you don’t feed your counterpart’s negative emotion with your own, it’s likely they will wind down.
Let’s face it. Conflicts with coworkers can be tough. But you’re not going to solve the underlying issues or maintain a positive relationship if you barrel through the conversation when you’re completely worked up. Hopefully, these five tactics will help you move from angry and upset to cool as a cucumber.
When someone is fighting fair, call it out and say “thank you”
Have you ever had a conflict with a co-worker? Of course you have. If your company employs more than one person, workplace conflict is inevitable. And even if you’re a sole proprietor, you’re going to have challenges with clients, vendors, industry colleagues and others. Unless you only surround yourself with people who think, speak and work exactly like you (and how boring would thatbe?), you are going to come up against people who challenge your ideas–and who challenge you.
That’s a good thing. Disagreements can lead to diversity of thinking, improvements in products and services, and greater productivity. Disagreements can also lead to better working relationships, but only if everyone involved fights fair.
Let’s assume you already do–you communicate directly and thoughtfully, you are considerate in your language and tone, you engage others in a dialogue rather than a monologue, and you are focused on achieving a good outcome and a healthy relationship. Good for you!
But how do you get your colleague to do the same? How can you work better with someone who may be working against you? By acknowledging and thanking her for demonstrating “agreeable disagreement” behaviors every time you see them.
Here are three healthy conflict behaviors to look for so that you can say “thank you” when you see them.
1. Telling you directly.
In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.” As uncomfortable as it feels to hear negative feedback or be confronted directly, it is significantly more uncomfortable (and less productive) to have a colleague who is secretly seething, holding a grudge, acting passive-aggressively towards you, or telling everyone but you that she has a problem with you.
When a colleague tells you directly that they’re frustrated with you, seeing a situation differently from you, or otherwise feeling disgruntled, consider it a gift. If you know, you can do something about it (or make an informed decision not to do anything about it). If you don’t know, you’re in the dark.
Try saying this: “Thank you so much for telling me directly that you [didn’t like my decision/felt disrespected by me in the meeting/wished I had consulted with you]. I appreciate you trusting me enough to share that feedback. Would you like to discuss it further?”
2. Using a respectful tone.
In the face of an interpersonal conflict, our brains register a threat in approximately 1/5 of a second. We immediately go into fight, flight or freeze mode, and it’s easy to become snippy, short-tempered, sarcastic, surly – or even go silent. It’s reacting rather than considering how to respond.
If your colleague is willing and able to stop his automatic reaction, and demonstrate emotionally intelligent self-management by speaking to you calmly and with care, thank him. It likely took some work to be able to do that, and some respect for you to be willing to do it.
Try saying this: “I just want to thank you for the calm tone of voice you’re using right now, even though I know you’re upset. It makes it easy for me to really hear your perspective, and to have a productive conversation.”
In the words of legendary radio host Bernard Meltzer, “If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along–whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.”
3. Being curious.
Healthy communication navigates and balances between two practices: advocacy (promoting our own ideas, perspectives and points of view) and inquiry (being curious about the other’s ideas, perspectives and points of view.) In a conflict, we tend to over-rely on advocacy–telling the other person what we think and “know”, why we’re right, and why they’re clearly wrong. Inquiry tends to go out the door. We’re often more committed to getting our way than to getting new information that could sway us (or, heaven forbid, reveal that we were wrong).
When you hear your colleague asking you questions like “How do you see it?”, “What do you think I’m not understanding here?”, “What would you like to see happen?” or even prompting you with, “Tell me more…”, thank her for being curious.
Try saying this: “Thank you for asking me. I’d like to tell you how I see it, and then I’d like to learn more about how you see it.”
And if she also really listens to your answers, thank her again. As Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
A conflict doesn’t have to hurt people’s feelings or slow down productivity. In fact, a conflict where both people care about the relationship as much as the outcome can be a catalyst to interpersonal and organizational progress.
Few managers will admit to actively avoiding difficult conversations with colleagues. But I’ve noticed that while many speak about the importance of candor for getting things done, managers often sidestep or steer clear of emotionally charged situations by pretending they don’t exist, delaying the day of reckoning, or bringing in sympathetic third parties.
