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Parents of teenagers who are dealt a cursory “whatever” in reply to a request or a reprimand (accompanied usually by your teen leaving the room in a huff), will know what stonewalling is.  In the workplace, unreturned phone-calls, unanswered emails or communications that mysteriously never reach their designation are further examples of this challenging conflict response.

A metaphor for a wilful shutting down or sabotaging of communications, the term “stonewalling” is perfectly descriptive of what happens when one party decides to stop interacting with another.  It is a communication inhibitor equivalent to someone building a wall of stone around themselves or between themselves and their partner.   For interpersonal dealings, this is the equivalent of the go-slow,  strike and   lock-out tactics of industrial action all rolled into one.

Stonewalling presents most commonly either as a form of conflict avoidance or a tactical ploy used to gain a desired advantage.  In personal relationships, men have a greater tendency to stonewall or withdraw either as a flight-response to conflict or to escape perceived nagging or their partner’s need to “talk things through”.   When women stonewall in relationships however, it is considered to be more damaging and indicative of relationship breakdown.   Within the workplace, stonewalling is often an expression of power or an indicator of undisclosed misbehaviour.

Why stonewall?

  • to prevent the aggravation of a situation
  • to prevent disclosure of information
  • to control the conduct of a situation
  • to obstruct a process or development
  • fear of conflict
  • lack of conflict communication skills
  • an expression of disdain or indifference
  • an expression of personal power

Examples of stonewalling range from refusing to continue a conversation to being obviously “absent” or disengaging during a communication, changing the subject to avoid a specific topic, evasiveness or excessive vagueness in responding, constantly raising the bar as regards further information/action required before progress is possible, physically leaving the field of interaction or giving someone the silent treatment and refusing to talk or communicate for days on end and not replying to formal attempts at communication as is the case with phone calls, letters or emails.

To be at the receiving end of stonewalling is to experience frustration, disrespect, humiliation, confusion, aggression and provocation.  Since constructive communication thrives on engagement between parties, stonewalling is its very antithesis.  It fosters mistrust by stopping the flow of information that we require for the settling of disputes and keeping us in the dark as regards the other’s intentions.  Used constantly, stonewalling is a strong indicator of a relationship in demise and is understandably the final horse in John Gottmann’s Apocalyptic Four.

Despite this poor prognosis, how best do we deal with stonewalling and how do we respond to it constructively?

  • don’t shout, don’t pursue and don’t focus on the stonewalling as the issue
  • step back, take time out and allow your emotions to settle
  • try to see the situation from the point of view of the stonewaller:  what is it he/she is protecting, is fearful of, is afraid of disclosing or is trying to avoid?
  • return to the topic constructively bearing in mind the vulnerabilities of the stonewaller; if possible build him a bridge to make communication easier
  • in a workplace situation, go over the head of the stonewaller and seek a response at a higher level or get another party involved to whom the stonewaller is more likely to respond
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Sharing my life with Apollo, a castrated Parson Russell terrier, I know all about defensiveness.   Funny, cheerful and easy-going as he is, he can turn into a short-tempered piece of trouble if big dogs spend too much time sniffing his nether regions.    This is because as a castrate, he gives off a confusing scent to non-neutered male dogs who tend to sniff him longer than usual trying to work out whether he’s female or not.

Defensiveness is defined in conflict literature as a reaction to a real or imagined threat or attack to one’s sense of wellbeing or self-esteem.  Such threats or attacks generally focus on matters of honour, virtue, reputation or integrity and are always an indicator of deep-seated vulnerabilities that we are at pains to protect.

In the case of Apollo, the prolonged interest in what lies below his tail raises his fear that the attention he is receiving is going to lead to an act of dominance on the part of the other dog.   And being the terrier that he is, he’s not going to let that happen in a hurry and protects himself by attacking first.  The other dog, taken aback by this defensive blow out of the blue particularly from someone who barely reaches his kneecaps, usually beats a hasty retreat.  In Apollo’s case, the act of sniffing (the trigger) is in itself harmless dog-talk, but a terrier’s reluctance to be dominated (his vulnerability) is the underlying sensibility that gives rise to the unmeasured defensive behaviour.

