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On one of the first days of 2013, while digging deep into the back corners of my desk-drawers to trawl in the dust-covered odds and ends that had slipped out of my line of vision over the last twelve months, I came across a hand-written quotation given to me by my son on New Year’s day two or three years ago.  It was so much to the point, that I was left wondering why this particular scrap of paper had found its way back into my hands.  As I sat there pondering the significance of my find, I thought of its wider relevance to those of us in interpersonal conflict and decided to pass it on to you with my very best wishes for a wonderful new year.  Here it is:

“We spent January 1st walking through our lives, room by room, cleaning up, a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives not looking for flaws but for potential”   Ellen Goodman

This inspiring quote beautifully describes the process of personal stocktaking that we should all perform at least once a year:    identifying the different rooms of our lives – family, career, friendships, health, education, spirituality, values – and then going through  the list and evaluating where we stand in each of them and recording where improvement or change is necessary.  So far so good but the true inspiration in this moving image of two people wandering through the dusty rooms of their lives together and taking stock lies in the call to redirect our eye to the hidden treasures hidden beneath the debris.   We’re asked to break from the mould and not,  as we often do, to highlight the flaws and defects but to uncover and explore the hidden potential in that which is imperfect in our lives.  Why is something not working? What does this tell us? Where is the lesson we need to learn?  and What is the gift that lies waiting in our imperfection?

Conflict is always a sign of one or more parties seeking change to an aspect of their relationship.   While we willingly acknowledge that there is no growth without pain and that conflict is par for the course in relationships, when we encounter conflict head-on,  we often run and hide or respond inappropriately and in so doing, overlook the wonderful opportunity for growth that it brings.

Instead of avoiding conflict, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away or answering the conflict challenge aggressively and hoping to defeat the other, let us recognise the potential that conflict brings, the chance for a deepening of connection and for personal growth.

As we walk through the rooms of our interpersonal relationships at the beginning of this year, don’t sweep away the conflicts you see lurking in the shadows,  welcome them in as opportunities to create stronger and more meaningful bonds between us all.

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Ever found yourself in front of a store in the early weeks of a new year faced with a sign reading: Closed for Stocktaking?  Annoying as it is, part of me admires the process happening behind the locked doors – a kind of counting your chickens and getting your house in order that seems both simple and wholesome and that has in essence, despite today’s electronic scanners, hardly changed over centuries.  The process of stocktaking enables businesses to get more than a general overview of where they stand.  It allows them to see what is good and what is amiss on their shelves or behind their computer screens and on the basis of that, to adjust, correct and fine-tune with a view to optimizing  business in the year ahead.  In short, stocktaking is the essential groundwork for change, for setting goals and for realising potential.

At a personal level, the end of one year and the beginning of the next, offers us all a wonderful opportunity to reassess our values, to look more closely at the problems that beset us and to align the wheels of change for our future growth.  Making personal stocktaking an annual event to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to adjust the path on which you are travelling is a hallmark of mindful living.

From a conflict management point of view, what are the factors involved in personal stocktaking?  The following 10 questions will give you a good idea of how you stand in your management of interpersonal conflict be it in the workplace or in private relationships:

 

So, instead of the ubiquitous,  off-the-cuff New Year’s Resolutions, why not close for personal stocktaking this year?  Take half a day to assess where you stand as regards conflict management and make whatever adjustments are necessary to ensure that at the end of 2012 you are able to add conflict competence to your list of personal achievements and satisfying personal relationships to your capital gain.  

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I recently heard of a girl whose mother – formerly a highly acclaimed scientist –  suffered from disposophobia, the pathological hoarding syndrome in which the affected compulsively hang onto every little thing that comes into their homes – including the household trash.  Carrying that burden of shame so deeply within her when she was growing up altered the  daughter’s behaviour in ways directly related to the shame that she must have felt living in that highly dysfunctional environment. Her body language and social behaviour said it all: she kept her head down and her eyes downcast, was withdrawn and reserved, always on the edge of playground happenings and yet compliant, willing, quick to return a smile, friendly when called upon but just as ready and able to disappear into the woodwork.  She made no waves and kept herself unobtrusive and low-key, never invited anyone home and was not invited in return and in that way, managed to keep a tight lid on her shameful secret for many years.
“Hot”, “burning”, “dark” and “secret” are adjectives that we commonly attach to the concept of shame.  This opposites of “shame” are “pride”, honour” and “respect”. Shame can be imposed on us through the “shaming environments” that are sometimes part of certain models of upbringing, we can “be shamed” publicly because of our beliefs, religious or political affiliations or we can become contaminated by shame because of early experiences such as those generated in dysfunctional settings like the disposophobia described above, abuse, neglect, abandonment, addictive surroundings to name but a few.

Unlike guilt, shame does not attach to a wrongdoing on our part but to the essence of who we are and in that way, defines and shapes our very identity. Guilt allows us to make a mistake, to admit it, to face the consequences and to move on but for a shamed person who feels not that they’ve made a mistake, but that they themselves are the mistake, there is always a heightened sense of vulnerability and a deep-seated fear of exposure. Coming out is not the answer to the shamed– it’s the problem.

