Making up after an argument is more than just saying you’re sorry.
Jason and Kate had one of those late-night arguments last night…again. It wasn’t one of their worst, but it left them both feeling raw. The next morning was awkward, circling around each other in the kitchen as they got coffee. One of them finally mumbled an apology, and the other did the same, both trying to just put it behind them. Case closed.
There are a lot of ways couples try to mop up after an argument: Jason and Kate’s mumbled apologies; for others, make-up sex, or several days of deep-freeze during which no one talks until it somehow gradually defrosts, but nothing more is said as things go back to “normal”.
Disagreements will flare up in any close relationship, and there are two parts to them:
At the front-end is the way the argument unfolds. This is about balance and containment. The balance is exactly that — that both partners need to feel safe enough to speak up. It doesn’t work when there isn’t that balance — when one person dominates the conversation through rants and bullies and the other person shuts down. Or when both partners shut down, or worse, stop bringing up problems at all. These couples keep everyday conversations superficial, walk on eggshells, and use distance to avoid conflict.
Containment is about keeping the disagreement in emotional bonds — where it doesn’t turn into open warfare in which each person digs up the past to throw more wood on the emotional fire. This is where hurtful things are said and things can get physical, creating emotional or physical scars that don’t go away but create more fear, resentment, and fodder for future arguments.
But then there is the backside of the argument—the making-up.
What You Don’t Want to Do
Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. You skip the apologies and get up on Sunday morning and pretend that what happened last night didn’t.
Don’t continue to punish the other guy. You do the silent treatment, not because you don’t know how to make-up, but because it’s your way of punishing and essentially continuing the argument in another form. Here partners often throw in passive-aggressive behaviors to rub salt into the other’s wounds.
Don’t do the deep-freeze. Even if it’s not about punishment, but anxiety and awkwardness, the deep-freeze creates an awful climate in a relationship as home becomes a who-will-blink-first contest. This is particularly harmful for children, who are forced to walk on eggshells and often naturally and erroneously believe that it is all somehow happening because they did something wrong.
Don’t not apologize. Apologizing is not about saying that the other person is right, i.e., you’re wrong and she wins the argument, but simply about acknowledging that you hurt the other’s feelings. Apologies are simply about taking responsibility for your side of the argument.
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Doing It Right
Cool off. You want to cool off in order to get your rational brain back online. If you try to talk too soon, you’re likely to trigger each other again. That said, couples usually differ in how much time they need to calm down (and men often take longer). If you’re not ready yet to come back and make up, simply say, in one sentence, “I’m still upset; I’m not trying to ignore you, I just need more time to cool off.”
Go back and solve the problem that started the argument. The dishes left on the counter, the money spent on shoes or video games, the time the kids need to get to bed. This is where it is easy to fall down. Jason and Kate say they’re sorry, but don’t return to the topic. Why? Because they are afraid it will only turn into another fight. The challenge is to go back and talk about it and solve the problem, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
Your job at this point is to stay sane — pretend you’re at work and act as you would if a coworker did something that bothered you. Resist the urge to plow back into the argument: you said, no I didn’t, if you hadn’t said, etc. Move forward — figure out a plan for dealing with the dishes, the expenses, the bedtime. If it gets hot again, stop, cool off, try again, or write down your solution to the problem, then circle back and talk again.
Figure out the moral of the story of the argument. You want to fix the problem so it doesn’t keep coming up, but you also want to learn something that the argument can teach you about communication and, often, the underlying source of the problem.
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Questions to Ask Yourself
Is there a deeper issue underlying the problem?
The dishes are not about dishes but about feeling criticized, or feeling like the other person doesn’t hear you and dismisses your requests, or feeling like you are Cinderella and the other person isn’t doing his or her share of the work. Ditto for money. Bedtime? Different parenting styles, a power struggle about parenting, or something else? Be curious: Dig down, look for the larger pattern that makes the argument merely the tip of the iceberg, then have a conversation about the bigger stuff.
Why did it turn into an argument at all?
Was there something that the other person did that pushed your buttons? Talk about that. Was it because you were both tired and cranky already, or that it was late at night and you both had had a couple of drinks? Talk about that, and how to do it differently going forward. Was it because you were holding things in for a long time and finally blew up? If so, talk about what you need to feel safe to bring things up sooner. Was it because you both had been feeling disconnected from each other, and somehow had subconsciously developed this pattern of picking a fight so you could then have make-up sex or cuddly make-up and get recalibrated? Talk about how to catch the disconnection sooner and develop better ways of bringing you both closer.
The goals here are clear: Solve the problem and learn from the experience so you don’t keep repeating it. The challenge is having the courage to do so, to step up (or step down), and approach your anxiety rather than avoiding it.
Conflict avoidance is one of the biggest topics that keep coming in couples counseling sessions. Holding off conflicts happens when one partner avoids conflicts in order to protect the relationship against another escalation. Sometimes withdrawing or distancing yourself in order to avoid conflicts makes so much sense.
However, this pattern erodes the relationship foundation because if you keep withdrawing from communication, your partner does not feel safe anymore. Moreover, if you keep avoiding conflicts to save the peace in your relationship, you inevitably start a war inside yourself.
How Does Conflict Avoidance Affect Your Marriage?
There is a problem in your marriage and your spouse wants to discuss it with you. His feelings are hurt and he wants to talk about that. However, your partner’s attempts to communicate his feelings over the situation are met with silence on your end. You simply withdraw, refusing to participate in the conversation, saying something like “Oh…whatever…”, “Just leave me alone”, and similar.
When this conflict avoidance becomes a repetitive pattern, it is inevitable for resentment and dissatisfaction to start building up in a relationship.
A communication style where you simply withdraw from communication and stop responding is called stonewalling, according to Dr. John Gottman who’s has researched divorce prediction and marital stability for the last 40 years. This communication style is different from an occasional time out to calm down — stonewalling is total refusal to consider your partner’s perspective.
Dr. Gottman considers stonewalling to be one of the four most harmful behaviors to marriage (the other three include criticism, contempt, and defensiveness): according to his research, stonewalling is the second behavior that predicts divorce with over 90 percent accuracy.
This communication style usually occurs as a response to contempt (a moment in conflict when you, your partner, or both become truly mean and start treating each other with disrespect): you tune out, disconnect from communication and stop responding to your partner.
Stonewalling is a form of emotional suppression that usually happens as a result of feeling emotionally flooded in a situation of distress: the state in which you cannot discuss things or act rationally, so you simply decide to tune out.