Not unlike our friends in the animal world,  we bluff, growl, ignore and deny  in order to protect deep-seated vulnerabilities which we feel are under attack.   Our defensive responses are similarly less about the object of our rebuttal than about the underlying value that we seek to defend.    What  “I didn’t take the money” really says,  is “I’m an honest person”,  what “I didn’t leave my child alone in the car” says,  is “I’m a responsible parent” and what “I didn’t say that about you” says, is “I’m a good friend”.

So, what are our most common defensive responses, how do they impact a conflict situation and how best do we deal with defensiveness?

Defensive responses fall into 5 main categories:

  1. Denial.  “I didn’t do it.”
  2. Blame.  “It’s not my fault.  You should have….”
  3. Justification.  “I only did it because…”
  4. Deflection.  “What’s the big deal? Everyone does it.  Why are you picking on me?”
  5. Withdrawal.  This includes blanking, ignoring and other forms of shutting down communication.

Defensiveness impacts conflict interactions by:

  1. creating smoke screens and confusion around the real issues at stake
  2. increasing the surface area of the conflict by introducing a further (hidden) element into the conflict discourse
  3. hijacking the communication process
  4. encouraging the conflict partner to become defensive in turn
  5. keeping us from taking responsibility in conflict

Dealing with defensiveness:

Declaratory statements such as “You’re being defensive” are only likely to illicit a  “No, I’m not” in reply followed by more defensive toing and froing and an escalation of the conflict discourse. This is not the way to go.

A three-step approach is more likely to counter defensive feelings effectively:

  1. adopt a curious state of mind at the first signs of defensiveness
  2. ask yourself what vulnerability is under threat in this conflict encounter
  3. attempt to address the vulnerability empathetically

“I know you’re a good friend and that’s why I’m surprised to hear that you said that about me. ” is much more likely to expand communication and allow the real issue to surface than an exchange based on the back-and-forth of accusation and denial.

And,  if the key to breaking through defensiveness lies in uncovering the root of the other’s defensive response, then the best way to do this is to start with ourselves:  taking responsibility for our own defensiveness, identifying the defensive behaviours that we most commonly resort to and exploring the vulnerabilities that we protect by responding defensively is the best way  to understand defensiveness in others.  As ever, walking in the other’s shoes (or in the case of Apollo walking on his paws), is the master-class in perspective-shifting and the most fundamental tool for constructive conflict resolution.

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When William Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth sleepwalk the dark corridors of Cawdor Castle trying in vain to wash her hands of the bloodstains she imagines she sees there after the murder of Duncan –  that’s guilt.  That cold and dark emotion that gnaws at conscience so relentlessly gradually robs her of her sanity and finally leads to her death.  What Shakespeare so perfectly evokes in Macbeth is the tortuous and consumptive nature of guilt, turning the details of our wrongdoings round and round in our minds, forcing us to revisit the scene of our misdeeds time and again and robbing us of any hope of inner peace.

Guilt is an emotion and a state of being that is as much at home in the fields of psychology and psychiatry as it is in philosophy, in ethical and religious discourse and naturally, in the law.  It ranges in scope from individual or personal guilt to the collective guilt of nations and to social guilt towards generations yet to be born.

From a personal point of view, we have all at some time in our lives experienced guilt – the sick feeling at the pit of the stomach that is evoked when we do something that we later wish we hadn’t – an act which we believe violates a moral framework and causes us to feel regret.

But it is the way in which we choose to respond to guilt that decides its trajectory for our peace of mind.  In the workplace, this choice is of great significance for us as individuals, for colleagues and management and for workplace resources.