From a conflict practitioner’s point of view, shame is a debilitating emotion, generating feelings of deep embarrassment, inferiority and guilt, forcing sufferers to hide, preventing spontaneity, discouraging intimacy and creating deep-rooted insecurity and loneliness.

Adults shamed as children are often slow to form friendships and are cautious and feel excessively vulnerable in relationships. They can be highly sensitive to criticism or negative feedback all of which play  into their sense of worthlessness.  As a result they might tend to blame others before being blamed themselves or at the other extreme, assume responsibility for whatever goes wrong, feeling constantly guilty. And of course the shamed may also use shaming acts to control others:  bullies have field days on other people’s shame and are highly skilled at sussing out exactly where that vulnerable spot is. From a behavioural point of view, shameful adults may also present with addictive or obsessive compulsive behaviours such as substance abuse, workaholism, shopping addictions, eating disorders or gambling.

Shamed individuals bring with them not only shame and its shadows but often further strong emotions such as anger, rage and depression and this is where shame becomes dangerous both for the individual involved and for their environment.

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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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Whether it’s a superior passing down performance pressure, an irate employee overlooked at promotion or a customer who’s outrage at being poorly treated by sales reaches tipping point,  workplace anger is a common occurrence and knowing how to deal with it, an essential skill as much in the boardroom as it is on teams, amongst colleagues, superiors and employees or in the customer service departments of many organisations.

Since the amydala hijack that underlies anger sets us on a purely reactive path, we must give up all hope of engaging angry people rationally when the chips are down. In dealing with anger,  allowing sufficient time for the anger to dissipate and for the person to calm down is always the essential first step.  Knowing that it takes the body roughly twenty minutes to recover from a full-blown fight or flight response during which time judgement and reason are on the back-burner  means that our response to anger must accommodate this time-window if we are to master the situation.

Six points based on communication, problem-solving and relationship-building skills if taken real slow will help avert the worst mistakes in dealing with angry people:

1.   Allow them to talk.  This is the most important part of the “venting” process that will gradually bring them down and dissipate their anger.  Don’t interrupt and don’t engage in self-justification or verbal counter-attack:  they won’t hear you anyway and your attempts will only serve to exacerbate the situation.

2.   Listen deeply to what they’re saying, focussing not only on the verbal message but also on the emotional and physical information that is coming your way.

3.   Express empathy – in other words acknowledge what they have experienced and are feeling and reflect it back to them: the formula “So you…” is best for giving feedback on their emotional, verbal and physical state most accurately. “So you were left off the selection team” “So you feel very upset about this” Make a point of only speaking about them – never about you.  If you’re using “I” in any way, you’re off-track:  “I understand… “ at this stage is likely to get a “No, you don’t….” response and raise the heat and the conflict potential even further.

4.   Forget proving one side “right” and the other “wrong”:  the art of dealing with angry people in a workplace setting lies in working together as partners to solve the problem irrespective of allocation of blame.

5.   Search for and find common ground for agreement between you.   This is Negotiation 101:   this first agreement is the breakthrough that suggests that the chance of resolution is real. It serves moreover to further reign in emotions and invites the beginnings of constructive thought around resolution.  This common ground can be as simple as “We’ve both enjoyed preparing for this project – let’s find a way to make it a success”.

6.    Once a potential agreement is on the table, ask for emotional feedback once again to make sure that not only the issue is being dealt with but the feelings too “Do you feel better about doing it this way?” “So would taking responsibility for marketing involve you in a meaningful way in the project?”

Of these steps, 1 – 3 in which the angry person is allowed to „vent until anger is spent“ are the most  important.  You will notice by a change in body posture, tone of voice and release of tension that you’ve reached that point of anger deflation.  Until you do – keep repeating steps 1 – 3 until they’ve said it all.  It will pay off in the end as they will progress to resolution feeling that they  have been well and truly heard and understood.

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For most of us, road rage and similar expressions of over-the-edge anger are something we read or hear about rather than experience ourselves.  That being said, we will all at some stage have encountered our own forms of anger as we raise our children, run families, manage offices, engage workmen or interact with the ever-so-obliging service industry.  And because anger has a way of running away with us, we are usually left wishing that we had managed it better than we did and almost always, that we had not said what we did.

Knowing your own anger triggers, recognizing the first signs of anger rising in you and keeping a few easy anger management tips in mind, is the best way to prepare for dealing with your own anger:

Know your personal warning signs:  Explore the physiological reactions that you experience when anger is on the rise:  constricted throat, sweaty palms, increased pulse, clenched teeth, tension in the stomach, shoulders, neck or hands are all strong indicators that you’re heading for that point of no return.  These are anger’s yellow cards, telling you that you need to go into damage prevention mode. Breathing deeply several times floods the blood with oxygen and slows down the physiological processes involved in becoming angry, thus giving you more time to reflect and retain control of yourself.