We often feel overwhelmed in a situation where our partner wants to talk about feelings. Although you might think that stonewalling more often occurs in men, who are wired to withdraw and avoid talking about a problem, this avoidance tactic happens in women too.
Research shows that stonewalling can not only damage your marriage but also cause health problems with the heart and the autonomic nervous system. In addition, the level of stress one spouse feels when the other one uses stonewalling as avoidance tactic can trigger anxiety disorders and depression.
How to Reduce Stonewalling in a Relationship?
The best way to reduce stonewalling is learning to communicate without accusing and judging each other. You see, when you use contempt and start accusing your partner, it is most likely that he/she will start feeling defensive and decide to shut down and withdraw from communication. So learning to communicate without putting your spouse on the defensive is a huge step towards removing stonewalling from your relationship dynamics.
Conflicts Are Not as Bad as You May Think
Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that conflicts are simply unavoidable. People often wrongly believe that if they are in love, arguments and conflicts should not exist in their relationship. Most of us were taught since childhood that conflicts are something bad that should, by all means, be avoided if we want to live happily. However, arguments can actually be good for a relationship.
Therefore, don’t try to avoid conflicts — they can actually benefit your relationship if you know how to restore after an argument.
Studies show that most of couples who learn communication skills fail to use them in real-life situations because those skills simply don’t last. Sooner or later, we return to old communication patterns, particularly when we are in the middle of an argument.
Conflicts allow you to explore your deepest emotions and to talk about them with your partner. If you constantly avoid reflecting on your feelings, you will inescapably become emotionally distant and detached.
Furthermore, conflicts can help you get to know each other’s personality better. Better understanding of one another will allow you to adapt to each other’s communication style and personality and cherish your differences.
Arguments can also boost your empathy, allowing you to understand your partner’s perspective, to “put yourself in their shoes” and experience their feelings. In addition, conflicts enhance honesty. They enable you to be vulnerable and tell your partner what you think or how you feel honestly and openly.
We all know that conflicts are unavoidable part of our relationships. We sometimes have a tendency to avoid conflicts and withdraw from communication, believing this is the best way to protect the relationship in those moments when we feel emotionally flooded. However, avoiding conflicts can destroy your marriage.
Stonewalling as a conflict avoidance tactic is a complete refusal to consider your partner’s perspective that usually leads to emotional disconnection and divorce. The best way to cut down stonewalling in a relationship is learning to show vulnerability and communicate your feelings openly and honestly. Conflicts are not necessarily bad. If you learn how to repair after an argument, conflicts can actually help improve your relationship and strengthen the bond with your partner.
Your mind and heart feel like they’re split in two.
You want to do something, but another part of you is screaming “NO WAY!”
You believe in something, but you just cannot condone an action that belief teaches.
You feel like something is right, but then you also feel like it’s wrong.
How can you make any sense of all this mess, all this internal conflict? You feel like your brain is melting and you’re starting to get desperate.
If you feel like you’re going a little bit crazy, or the confusion is getting too much to handle, stop right now. Pause what you’re doing, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. For the next minute, focus on your breathing coming in and out. In this article, I hope to help you get to the root of your internal conflict and how to find peace of mind.
What is Internal Conflict?
Internal conflict is the experience of having opposing psychological beliefs, desires, impulses or feelings. In the field of psychology, internal conflict is often referred to as “cognitive dissonance,” which is a term that refers to holding conflicting and inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. This mental struggle can occur at any point in life over any topic such as relationships, work commitments, religious beliefs, moral standpoints, and social ideologies.
An example of internal conflict would be a person who believes in women’s rights but does not condone abortion. Internal conflict can often be seen in relationships where one person loves their partner, but they don’t feel emotionally available. In the religious world, internal conflict often occurs when one is faced with a doctrine or teaching they are uncomfortable propagating.
Why Does Internal Conflict Occur?
Your worst battle is between what you know and what you feel. – Anonymous
When we experience any kind of internal conflict, what is really happening is that there is a disagreement between our heart and head.
As shown by research conducted by places such as the HeartMath Institute, our hearts carry their own special kind of intuitive intelligence. As we were raised in societies that were (and still are) dominated by the mind, we become very confused and disconcerted when our hearts get involved in everyday matters. It is very easy to listen to the mind, mindlessly obey what others teach us, and logically plan our lives. But our hearts carry their own special kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is nonlinear, subtle, and often very abstract. There is no formula or set of rules that are attached to the heart’s intelligence: it is up to us to tune into the voice within, which is often what confuses us so much.
Our head intelligence is what helps to give our lives structure, direction, and practical application. But our heart intelligence is what breathes life and truth into this framework of our life journeys. Without listening to our hearts, we live soulless, unfulfilling, and inauthentic lives. But without listening to our heads, we live in absolute chaos.
As we can see, balance is needed. We need to listen to both the heart and head, but often, we tend to value one over the other which is what causes us to experience internal conflict.
So why does internal conflict occur? It occurs because we lack equanimity and balance between the heart and head. Our heart says one thing, but our mind says another: and both shout at the same intensity. When our actions don’t match our values, the inevitable result is a feeling of discomfort, even shame. So which do we listen to, when, and why? We’ll explore the answer to this question soon, but first, we need to understand what creates internal conflict in the first place.
What Creates Internal Conflict?
We experience internal conflict for a number of reasons. Often, there is no one “single cause” or origin, but there are a number of factors which include:
The beliefs and rules we inherited from our parents
The religious beliefs, dogmas or creeds we were indoctrinated to believe
The societal values and ideals we adopted growing up
Quite simply, the more mental beliefs, ideals, expectations, and desires we have, the more likely we are to suffer from internal conflict.
8 Types of Internal Conflict
There are many different types of internal conflict, and I will attempt to cover as many as I can below. Pay close attention to which ones you resonate with.
1. Moral Conflict
Moral conflict arises when we hold conflicting beliefs about something to do with our personal ethics. For example, moral conflict could occur when a person believes in human rights but doesn’t believe in euthanasia. Or a person could value telling the truth, but lie to save another person’s life.
2. Sexual Conflict
Sexual conflict often overlaps with other types of internal conflict such as religious or moral conflict. For example, a person might be a faithful Christian but they discover they’re homosexual. Or a person might value monogamous relationships when sexually they are better suited to polygamous relationships.