There are four common responses to guilt – repression, denial, projection and acknowledgement, each of which brings with it consequences and opportunities for conflict resolution:

  • Repression or the hiding or ignoring of guilt not only prevents the discovery of a wrongful deed but more particularly hinders its resolution and in doing so prolongs the effects of the wrongdoing; repression leads to anxiety, depression and anger for the guilty, to sick-leave, absenteeism, the sabotage of projects or company property and to heightened inefficiency
  • Denial of guilt prolongs the pain and the consequences of the misdeed, creates intrigue and suspicion by necessitating the search for a guilty party, occupies large amounts of work-time in seeking resolution and similarly leads to anxiety and depression and its consequences for the workplace.
  • Projection, a common response to guilt that involves blaming another for one’s own misdeeds goes even further in that it attempts to lay a false trail to another and exculpate the actual culprit from the offending act.  This response fosters destructive behaviour, opens the door to bullying and victimisation, leads to absenteeism, high staff-fluctuation and non-productivity all of which require increased company resources and result in a loss in productivity and in profits.
  • Acknowledgement of guilt enables the wrongdoer to transform the emotion and to constructively approach resolution. Acknowledgement involves the admission of responsibility, the expression of apology and the attempt to restore the status quo ante as far as possible, by facing the consequences and if possible, making good the damage done.    Painful as it is, this act of taking responsibility for one’s actions is the only response that truly breaks the prison of guilt and allows the wrongdoer to regain peace of mind.

The invitation that guilt brings us is to take responsibility for our actions.  As difficult as that may often seem to be, living with guilt is never a happy or an easy alternative.  From a conflict resolution point of view, dealing with guilt responsibly is a sign of emotional intelligence and opens the door not only to new opportunities for creative problem-solving but also to a deepening of self-knowledge and to an increase in self-esteem.

What would have happened had Lady Macbeth acknowledged her guilt?  Would Macbeth still be the quintessential tragedy on greed, power and evil or a great Shakespearean story of human redemption?

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“It is the long history of humankind (and animalkind too), that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”  Charles Darwin

Collaboration makes my mediator’s and my conflict coach’s heart soar!    Despite all that I’ve said about none of the conflict responses that I’ve discussed here being either good, bad or better than the next, I openly and unashamedly admit to some not insubstantial bias in favour of collaboration.    As far as I’m concerned, it is quite simply the king’s discipline when it comes to conflict resolution and the basis of respectful, constructive, emotionally intelligent and lasting solutions to conflict – be it in the workplace or our homes.

Collaboration or “working together” is the underlying conflict response to win-win situations. It is the opposite of competition and has nothing whatsoever to do with compromise.  It flies in the face of our strongly adversarial approach to legal thinking and practice, to debate and classical discourse and argument.  Collaboration has nothing to do with the right-wrong dichotomy and even less with positional thinking.

Instead, collaboration sees the parties involved in conflict teaming up to resolve the situation together keeping in mind both their and the other’s interests and placing equally high value on both the outcome to the conflict and the relationship. In this way, individuals become partners in conflict rather than opponents; they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their attempts to reach resolution rather than facing each other across a divide, swords drawn and shields raised.    The aim is for both parties to leave the conflict as winners with solutions that meet their individual underlying needs and interests and leave no room for festering resentment, dissatisfaction and the inevitable revisiting of the conflict battlefield further down the line.

Collaboration is principle-based conflict resolution – the principle being the belief that there is enough to go round, that ones own needs are as valuable as those of ones partner in conflict and that only solutions which answer and meet everyone’s needs, are enduring and truly satisfying.  The aim in principle-based conflict resolution is the expansion of the pie through thinking out of the box and creating options and opportunities that were either not there or not recognized before.

This all being said,  when is collaboration the appropriate response to conflict and where does it fall short in doing the optimal job?

Collaboration is appropriate:

  • When long-term relationships are involved such as between families, friends or intimate relationships, teams, groups, business-partners, colleagues or workplace partners
  • When the concerns of both parties are too important to compromise
  • When the relationship between the parties is as important as the conflict
  • When consensual decisions require the commitment of both parties
  • When conflict resolution requires the merging of various perspectives or insights

And inappropriate when:

  • The outcome to the conflict is more important than the relationship between the parties
  • When other conflict responses would lead to better results
  • When time is of the essence, for example, in emergencies
  • When  the skills required for collaboration are lacking in the parties

In conclusion, collaboration is what makes teams great, leaders visionary, businesses revolutionary and families memorable and it starts from the realisation that we are not alone – that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that if we acknowledge our individual strengths while bearing in mind our inter-connectedness, we can create gratifying and lasting solutions to whatever problems we encounter.