I recently had to deal with this issue while working with a company (disguised here) that was grappling with an unusual conflict among senior leadership. In this case, the board of a small food industry startup hired a new CEO to accelerate the commercialization of its technology. His first six months were successful: He raised a new round of funding, streamlined the manufacturing process, and focused the company on a few critical goals, particularly a key safety approval from federal regulators. He also recruited several senior managers with years of experience in the food industry and strong relationships with the regulatory authorities.
One of them, however, became unsatisfied with her second-fiddle position and secretly went to the board chair, demanding to be put in charge of the company and threatening to leave (and take another senior manager with her) if the board refused. Although the chair was pleased with what the CEO had accomplished, he felt that losing these executives would significantly undermine and delay the approvals needed for full product launch. It was too big of a risk. So in consultation with the rest of the board (but without talking to the CEO), he acquiesced to her demands and asked the CEO to step down.
This coup-like situation clearly appears deplorable, demonstrating a lack of honest communication on the part of the senior manager, who acted underhandedly, and the board chair, who threw the CEO under the bus. Neither seemed to have the courage to talk directly with the CEO.
You and Your Team Series
What’s interesting, though, is that both the senior manager and the board chair felt that they acted appropriately and with the best interests of the company and its investors in mind. The senior manager felt that she had the right skills and contacts to get the company to the next level but the CEO (who had come from outside the industry) did not. Because she didn’t think he would agree, she decided that it would be a waste of time to approach him and that it would be better to go directly to the board. The board chair also thought that the best way to protect and grow the company was to side with the senior manager — and once his mind was made up, he didn’t think a conversation with the CEO could be constructive.
This kind of rationalization is common. We often avoid difficult situations or conversations because we think that they won’t be productive, that we won’t be able to convince the other party to come around to our point of view. Because we start with this kind of win-lose perspective (and don’t want to lose), we seek ways around the confrontation and often end up causing more damage. In our case, the board chair and senior manager knew that the right thing to do was talk to the CEO about their concerns, but since they believed he would disagree and trigger a conflict, it seemed best to avoid bringing him in altogether.
Unfortunately, this avoidance was shortsighted. Switching out the CEO caused disruption and lowered morale within the company — this was the fourth CEO change in less than two years. While the senior manager did indeed have relevant food industry and regulatory experience, she didn’t have some of the key skills that made the CEO successful, such as the ability to raise money, deal with investors, excite potential customers, and motivate employees. It also made for an awkward transition period for the leadership team and the board chair, which will likely compromise their ability to collaborate in the future.
Obviously, there are no guarantees that a candid discussion would have led to a different outcome. But other arrangements might have prevented the anger, distrust, and disruption that ensued. Creating co-CEO roles or promoting the CEO to serve as vice-chair of the board, for example, would have leveraged the skills of both the senior manager and the CEO. As the (now former) CEO said later, “I don’t know if we could have worked it out or not, but talking through the issues would at least have given us a chance.”
This was certainly an extreme and unusual case of avoiding difficult conversations. But the same dynamic undoubtedly happens on a much smaller scale (and without the threats to quit) in workplaces on a regular basis — say, in negative performance reviews or in team conflicts, or simply as a result of incompatible personalities and work styles. The truth is that managers and employees avoid all kinds of tough situations, rationalizing their actions along the way, and end up making tensions worse.
Avoidance is so common that there’s no panacea for overcoming it. Perhaps the best we can do is become more aware of our tendency to rationalize it and practice dealing with tough situations so we feel more prepared when they arise. For example, you might ask a trusted colleague or friend for feedback about moments when he or she caught you “kidding yourself” about something. (Just be prepared for some answers you might not like.) You could also ask a colleague who makes you uncomfortable — someone you don’t like, who intimidates you, or who you feel competitive with — to go out for coffee in an attempt to resolve your issues. This kind of low-risk “practice” can help you learn the skills and develop the emotional intelligence necessary for handling difficult conversations and knowing when to dive in or back off.
The bottom line is that none of us like being in emotionally difficult situations. Learning how to deal with them more openly and easily, however, might be one of the best things you can do to improve your own leadership and create more value for your company.