3. Religious Conflict
Religious conflict is quite common because it revolves around belief and beliefs are very mind-orientated, making them particularly fragile. Examples of religious conflict could be believing in a loving God, but finding it hard to accept that this “loving” being sends people to hell for eternity. Or a person who is religiously faithful, but also believes in the use of medical marijuana (which is still classified as a drug). When faced with scientific facts, religious conflict may arise within a person who values both truth and their religious belief.
4. Political Conflict
Political conflict arises when a person feels split between their own beliefs and their political party’s beliefs. For example, a person may believe in America but doesn’t believe in paying taxes. A person may align with one party but disagree with their treatment of the healthcare system. Or a person may believe in the political philosophy but struggle to support the politician propagating it.
5. Love Conflict
Love conflict is what happens when we love someone, yet we want to do something that hurts them. For example, we may love our children, but believe we have to smack them to make them obedient, which causes us to feel guilty. Or we may love our partners, but find their habits to be intolerable which causes us to act out. We may also love a person and wish to keep them, but realize we have to let them go.
6. Self-Image Conflict
Your self-image is the mental idea you have about yourself, e.g. “My name is Karen. I’m a patient, loving, and compassionate person. I’m a disorganized artist who supports the rights of animals … etc.” Internal conflict arises when we are met with evidence that contradicts our beliefs about ourselves. For example, a person who believes they’re honest might lie on their resume to get their dream job. Someone who takes pride in eating healthy might not want to give up smoking. A person who identifies as an empath may feel constant resentment towards another person. Or a person may believe they’re ethical but might enjoy buying clothing that contributes to sweatshops.
7. Interpersonal Conflict
Interpersonal conflict overlaps with other types of internal conflict such as self-image and love conflict. This type of conflict occurs in social situations when you want to be one way, but find yourself acting in another way. For example, Sally hates talking about sports, but she finds herself faking interest in what her coworkers talk about. An introvert doesn’t have much energy but creates a high-energy facade to fit in with others. Or someone is offended by a friend but says nothing even though they want to.
8. Existential Conflict
Existential conflict involves feelings of discomfort and confusion about life, particularly when two opposing beliefs or desires arise. For instance, hating life but loving life at the same time. Or wanting to live life to the fullest, but not wanting to make any changes or get out of your comfort zone. Existential conflict can also be directed towards the world, for example, wanting to save our planet, but at the same time believing that it’s doomed.
Please note that all of these examples of internal conflict frequently overlap with each other. This list is also not definitive, so feel free to leave a comment if you believe I’ve left any types of internal conflict out.
How to Find Peace of Mind
All war originates within as internal conflict. And what is the root cause of internal conflict? Attachment to beliefs, desires, and expectations.
Quite simply, all our suffering occurs when we believe our thoughts,instead of seeing them for what they truly are: passing fluctuations of energy within the brain. Do we control our thoughts? No. Otherwise, we would always choose to think happy and harmonious thoughts. We don’t even know what our next thought will be, or what our next ten thoughts will be because they all spontaneously arise and fall within the mind. If we don’t control these thoughts, then how can they possibly mean anything about us unless we give them meaning?
If you can truly understand what I’ve just written, you’ll find that a lot of your internal conflict dissipates very quickly. Simply sit down for however long you want, and try to notice where your thoughts come from. Do you control them? Or … are they controlling you?
Aside from that, here are some other tips which I hope can help you find more peace of mind and clarity:
Distinguish between intuition and fear. The intuitive voice within your heart is very clear, strong, and unemotional. However, the fearful voice is vague and emotionally-charged. Learn how to distinguish between these two voices because they are often confused. Read more about following your intuition.
In the long-term, what would be the wisest choice? When our heart dominates, we tend to make rash, poorly thought-out decisions. This is where the head comes in: foresight. Foresight is wisdom. With the limited knowledge you have right now, what would appear to be the wisest decision in the long-term?
Weigh up the pros and cons. If you’re struggling to find clarity, divide a page into two sides. List all the pros of your decision on one side and the cons on the other.
Figure out your number one priority. Internal conflict often appears when we have no clear priority. What is your biggest priority at the moment? What do you value the most?
What mistaken beliefs are fuelling your confusion? What false, misleading, limiting or second-hand beliefs are causing the conflict within you? Write down your problem on a page and next to it ask “Why?” For example, you might want to keep your job but also crave to stay at home with your kids. Asking why relentlessly, you might discover that you believe that staying at home with your kids makes you a failure, and you’ve adopted this belief from society.
Be ruthlessly honest: what are you scared of? Fear always underlies internal conflict. What is inflaming your cognitive dissonance? What are you truly scared of? Sometimes discovering your underlying fear helps you to gain more clarity and direction.
What is the “lesser of two evils”? If you had to choose – gun to your head – what decision would you make?
Adopt a future perspective. From the perspective of you resting on your deathbed, what would you regret the most?
What is resisting the flow? One easy way to examine what is “not meant to be” is to examine what is causing the most resistance in your life. Remember, life flows effortlessly. It is our thoughts and desires that cut the flow. So, explore what is creating the most resistance in your life. Are you clinging to a ship that sailed long ago?
What is a more loving approach? Are you honoring your authenticity or honoring what you “think” you should do/be? What approach or choice is more aligned with the truth, with love?
Is there a more important underlying issue? Sometimes internal conflict actually hides deeper issues that need to be explored to find a resolution, such as negative self-beliefs, unresolved shame or childhood wounds.
Relax your mind. Relaxing your mind is a great way to develop new perspectives. Try meditating, listening to soothing music or practicing mindfulness. Often the best answers come when we aren’t looking for them.
Choose to stop participating. Do you need an answer right this very moment? Sometimes allowing life to move in the direction it wants is a better option than forcefully blazing a path. As teacher Wayne Dyer once wrote, “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”
I hope these tips can help you find more peace of mind. Remember that it’s completely normal to experience internal conflict – there is nothing weird about you. Also, when it comes to internal conflict people tend to romanticize the heart and believe that we should only listen to whatever the heart wants. But this is an imbalanced approach: we need to use the heart as well as the brain so that internal harmony is created.
In a perfect world, we would all get along beautifully — no fighting, no misunderstandings, and no awkward tension. Unfortunately, with so many different personalities and opinions, this reality isn’t very likely, but we can work to make communication a little smoother. There are a number of tricks that can help us resolve conflicts faster, and although that doesn’t mean that disagreements will never happen, these tactics can make for quicker and less stressful resolutions.