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Thinking back to my childhood and my early experiences of conflict resolution, the response I most associate with this time of life is without a doubt,  compromise:  “Stop fighting and share!” was the plea for playroom harmony, the consequence of which meant that I had to make do with half – half of the doll’s house furniture, half of the plasticine or half of the crayons when what I really  wanted was the whole damn lot, so that I could live out the imaginative potential that those objects held for me.   Sharing down the middle  reduced the magic, the creative buzz lost its zing, my friend wasn’t my friend anymore and I was left with a latent aversion to the well-meant admonishment to “share nicely!” which I can only admit to now, many years later.

Don’t get me wrong – I had no problem sharing  sweets, toys that were in abundance or that in which I had no particular vested interest  but things that held special meaning to me or which I (or my sibling or friend) had an emotional attachment to were indeed a problem.

When it comes to creating fair factual solutions such as dividing goods or allocating time-slots compromise is great but on issues close to one’s heart or in matters affecting ongoing relationships, compromise introduces something that allows dissatisfaction and resentment to rise and linger and leaves one with memories that smack of regret.

If what looks good on paper does not meet the emotional or behavioural needs of ongoing relationships, compromise often results in both parties feeling short-changed and aggrieved and only serves to increase rather than reduce conflict potential.

Compromise is therefore appropriate:

  • When a quick or temporary resolution is sought
  • As a back-up to other conflict resolution modes such as competition or collaboration
  • When the parties are equally powerful and equally committed to opposing views
  • When “splitting the difference” is better than getting nothing at all
  • When the parties “agree to disagree” and to live with the decision
  • When the outcome to the parties is of moderate significance only

And inappropriate:

For conflict theorists compromise is a win-lose situation – one in which both parties get something but not all of what they want.  Being able to hold this middle-ground implies  a certain tension – and therein lies the groundwork for festering ill feelings and dissatisfaction which have the potential to surface as conflict sooner rather than later.

In the words of Calvin and Hobbs ,  “A good compromise leaves everybody mad”. And for Calvin, one that requires relinquishing a favourite marble or a treasured fishing-fly definitely would: certain things in life just cannot be compromised!

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Conflict avoidance may on the surface sound like a “kind” thing to do but believe it or not, it is often this particular conflict response that lies at the root of festering tensions, chronically unproductive workplaces and breakdowns in personal and organizational communication.  Indeed the effect of this apparently “harmless” conflict response can often be as destructive as open hostility and confrontation.

An avoidant style of conflict response may stem from a combination of psychological factors and cultural attitudes towards conflict: there might for example be an underlying belief that conflict is bad, that harmony is always the preferred mode of interaction, that gender defines who gets to express disagreement and how such disagreement is expressed or that one’s status in a hierarchy determines the right to assert oneself.  Avoidance of conflict may be driven by a desire to be “liked”, by fear either of exposing one’s feelings or of the consequences of such feelings being exposed,  by economic concerns for keeping one’s job, privilege or status, or simply by a lack of skill and experience at addressing conflict openly.

Conflict avoidance expresses itself in multiple and often very subtle ways and since it is non-confrontational and often cloaked in what is commonly perceived as non-aggressive and even “nice” behaviour,   can easily be misunderstood or not recognized for what it truly is.

Avoidant behaviour presents a wide range of symptoms.   These include dragging one’s feet, stonewalling, postponement or deferral of decisions, constant shifting of the goalposts, ambiguity, denial that something is wrong,  expressions of emotional distress when conflict is addressed and non- communication or withdrawal under the guise of a shy or timid personality.