In a traditional team structure, conflicts can be escalated to the boss to resolve. Can’t agree on how to prioritize projects, or on which deadlines need to shift? Ask the team leader to step in and make a call. Think a coworker is acting snarky, or that their work is too sloppy? Advise the manager to give them some feedback. But for flat or self-managed teams, that’s not an option. Self-managed teams must identify different ways to find and address day-to-day conflicts.
Self-managed teams can focus on three things to help them successfully resolve conflicts. (Traditionally hierarchical teams may benefit from them too.)
Encourage openness to productive conflict. First and foremost, self-managed teams must commit to openly discussing their differences. Conflict should be seen not as an annoyance that leads to anxiety and alienation, but as an opportunity for growth and strong working relationships.
To create this culture of open communication, try turning conflict resolution into an organized group activity. A technique called Planning Poker has opened my team’s eyes to just how productive having dissenting viewpoints can be. Using a point-based system, the technique encourages all team members to raise their opinions, weigh every option, and collectively vote on the best plan. Planning Poker is predominantly used by software developers, but it can facilitate virtually any business decision.
Come to a common understanding about which conflicts can be resolved without the involvement of others. For example, you might develop norms about what constitutes a low-risk decision (for example, it affects few people, or the related costs fall below a certain threshold), and encourage the team to resolve low-risk conflicts without group intervention.
Prioritize accountability over blame. Autonomous teams should win and lose as a group. When shortcomings occur, teams shouldn’t assign blame to the contributors closest to the debacle. Rather than looking at who was responsible, as people express only the symptoms, they should investigate whythe issue occurred.
This mode of conflict resolution is akin to the “blameless postmortem” approach much of the technology world takes to understand why products and endeavors don’t reach their full potential. If a team is comfortable speaking openly about conflict and hardships, asking “How did this happen?” when conducting a postmortem won’t lead to the blame game; it will yield the root cause. As Etsy CTO John Allspaw says, people are “the most expert in their own error. They ought to be heavily involved in coming up with remediation items.” Punishing them for contributing to conflict discourages this productive dialogue.
To further enhance the blameless approach, a team can discuss the situation with several other teams at the company and gather multiple unbiased opinions regarding the conflict’s root cause and how it could be addressed. Even if this doesn’t result in a unanimous opinion or a clear plan of action, it shifts the focus from the responsible parties and opens the remediation process to many diverse, productive ideas.
Quantify the impact of the problem. A team at my organization was recently at odds because a developer preferred to work at night — which was inconvenient because everyone else worked during the day. This employee was absent from nearly every important meeting, and his teammates constantly found themselves taking extra time to fill him in on everything he missed.
The tension continued until the team quantified the impact of his absence. Each meeting the employee missed took 60 minutes, and the team would spend 30 more minutes recapping for him and hearing his thoughts. With six members on the team, that’s a combined three hours of unnecessary discussion. To top it off, the employee missed about 10 meetings each month, so his team was devoting more than 350 hours per year to these conversations. Instead of focusing on the symptomatic conflict and requiring the employee to work during the day every day, the team decided to develop a flexible schedule that worked for everyone. On meeting days, the night owl could arrive in the afternoon, share a few hours of overlap with everyone else, and then burn the midnight oil as he pleased.
Quantifying the impact of conflict provides several benefits. It encourages productive conversations, creates alignment around the gravity of the issue, and unlocks creative solutions as people identify both the source and the impact of their conflicts. Assigning a numeric value to waste helps teams find better ways to reduce it.
When a disagreement gets heated with a colleague, it’s normal to feel all sorts of emotions: disappointment, anger, frustration. But should you express those emotions? Or try to keep them close to your chest? Will it help if you tell your colleague that they’ve made you mad? Should they know how upset you are?
Of course, just because you feel angry, doesn’t mean you have to express it. And the real issue is not whether you reveal your emotions or not. What’s most important is that you have the ability to choose whether or not to share your feelings. This isn’t always easy because when we’re having an argument with someone, too often we feel as if we are in the grip of the emotions and they’re dictating what we say and do, rather than the other way around. Under these circumstances, you’re not able to make a smart choice about what to say and do. You need to put space between what’s happening (the disagreement) and your reaction. Here’s how.