“Conflicts escalate fast when we move into ‘Reptilian Brain,'” psychotherapist Lena Derhally MS, MA tells Bustle. “Reptilian Brain is the most primitive part of our brain that responds to threat. A threat response is survival mode, and there are two ways humans respond to threat: fight or flight. Once reptilian brain is activated, we tend to lose all rational thought and reason. This is why some people say and do things in the moment that they usually regret later or say [things] they don’t mean.”
Part of being good at resolving conflict involves knowing some tactics ahead of time, so when it comes to a tense moment, you don’t act solely out of emotions. Here are seven tricks that can help you resolve conflicts faster, according to experts.
Many people tend to get defensive as a typical reaction to conflict, which can make things worse. Avoid this by repeating back what the person is saying to you to make sure you understand. “Instead of getting defensive, mirror the other person in a calm way by saying, ‘So what I’m hearing you say is…'” says Derhally. “Mirroring is shown to calm the brain and make people less defensive and reactive. It also helps you listen clearly to the other person. So much of conflict is mishearing and misunderstanding, so it’s very important to truly hear someone else out.”
2. Admit Fault
Ego always seems to get in the way when it comes to conflict, so put yours aside and acknowledge where you went wrong. “Usually in conflict, each person involved has some accountability for what happened,” says Derhally. “If you can find one thing you were responsible for in that conflict and apologize for it, it will usually soften the other person and invite them to make an apology as well.”
“In conflict, there are two perspectives and realities that are very different,” says Derhally. “Just because your perspective and reality may be different than someone else’s, it doesn’t mean yours is right and vice versa.” According to Derhally, an example of a validation would look like: “It makes sense that you were in a bad mood the other night and snapped because you had such a bad day at work.” “It doesn’t excuse the other person’s behavior,” she says. “It’s just a way of understanding and connecting instead of putting someone else on the defensive.”
If you feel yourself bubbling with anger, pause before you let out what’s on your mind. “Stop yourself before you say anything,” says Derhally. Try to use a word or a mantra that will signal to yourself that you need to take a step back, and think about what you want to say before you say it.”
6. Evaluate Your Feelings
If you are the one triggered in a conversation, try to see if you can figure out what about the situation is making you feel so intensely. “Do you feel not seen?” says Castaños. “Do you feel that you are constantly criticized and that no matter what you do it is never enough? Once you recognize this trigger, see if it is true. Most likely that ‘always’ or ‘never’ is not quite true.”
7. Listen Twice As Much As You Speak
It’s tempting to want to get everything off your chest, but listening can go a long way. “When in conflict, listen twice as much as you speak,” therapist Ann Dillard, MA, LMFT tells Bustle. “It was always said that we have two ears and one mouth because we need to spend more time listening than we do talking.”
Follow these tips, and you might find that your issues with others get resolved much more quickly.
Conventional wisdom (and research) says that good communication can improve relationships, increasing intimacy, trust, and support. The converse is also true: poor communication can weaken bonds, creating stress, mistrust and even contempt! Because conflict is virtually inevitable in relationships (and not necessarily a sign of trouble), you can reduce a significant amount of stress and strengthen your relationships at the same time if you build the knowledge and skills to handle conflict in a healthy way.
Here are some examples of negative and even destructive attitudes and communication patterns that can exacerbate conflict in a relationship. How many of these sound like something you’d do?
Avoiding Conflict Altogether
Rather than discussing building frustrations in a calm, respectful manner, some people just don’t say anything to their partner until they’re ready to explode, and then blurt it out in an angry, hurtful way. This seems to be the less stressful route—avoiding an argument altogether—but usually causes more stress to both parties as tensions rise, resentments fester, and a much bigger argument eventually results. It’s much healthier to address and resolve conflict.
These assertiveness communication skills can help you to say things in a way where you will be more likely to be heard, without being disrespectful to the other person.
Rather than addressing a partner’s complaints with an objective eye and willingness to understand the other person’s point of view, defensive people steadfastly deny any wrongdoing and work hard to avoid looking at the possibility that they could be contributing to a problem. Denying responsibility may seem to alleviate stress in the short run, but creates long-term problems when partners don’t feel listened to and unresolved conflicts and continue to grow.
When something happens that they don’t like, some blow it out of proportion by making sweeping generalizations. Avoid starting sentences with, “You always,” and, “You never,” as in, “You always come home late!” or, “You never do what I want to do!” Stop and think about whether or not this is really true. Also, don’t bring up past conflicts to throw the discussion off-topic and stir up more negativity. This stands in the way of true conflict resolution and increases the level of conflict.
Sometimes we’re not aware of the ways the mind can blow things out of proportion. This list of common cognitive distortions can get in the way of healthy relationships with others and can exacerbate stress levels. See which ones may be familiar to you.
It’s damaging to decide that there’s a “right” way to look at things and a “wrong” way to look at things and that your way of seeing things is right. Don’t demand that your partner see things the same way, and don’t take it as a personal attack if they have a different opinion. Look for a compromise or agreeing to disagree, and remember that there’s not always a “right” or a “wrong,” and that two points of view can both be valid.
“Psychoanalyzing” / Mind-Reading
nstead of asking about their partner’s thoughts and feelings, people sometimes decide that they “know” what their partners are thinking and feeling based only on faulty interpretations of their actions—and always assume it’s negative! (For example, deciding a late mate doesn’t care enough to be on time, or that a tired partner is denying sex out of passive-aggressiveness.) This creates hostility and misunderstandings. It’s important to keep in mind that we all come from a unique perspective, and work hard to assume nothing; really listen to the other person and let them explain where they are coming from.
Forgetting to Listen
Some people interrupt, roll their eyes, and rehearse what they’re going to say next instead of truly listening and attempting to understand their partner. This keeps you from seeing their point of view, and keeps your partner from wanting to see yours! Don’t underestimate the importance of really listening and empathizing with the other person! These listening skills are important to bear in mind.
Playing the Blame Game
Some people handle conflict by criticizing and blaming the other person for the situation. They see admitting any weakness on their own part as a weakening of their credibility, and avoid it at all costs, and even try to shame them for being “at fault.” Instead, try to view conflict as an opportunity to analyze the situation objectively, assess the needs of both parties and come up with a solution that helps you both.
Trying to “Win” the Argument
I love it when Dr. Phil says that if people are focused on “winning” the argument, the relationship loses! The point of a relationship discussion should be mutual understanding and coming to an agreement or resolution that respects everyone’s needs. If you’re making a case for how wrong the other person is, discounting their feelings, and staying stuck in your point of view, you’re focused in the wrong direction!