Remember, your anger is about you, not about them. Ask yourself what is really fuelling your anger:  identify the vulnerabilities impacted by the conflict encounter. It is not the act of a teenager arriving home well after curfew, an employee delivering careless work, a client pulling out of a contract at the last minute or a missed flight connection due to airline strike but our underlying needs, perceptions and expectations that fuel our anger. Fear of losing control, a challenge to one’s authority, loss of influence or an undermining of one’s power are the true motivators of your conflict behaviour.  Recognizing and exploring our personal fears, needs and perceptions allows us to adjust our expectations of others and tempers our emotional responses accordingly.

Step back:  The first step in any conflict avoidance situation is to step back from the conflict moment and to create distance between yourself and the trigger causing your anger to rise.  Since removing oneself physically is often impossible, it becomes essential to distance oneself mentally.   Imagery, mantras, questions or physical reminders all serve to break the trigger mechanism and control the anger.   Try taking a birds’ eye view of yourself and your conflict partner caught in a verbal struggle and gradually move up and away from the image; ask yourself “how important is this going to be in a week, a month or a year?”;  count to 10 or 100 if that’s as long as you need; repeat a mantra or hum a tune to remind yourself that you are not getting onto that runaway train to Angerville or find a physical intervention such as my mother’s advice to me to “bite your tongue” that if practised,  certainly reminds us painfully to slow down and avoid anger.  Whatever it takes to help you take that step back pays off a hundredfold in allowing you to review the situation and consider your  next move less emotionally.

Find a physical outlet for your anger

Go for a run, a swim or a brisk walk, do yoga, take a dance class or go to the gym before you engage in that challenging conversation.   Physical activity redirects anger’s energy, decreasing the level of adrenaline in the bloodstream and clearing our minds of persistent one-way messages to engage in battle.  The release of endorphins and seretonin while exercising lifts our mood, clears our minds and makes us more amenable.

If you’re wondering what might help you deflect rising anger, watch and enjoy Jack Nicholson as a somewhat scary anger therapist taking a client through his paces in early-morning, rush-hour traffic:

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Ask any young child to imitate anger and they will clench their fists and their jaws, bare their teeth, narrow their eyes to slits, roar from the darkest depths they can muster and look their most threatening selves.  Quite a good depiction of what happens when we “blow up”, “flip out” or “lose it” and certainly a fitting description of what we increasingly see on our streets, in our board-rooms, at customer-service points and sadly, in our homes.

It is important to examine anger and our relationship to it more closely because of its consequences for ourselves and for those around us.    Angry people alienate others and are viewed with apprehension in their personal relationships. In the workplace they miss out on promotions, lose clients and ultimately jobs.  Angry managers display high staff fluctuation, angry team leaders show poor performance results and angry colleagues become isolated and make the workplace a joyless experience for all.  Anger that is unchecked can have devastating consequences and anger that is turned inward can lead to equally catastrophic results.

So what is anger and what is its effect on us?

Anger is a response to an event, action, verbal or non-verbal experience that triggers underlying vulnerabilities, needs or expectations in us.  For example, someone cuts you off on the highway and you end up in the slow lane:  the trigger is the act of cutting you off,  the vulnerability is your violated sense of fairness,  and the expectation or belief is that it was done on purpose because you drive an old car. Had you not had a heightened vulnerability as regards fairness and the belief that you were disrespected as the owner of an old car, the act of cutting you off might have remained without consequence.  Instead you’re stepping on the gas to catch the culprit at the next set of lights and if you don’t, well, things in the office could get ugly today.

Anger is the archetypal amygdala response – that part of the brain responsible for split-second reactions to danger that shuts down reason and logic as it puts us into pure survival mode.  And therein lies the danger:  with reason firmly shut down and perceived insult and injury fuelling our next move, things can only go wrong.  In the case of rage or the type of “blind” anger that makes us rant and roar (and usually leaves us filled with regret later), the amygdala’s  response is fight rather than flight and take no hostages in the process.

From a physiological point of view, rising anger means an increase in blood-pressure and heart rate, a flooding of the body with adrenaline and norepeniphrine (a chemical strong enough to kick-start a heart that has stopped beating!), heightened muscle tension throughout the body, clenching of the stomach, sweaty palms and a narrowing of the scope of our vision.    Can we be surprised that in this state we have:

  • Poor judgement
  • Polarized thinking
  • Poor perceptive ability (interpreting what is said incorrectly)
  • Inability to express ourselves accurately, and
  • Increased defensiveness

In short, anger switches us off leaving us capable of responses at the most instinctive level only.  This is great when it comes to saving our lives and yes, it is wild out there sometimes, but who of us has recently had to ward off a hungry lion with nothing but a loin cloth and a wooden club?

Our ancient anger response equips us in a way that totally overshoots the mark when it comes to the majority of interpersonal dangers that we encounter today. The questions of  how we manage this amazingly complex defence arsenal and just how much anger is good for us, are the subjects of the next blogs.

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