First, recognize that conflicts at work are usually not one-off events. Many people I work with in my practice describe being caught off guard by a disagreement. They might say “I didn’t see it coming” or “I was blindsided.” But most conflicts have an element of predictability to them in that they have the roots in prior behavior. Chances are that the current argument you’re having is tied to a pattern of behavior, what usually upsets you about that person (or people in general). For example, you might work with someone who you feel makes unfair decisions or takes advantage of others.
When we get upset, it may be because we’ve sought evidence that proves these patterns. When you feel like someone is a slacker, you’ll look for ways that they aren’t carrying their weight. If you worry that your manager is unfair in her treatment of the team, you’ll be on alert for signs that she’s showing preferential treatment. Recognize these patterns so that you’re not caught off guard next time. Instead of feeling surging anger, you might realize, “This is something I often get worked up about.” If you’re more attuned to the conflicts that arise in you and around you, you can be more emotional agile.
Then, when a specific conflict arises, you can make a conscious choice about if and how to express your emotions by asking yourself these four questions:
Who’s in charge – the emotion or me the person experiencing the emotion?Ask yourself if you are making thoughtful decisions about how to react or if the emotion is driving your reactions. If your thoughts and emotions are in charge, it’s a sign that you’re hooked by your feelings and you’re going down a path that is unlikely to help you resolve the argument and more likely to make it worse. If the emotion is dictating how you act, it will be difficult to do what you need to – take the other person’s perspective, have compassion, clearly articulate your narrative of the event.
What exactly am I feeling? When you feel angry (a common emotional response to a conflict), what’s often sitting beneath that anger is a more nuanced emotion, such as betrayal, feeling unseen, or disappointment. Before you can decide whether to express your emotion, you need to better understand it. Ask yourself: “What is it that I’m experiencing exactly? What is the emotion beneath the emotion?” And when you come up with an answer, ask yourself, “What are two other emotions that I’m experiencing?” The accurate labeling of emotions is a critical step to moving forward effectively.
What is the function of the emotion? Remember that emotions are signals. What is this sense of betrayal telling you about what matters to you? What is the sadness signaling? Perhaps it’s that you care about loyalty from your team members, or that you value equity. This will help you figure out how to talk to your counterpart. Telling someone you’re angry is far less helpful than explaining that you’re disappointed that they didn’t follow through on their commitment and that reliability is important to you. You can also ask yourself, how does what this emotion is telling me relate to what my counterpart feels is important? If you can identify overlapping values or interests, you’ll be in a better position to work through your disagreement.
To what extent does expressing my emotion serve me in this situation?Finally, after you’ve decided whether you’re hooked by your emotion, labelled it, and considered what it might be telling you, you want to ask yourself whether saying “I’m really angry” or “I’m frustrated by this situation” will help you in your goal of solving the conflict. Psychologists talk about “hot” and “cold” emotions. If you’re experiencing a “hot” emotion, one that comes with an urgent sense of entitlement or even revenge (“I have to tell him exactly how I feel!”), you’re hooked and it’s better to find a way to calm down first. If the emotion is “cold,” in that you can manage it, and the intention behind it is to make the situation better (“I want to tell him how I feel because it might help him understand my perspective”) then it’s probably OK to express it.
It’s best if you can go beyond just naming the emotion to explaining what matters to you. Telling your counterpart that fairness is important to you, for example, is the first step in developing a shared set of values. Perhaps fairness matters to her too and then you have a starting point for resolving the conflict – and avoiding future ones.
Of course, there is always a risk that you will express an emotion or sentiment that’s important to you and the other person doesn’t reciprocate or even retaliates. This has to be a chance you’re willing to take, and you’ll be much better equipped to accept the consequences if your intention is to develop mutual understanding.
Conflict is never one-sided, and neither are the emotions that accompany it. If you’re going to express that you’re angry and feeling betrayed, you have to consider what the other person might be feeling as well. This perspective taking – and the empathy and compassion that it triggers – is extremely important to solving conflicts. So if you decided to express how you’re feeling, it’s best to follow up by asking the other person about their emotional experience. This doesn’t need to – and shouldn’t – turn into a competition about who’s most hurt by the situation but it can be a way to get your emotions and interests out on the table and find a path forward.