Making Character Attacks
Sometimes people take any negative action from a partner and blow it up into a personality flaw. (For example, if a husband leaves his socks lying around, looking it as a character flaw and label him “inconsiderate and lazy,” or, if a woman wants to discuss a problem with the relationship, labeling her “needy,” “controlling,” or “too demanding.”) This creates negative perceptions on both sides. Remember to respect the person, even if you don’t like the behavior.
When one partner wants to discuss troubling issues in the relationship, sometimes people defensively stonewall, or refuse to talk or listen to their partner. This shows disrespect and, in certain situations, even contempt, while at the same time letting the underlying conflict grow. Stonewalling solves nothing but creates hard feelings and damages relationships. It’s much better to listen and discuss things in a respectful manner.
Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.
We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score,calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.
The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.
The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.
And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”
In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice. It is ridiculous.
Practicing Mindfulness in Conflict
Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises — whether it’s at work or home. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking or recoiling, and later justifying our reactions, we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.
Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict demands a willingness to stay present, to feel intensely, to override our negative thoughts, and to engage our breath to maintain presence with the body. Like any skill, it takes practice.
There are different approaches to working with a provoked nervous system and intense emotions, but they all have some elements in common. Here are four simple steps (which I also describe in my book, Everything is Workable) that I try to use when I find myself with an overloaded nervous system and a body racing with a fight or flight impulse.
Step 1: Stay present.
The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.
We have to decide to stay put and present, to be curious and explore our experience. For me, it helps to remind myself to relax. I have a visual cue that I use that involves my son. When I’m worked up, he has the habit of looking at me, raising and lowering his hands in a calming fashion, and saying “Easy Windmill.” I try to reflect on this and it helps me calm down because he’s so charming when he does it.
Step 2: Let go of the story.
This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.
Step 3: Focus on the body.
Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.
Step 4: Finally, breathe.
Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: Rhythm and smoothness. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on these two dimensions, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop.
To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; this establishes rhythm.
At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw. If we manage those two qualities for just a few minutes, the breath assists us in remaining present, making it possible to stay with intense sensation in the body.
Paying attention to our body re-establishes equilibrium faster, restoring our ability to think, to listen, and relate. This takes practice, but eventually, we retrain ourselves to respond rather than to react. Anger becomes clarity and resolve, sadness leads to compassion, jealousy becomes fuel for change.
There will also be certain moments when we fail. Becoming more intimate with our body’s response to a hijacked nervous system is challenging, to say the least. This is because the sensations are very uncomfortable, our emotions are volatile, and our mind is usually filling with unsupportive thoughts like “Get me outta here,” or “How can they be saying that?” or “This is a waste of my time.”
Each time we succeed in being mindful of our body in moments of distress, we develop our capacity. Even more, we may observe something new when it occurs. A moment of pause, an unexpected question when it appears or a laugh that erupts. When anything new happens, taking note of it helps to free us of the pattern to our old way of doing things. Before we know it, our old habit of fight or flight is changing, and the world is a safer place.
“Thought changes structure … I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and trauma.” ~ Norman Doidge, Canadian-born psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself
The human brain is remarkably malleable. It can be shaped very much like a ball of Play-Doh, albeit with a bit more time and effort.
Within the last 20 years, thanks to rapid development in the spheres of brain imaging and neuroscience, we can now say for certain that the brain is capable of re-engineering – and that we are the engineers.
In many ways, neuroplasticity – an umbrella term describing lasting change to the brain throughout a person’s life – is a wonderful thing.
Here are a few reasons why:
– We can increase our intelligence (“I.Q.”)
– We can learn new, life-changing skills.
– We can recover from certain types of brain damage.
– We can become more emotionally intelligent.
– We can “unlearn” harmful behaviors, beliefs, and habits.
On the other side of the coin, we can redesign our brain for the worse!
Fortunately, thanks to our ability to unlearn harmful behaviors, beliefs, and habits, we can right the ship again!
BELIEFS CHANGE THE BRAIN
Donald Hebb, an early pioneer of neuroplasticity and neuropsychology, famously said:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Dr. Michael Merzenich, now recognized as perhaps the world’s most renowned neuroscientist, built on Hebb’s work, proving the relationship between our thoughts (“neurons that fire”) and structural changes in the brain (“wire together.”)
Among Dr. Merzenich’s numerous discoveries, this one may be the most important:
Your experiences, behaviors, thinking, habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to world are inseparable from how your brain wires itself.
Negative habits change your brain for the worse. Positive habits change your brain for the better.
Neuroplasticity and Illness
Consider this quote by Alex Korb, Ph.D., and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:
“In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision making and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of all those circuits. And once a pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.”
Neuroplasticity can be both the problem and the solution.
COMPLAINING AND BRAIN CHANGES
We’re going to get a bit more specific now, discussing the effects of negative behaviors – specifically, complaining – and how these behaviors alter the brain’s structure.
We all know that one person who is continually negative. The person who never seems to be satisfied with anything or anyone.
Negative people are almost always complainers, without fail. Worse, complainers are not satisfied in keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves; instead, they’ll seek out some unwilling participant and vent.
Undoubtedly annoying to their friends and family, these “Debbie Downers” aren’t to be chastised but understood.
You see, we all complain from time-to-time. In fact, researchers from Clemson University empirically demonstrated that everyone grumbles on occasion. Some just do so much more often than others.
Complainers generally fall into one of three groups:
Attention-seeking Complainers: People who seek attention through complaining; always dwelling on about how they’ve got it worse than everyone else. Ironically, (rational) people are apt to ignore outright the person rather than waste mental energy focusing on their negativity.
Chronic Complainers: These folks live in a constant state of complaint. If they’re not voicing about their “woe is me” attitude, they’re probably thinking about it.
Psychologists term this compulsory behavior rumination, defined as “repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.” Rumination is, unfortunately, directly relayed to the depressed and anxious brain.
Low-E.Q. Complainers: ‘E.Q.’ is short for emotional quotient, and constituents within this group are short on E.Q. What I.Q. is to intelligence, E.Q. is to emotional understanding.
These people aren’t interested in your perspective, thoughts, or feelings. You’re a sounding board – a brick wall. As such, they’ll dwell and vent at every opportunity.
Is the Brain to Blame?
The answer is (mostly) “Yes.”
You see, most negative people don’t want to feel this way. Who the hell would?
Harmful behaviors such as complaining, if allowed to loop within the brain continually, will inevitably alter thought processes. Altered thoughts lead to altered beliefs which leads to a change in behavior.