The results of conflict avoidance on closer examination have nothing “nice” or “kind” about them at all:  they include poor decision-making when it does happen,  acquiescence or accommodation of whichever party is prepared to step up and act, costly and damaging delays,  a state of limbo or stagnation, a breakdown in communication, a spirit of mistrust und uncertainty as well as exaggerated, inappropriate or aggressive outbursts through long-term suppression of conflict.

Like all conflict response styles however, avoidant behaviour is not always all bad.   On the contrary, an avoidant conflict response is appropriate when:

  • confrontation or another form of conflict resolution is more damaging than avoidance.
  • avoidance allows the parties to stand back from conflict in order to reassess the situation and to return to it in a more constructive manner
  • the conflict is not yet ripe for resolution due to a lack of information
  • there is another more effective means of resolution available

and inappropriate when:

  • an immediate decision is crucial and necessary
  • it would prevent resolution or lead to further damage through withholding of information or action
  • co-operation amongst individuals is essential for the functioning of a greater whole such as is the case amongst board members, on teams, within groups or other interdependent structures
  • avoidance results in needs or emotions being suppressed or topics not addressed which will at a later stage definitely damage relationships

So,  if your preferred conflict response is avoidance, ask yourself where this preference comes from and what impact your avoidant response might be having on those around you.  And if you are getting  nowhere  with an issue that needs to be dealt with, look around and see if there aren’t conflict-avoiders at work,  find a way to address the issue (and perhaps the avoider) constructively,  and in that way move it along towards resolution.

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At the award ceremony of a cross-country event at my sons’ school a number of years ago, I overheard a father asking his daughter who was otherwise excellent at sports but who hadn’t earned the laurels this time round, a simple question “Why didn’t you win?”.   He spoke to her in a tone of voice that suffered neither apology nor explanation and froze me to the spot.  It was clear that he expected her to win at whatever she did.  Himself  highly successful and more particularly highly success-driven, this man was most certainly a seasoned competitor and accomplished winner.   But under these circumstances, a different response to his daughter’s performance would have been more appropriate allowing him to appear connected in the way a father would no doubt wish to be seen and remembered years later by an almost-stranger (not to mention his daughter) who innocently happened to overhear a simple question at a school fun-run.

When  politicians beat their opponents in the race for the highest office in the land, scientists celebrate being the first amongst peers to present a new discovery,  sportsmen hold up the trophy for their team or children stand proud as they are awarded the national spelling bee – that’s competition!

It’s in our genes, it’s what fuels evolution and it’s what we are taught from an early age:  be better, strive for the top, be a winner.   From a societal point of view, winners have power and in a society that values power and status, winners are seen as having authority, influence and consequently, high social status.

When it comes to responding to conflict however, this particular conflict response, which under certain circumstances can be life-saving, can bring honour to nations and can advance humanity,  needs to be tempered and used appropriately to avoid its downside – abuse of power  and damaging disregard of the people in the equation.

From the point of view of conflict responses, a competitive style:

  • values the outcome above the personal relationship
  • is high on assertiveness and low on cooperation
  • aims at one party winning and the other losing

Competitive conflict responses include:

  • reliance on facts rather than emotions or subjective reasoning
  • disregard of the effects of the competition on personal relationships
  • tendency to dichotomize into right/wrong, winner/loser or competent/incompetent
  • tendency to hold strong views with enthusiastic support for those who share these views and vehement opposition of those who don’t
  • favouring decisive action

Competitive conflict responses are  appropriate:

  • in emergencies or situations of imminent danger
  • when time is of the essence and a quick decision is crucial
  • when there can only be one winner
  • when circumstances allow no other way to respond
  • when the outcome far outweighs the personal relationship

But are inappropriate when:

  • the personal relationship far outweighs the outcome
  • when other forms of conflict resolution such as collaboration would yield better results
  • when the motivation is “winning at all costs”

No conflict response is all good or all bad – and competition is no exception.  The rule of thumb here however, has to be that of personal relationships: the closer they are, the more caution must be applied in considering this response.  Over and above this highly personal sphere, the competitive response to conflict  while allowing for growth and success to flourish, should always be with an eye on that most precious of our commodities – the connection to those around us.

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