Our brain possesses a something called the negativity bias. In simple terms, negativity bias is the brain’s tendency to focus more on negative circumstances than positive.
Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist and author of Buddha’s Brain, explains negativity bias:
“Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intensive positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly.”
Repetition is the mother of all learning. When we repeatedly focus on the negative by complaining, we’re firing and re-firing the neurons responsible for the negativity bias.
We’re creating our negative behavior through repetition.
It’s not possible to be “happy-go-lucky” all of the time – and we needn’t try.
We should, however, take concrete steps to counteract negative thinking.
Research has repeatedly shown that meditation and mindfulness are perhaps the most powerful tools for combating negativity.
Positive psychology researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, showed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not.
Following a three month experiment, Fredrickson’s team noted that “people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.”
After learning the basics of meditation, which involves focus on the breath, create a daily meditation schedule that works for you.
15-20 minutes of daily meditation may just make a huge difference in your life – and your brain!
For boards of directors of community organizations, there are typically four arenas in which conflict manifests itself.
Conflict among board members
Conflict on the board itself arises as a result of differences between individual directors or factions of directors. Camaraderie and friendship is often important for volunteer directors and if the board is not fun at some level, in the face of significant conflict, board members may drift away or resign. Frequently the chair of the board is the source of the conflict, often by virtue of “running the show” or dominating board discussions, or else he/she is guilty of doing nothing to facilitate resolution. Marion Peters Angelica points out that the chair and chief executive (Executive Director) must play a role in resolving board conflict but that the latter is in a very awkward position to do so without appearing to take sides or be manipulating the situation. Beyond providing factual information or providing process advice, the Executive Director is wise to let the board chair, or other board members take responsibility for resolving the conflict.
Conflict between Board and Staff
Conflict between the board and staff, especially between the board and the Executive Director is common. Often it is a conflict of a structural nature: the boundaries of each other’s roles and responsibilities, where power is shared.
Conflict among Staff Members
Boards frequently get drawn into conflicts among staff or volunteers. While the Board might take a role as a result of their own initiative, more often than not the Board will find themselves involved because an individual director or a staff person has done an “end run” around the Executive Director. In situations where a conflict is between a staff person and the Executive Director, the board may need to get involved either to mediate or arbitrate. Boards are increasingly concerned about the legal and/or reputation threats a conflict may have on the organization. Where there is an Executive Director and the conflict is between other staff (or between volunteers), a board would be wise to stay clear, especially if it wants to be seen as affirming the ED’s authority and responsibility. Boards get drawn into staff conflicts because they are often seen as the real authority. A board with a tendency to micro-manage will be drawn into more staff conflicts than a board that sees its role as an arbitrator of last resort. Boards can make staff conflict situations worse, especially when individual directors, or even the chair, take it upon themselves to intervene.
Conflict between the organization and its members or stakeholders
Sometimes the legitimacy of the board and staff will be challenged by the members or groups that are part of the organization’s constituency. Factions amongst the membership can arise whenever a few people become unhappy with how things are being run and believe they or others can do a better job. Directors who show disregard for the organization’s by-laws or constitution open themselves up to an uprising. In such a situation a board is ripe for a “coup”, often involving a raucous Annual General Meeting. Organizations with representative boards are susceptible to these kinds of conflicts because the membership is often already somewhat organized.
How to Manage Better With Conflict
Unfortunately, the media and entertainment industry provide us few examples of well-managed conflict. However, there are ways to channel our inevitable differences into constructive action. Here are some ideas, not in any particular order, for non–profit organizations that want to manage conflict more effectively.
Clarify roles and responsibilities
Boards must strive to clarify the roles and responsibilities of individual directors and officers (especially the chairperson) and the board’s role in relation to staff. An annual board orientation session is a logical place for such a discussion. Job descriptions outlining duties and responsibilities are seldom adequate for clarifying roles, especially where board and staff responsibilities overlap such as in determining and working on strategic objectives.
Seek or develop a skilled board chairperson
An effective board chair is critical to managing conflict. Such effectiveness comes from clarity about the chair’s role, personal integrity, an understanding of the importance of process and the liberal use of a few proven facilitation techniques.
Encourage job evaluation
Formal evaluation processes for the board, executive director and staff members are important mechanisms for direct communication and action that can improve working relationships. Boards should evaluate themselves (with the Executive Director having an opportunity to provide his/her own assessment of the relationship) and should regularly evaluate the Executive Director according to pre-determined criteria. Regular evaluation of staff, by the executive director, if constructively handled, will help avoid staff conflicts.
Implement a grievance procedure
Whether unionized or not, voluntary organizations that employ staff or regularly utilize volunteers should have a written grievance or complaint procedure that is known to everyone. Such a procedure will outline the steps and decision makers involved in resolving a dispute. Normally such a procedure will include both informal (verbal) and formal (written) steps and time frames. In most cases, such a procedure will designate the Board of Directors as the final decision-maker.
Establish a code of conduct for directors
Non-profit organizations ought to have a written code of conduct for directors that set some standards and rules for their relationship with one another, with the Executive Director and with staff. A code of conduct ought to give direction on issues such as confidentiality, conflicts of interests, interactions with staff and speaking with “one voice”.
Deal with conflict openly when it arises
As uncomfortable as it often is, and as much as we hope that it will go away if we ignore it, it is important to acknowledge conflict directly when it occurs. Boards need to talk about what to do when they have differences. What is necessary for the boardroom to be a safe place to raise difficult issues?
Discuss good interpersonal communications practices
Boards should make time, possibly at orientation, to reflect on, research, and discuss good communication practices. On an individual level, this includes balancing “inquiry” and “advocacy”, checking our assumptions, being aware of own filters and separating impact from intent. Directors can be more effective if each person put into practice the principle that they should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood.’ Starting a “difficult conversation” by describing what happened rather than our interpretation of what happened can help prevent people from becoming defensive.
Frame conflict as an exercise in “win-win” negotiation
It can often be helpful when there are different views on what should happen, to discuss the resolution of a conflict as a negotiation. In this frame, people can be asked to set their positions aside, assert their views, seek to understand those of others, work with underlying interests (common and different), and look for solutions that meet everyone’s interests.
Celebrate agreements and new understandings
Both boards and staff can do more to acknowledge the hard work that is involved in expressing and working through important issues. We can all show genuine appreciation for openness and risk-taking, “Pats on the back” are often welcome. A bottle of champagne, a case of beer or a team dinner can be useful ways of drawing attention to success in managing conflict.
Look to gender and cultural differences as a way out of a mess
It is well known that men and women, and people of different cultures, bring different perspectives and skills to managing conflict. If a conflict suffers from cultural intransigence, boards should look inward or outward for some alternative approaches.
Seek outside help early
A third party is often very valuable in helping to resolving conflict. This can be a professional or a trusted friend outside of the organization. The integrity and skills of the person should always take precedence over their position; even a representative of a funder, if they are the right person, could facilitate a resolution. The board should be clear if it wants the resolution mediated with the help of a facilitator (a negotiated resolution) or someone else to hear the arguments on all sides and decides (an arbitrated settlement).
Article originally posted at https://hbr.org/2018/10/stop-complaining-about-your-colleagues-behind-their-backs and written by Deborah Grayson Riegel.
In my coaching work with leaders and teams, I often ask my clients whether they engage in workplace gossip. More often than not, they respond, “of course not!” with a look on their faces that indicates that they are insulted to have been asked such a question.
But when I ask them whether they have ever participated in a “confirmation expedition” — whereby they 1) ask a colleague to confirm their own negative or challenging experience with a third colleague who is not present, or 2) welcome a similar line of confirmation inquiry from another colleague about a third colleague who is not present, most admit that this is, in fact, a regular part of their daily work life.
While leaders and teams might consider this behavior to be innocent “blowing off steam” or the more strategic “confirming performance data,” I consider it a form of workplace gossip.
But it’s not just me. Authors Nancy Kurland and Lisa Hope Pelled, in their research paper, Passing the Word: Toward a Model of Gossip and Power in the Workplace, define gossip as: “informal and evaluative talk in an organization, usually among no more than a few individuals, about another member of that organization who is not present.” When you think about how often your workplace conversations are 1) informal (“I’m just hanging out in Linda’s office”); 2) evaluative (“discussing how difficult it is to get a timely response from Doug in Accounting”); 3) among no more than a few individuals (“…and Marci’s here too.”); and 4) about another member of that organization who is not present (“Doug’s at his desk, of course!”), you might start to realize how often you’re engaging in gossip, and contributing to gossip’s damaging effects.
Like what? Like the erosion of trust, hurt feelings, decreased morale, damaged reputations, reduced personal and professional credibility, increased anxiety, divisiveness, and attrition.
Despite the high costs of gossip, the drive to engage in it is strong. Dr. Peggy Drexler, research psychologist and professor of psychology at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College writes that “anthropologists say that throughout human history, gossip has been a way to bond with others — even a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.”
Talking with one or more coworkers about how hard it is to get Doug in Accounting to give a timely response creates a feeling of connection with everyone else who is struggling with Doug’s lack of responsiveness. Those similarly frustrated by Doug treat one another with in-group favoritism, a common and central aspect of human behavior, whereby people act more pro-socially towards members of their own group relative to those outside their group.
Gossip is also a means of venting for those who are reluctant to give direct feedback to or have difficult conversations with their colleagues. As I cited in my HBR article, When to Skip a Difficult Conversation, “In a 2013 Globis survey of more than 200 professionals on the topic of difficult conversations…80% of respondents reported that these conversations were a part of their job, [but] more than half indicated that they didn’t feel like they had adequate training on how to conduct them effectively.”
By talking to anyone, everyone, or even one person about another colleague who isn’t there to hear the feedback, provide his or her perspective, and engage in joint problem solving, you are undermining the benefits of an open, honest relationship and a feedback-rich culture.
Finally, we use gossip as a way to collect evidence that confirms our beliefs, satisfying our confirmation bias — the tendency to look for information that confirms what we already believe to be true. By checking in with a coworker about whether she, too, experiences Doug as slow to respond, we get confirmation for our existing beliefs, and the satisfaction that comes from “being right” about Doug. And as Judith Glaser explains in her article, Your Brain Is Hooked on Being Right, the flood of adrenaline and dopamine that accompanies feeling right can become downright addictive.
Considering how satisfying it is to be right, how tempted we are to avoid giving direct feedback and having difficult conversations, and how often we seek confirmation for what we already believe, it can be hard to break the habit of engaging in gossip — as the instigator or the recipient. Nevertheless, there are several strategies to help you and your team stop engaging in something so wrong that feels so right:
1) Name it, then pivot. First, call gossip “gossip” to stop it in its tracks. If you are engaging in “informal and evaluative talk in an organization, usually among no more than a few individuals, about another member of that organization who is not present,” — especially if the aim is to confirm your experience rather than get constructive solutions — then you are participating in gossip. If you call someone on it, most people will step back at hearing a colleague say, “This sounds like gossip. Is that what you intended?” Second, pivot the conversation by asking, “How can I help you get a better outcome?” Only engage in coaching, brainstorming, and problem-solving conversations — not in problem-confirming ones.
2) Ask yourself or others why you need someone else’s confirmation about a behavior that you’re noticing in a third person. If it’s to justify your feelings, to confirm that you’re right, or to gain support for your point of view, don’t bring someone else into the conversation. If it’s to understand how you might be contributing to the dynamic or problem, to brainstorm helpful solutions, or to go on record to make a formal complaint for further investigation, then go for it.
3) Let people know that you have a policy of “if you have a problem with me, please tell me first.” Adopt the “tell them first” policy with your colleagues, and, when someone approaches you with gossip about someone else, ask “Have you already told her?” to remind them of this policy.
4) Create a feedback-rich environment around you. The more you normalize feedback — both positive and negative, and both giving and receiving — the less likely people will be to look for alternative means to express their frustrations and concerns. Rather than “saving” feedback for annual performance reviews, make discussions about what someone did well, and what he or she could do differently, a part of every supervision meeting or project debrief. And make sure to give people positive feedback when they offer particularly useful feedback — even if it’s hard to hear.
Gossip, even by any other name, is still a destructive communication strategy that negatively impacts individuals, teams and the whole organization. By stopping it in its tracks, choosing healthier and more helpful methods of communicating what’s not working, and engaging in collaborative problem-solving, relationships and organizations can flourish.
Article originally posted at https://hbr.org/2019/01/4-things-to-do-before-a-tough-conversation and written by Joseph Grenny.
I was in denial for about a year and a half before I admitted that I needed to fire Randy.
His work performance had made the conclusion inescapable for years, but he was so darned nice and likeable that I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not only did I like him, I also knew his income was crucial to his family. Furthermore, over the nine years he worked for me, his income had grown to the point that he would find it difficult to get comparable compensation. I hated the thought of the hardship that letting him go might cause. And yet Randy (which is not his real name) had shown himself to be entirely incompetent at managing people and projects. He completed projects based on whoever was nagging him the most not on the importance to the business of the commitments he’d made. You knew he would agree to anything, but you never knew if you’d actually get it. His team was in a constant state of whiplash as his panicked phone calls would often reset their entire agenda.
Eighteen months earlier, I had communicated the serious nature of this chronic pattern. I was certain he could make the changes he agreed to. In subsequent months I fooled myself into believing his random successes demonstrated a pattern of improvement. But after such a long time — and a perfectly harmonized chorus of complaints from his coworkers — I could no longer elude my responsibility. Randy had to go.
I lived in dread of our Friday 2:00 PM appointment until the moment it arrived.
My colleagues and I have spent 30 years studying best practices for dealing with just this kind of moment of emotional or political risk. We’ve learned that how we deal with these kinds of crucial conversations predicts the magnitude of our influence, the health of our teams, the consistency of innovation, the strength of customer relationships, and even the durability of marriages and friendship. We’ve spent many thousands of hours observing how people manage these moments, and our recurring observation is that, unfortunately, when it matters most, we do our worst. We cower or coerce, obfuscate or exaggerate, contend or defend.
It’s no surprise that books on these topics (like ours) fly off the shelves. We all crave tactical advice about mastering the verbal ordeal. How should I compose my opening sentence? How do I present my concerns? How can I be sure the other person is forthcoming? How do I stay focused and get to a solution?
While these are all valid questions, our research shows the primary predictor of your success in a crucial conversation has less to do with how you use your mouth, and much more to do with what you do before you open it. What I did Friday at 1:30 PM mattered more than what happened at 2:00 PM.
Here are the four things you must do to prepare. If you do them well, the odds your conversation will go well improve dramatically.
Get your motives right. Under conditions of stress and threat, our motives become short-term and selfish. We worry about whether others will like us, whether we’ll look good, be right, win, or avoid conflict. For 18 months, my motive with Randy had been to keep the peace. I wanted to smooth things over and make it all better. The problem with short-term motives is that they preserve the present by mortgaging the future. By avoiding conflict with Randy, I compromised his ability to save his job; I hurt our customers; I frustrated his teammates — and even risked losing some of them. But under conditions of stress and threat, I think escape, not long-term. Each time Randy would violate a commitment, my chest would tighten and I would think, “How do I patch this?” rather than “What’s the real problem?”
The first thing to do when preparing for a crucial conversation is to reset your motives. You can radically change your motives by thoughtfully answering a simple question: What do I really want? I find it helpful to answer it at four levels: What do I really want for me? For the other person? For the relationship? For other stakeholders?
Something potent happened as I meditated on these questions that Friday morning. A sense of focus, determination, and calm came as I connected with my real desires: to be a caring and ethical manager; to help Randy get a job where he could win; to ensure Randy knew I cared about him and his family; and to provide his team and customers with the support they deserved. Simply connecting to these motives changed my affect as I approached the conversation.
Get your emotions right. Unhelpful emotions are another second barrier to a productive conversation. We often come in angry, scared, hurt, or defensive. Surprisingly, our emotions have less to do with what the other person is doing, and more to do with the story we tell ourselves about what they are doing.
For example, prior to dismissing someone, managers will often tell themselves victim and villain stories. Their victim story helps them absolve themselves of responsibility for the problem at hand (“I did everything I possibly could for Randy. I have been patient, supportive and kind. There’s nothing more I could have done! He did this to himself!”) A victim story makes us out to be innocent sufferers in the predicament.
A villain story helps us justify any negative action we take toward the other by attributing evil or malicious motives to them. We make the other person out to be deserving of suffering. (“I can’t believe Randy hasn’t fixed this. He has been lazy, unmotivated, and entitled. He had every opportunity but didn’t care enough to address the crystal-clear feedback I gave him!”).
Recognize and challenge the stories you tell yourself. Turn yourself from a victim to an actor. Turn the other person from a villain to a human. Ask yourself, “What am I pretending not to know about my role in this?” and “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what he’s doing?”
As I asked these questions, I could see many ways I had minimized my feedback and enabled Randy. I could see that he had made valid efforts to change, but that the position did not play to his strengths. This was a good man in a wrong role. I felt a sense of respect and resolve rather than detachment and indignation.
Gather the facts. By definition, we enter a crucial conversation with opposing views. For example, Randy is likely to come to this conversation believing he is making reasonable progress and deserves continued employment. I don’t. Often, the conversation degenerates into contesting conclusions rather than shared information. I say what I think. You say what you think. Rinse and repeat.
Don’t start a crucial conversation by sharing your conclusion. Share the facts and premises that led you to your conclusion. Lay out your data. Explain the logic you used to arrive where you did. Gathering the facts is required homework for a healthy conversation. If I think, “Randy is entirely incapable of managing people or projects,” I owe it to him to build my case in a patient, honest, and vulnerable way. And I need to be willing to let him challenge my case as well, which leads to the fourth step.
Get curious. The most important attitude to bring to a crucial conversation is a blend of confidence and curiosity. I need to have thought through my position enough to have confidence that it has merit. And I need to muster enough humility to be interested in any facts or logic that might improve my conclusion. Many people resist curiosity because they think it weakens them. In fact, it does the opposite. It makes you more persuasive. As Dean Rusk once said, “The best way to persuade others is with your ears, by listening.” When you listen deeply and sincerely, others feel less of a need to resist you in order to be heard.
As I walked into the room to meet with Randy, I felt confident of the decision I needed to share, but open to information that might persuade me otherwise. I felt a mix of compassion and determination. I was ready to share the basis from which my decision had been made. I wasn’t happy. But I felt peaceful.
I wish I could say that everything turned out great. Randy had a tough time finding his next job. My colleagues and I rallied around him frequently in his search. Even though implementing the decision was painful, Randy supported it within minutes of our meeting. He said, “The past six months have been stressful. I have been drowning and can see I’m not cut out for this.” When we finished our conversation, we hugged, something we have done periodically in subsequent years of our friendship.
Going into a tough conversation, it’s understandable to be worried about what you’re going to say. But it’s important to focus first on your motives, assumptions, and thoughts. Crucial conversations are 60% getting your head, heart, and gut right, and 40% saying it right.our motives, assumptions, and thoughts. Crucial conversations are 60% getting your head, heart, and gut right, and 40% saying it right.