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Posts Tagged ‘conflict management’

John (let’s call him that) is a youngish and very successful exec who has had a stellar rise in  bio-tech (making a few enemies along the way),  and who is now, as head of a major research division,  experiencing enough work-related stress and anxiety to drive him to coaching.    Asked to tell me more about his stress,  he says that he’s “in a state of siege” at work, “defending himself” against “constant attack” and never knowing “where the next blow will come from”.  When I ask how he most often responds to conflict at work, he says he has learned to “keep his head down”, his “ear always to the ground” and to “dodge the bullets” before he gets hit.  John’s metaphors tell me that he’s at war!

The way we speak and the metaphors we use reveal very much more about us than we think.  And the metaphors we use when we speak about conflict not only reveal how we feel but even how  we rate our chances of reaching successful resolution.

Metaphors are not just figures of speech or the linguistic flourishes of competent speakers but are a fundamental element of everyday communication and reflect how certain experiences have been received and stored in our subconscious and what deep connotations they hold for us.  In this way, metaphors are not only a mirror to the soul but are the soul’s very language – informing the observant listener about our state of mind, what we have in our hearts, what we fear most and how we see the world around us and our place in it.

Focussing your listening skills on the client’s use of metaphor therefore:

Allows you to delve more deeply into the conflict discourse 

Following on the metaphoric leads that your client gives will allow you to delve more deeply and quickly into the conflict discourse than you ever thought possible:  In this way, through curiosity, open questions and staying with the metaphor of war, I am able to ask John about his immediate situation including who his “allies” are, what “resources” he has at his disposal, what his “weapons” are, how he views his chances of “getting out unscathed”, how long he thinks he can “hold out with his current strategies” and what would need to happen to change his “chances of getting out alive”.  But I am also able to dig deeper and ask him how he maneuvered himself into this position in the first place and what long-term vision he has for himself.

Delivers an entire portfolio of client information

Over and above informing the coach about the current conflict situation, the metaphors we choose to use in discussing conflict reveal a great deal about our conflict response styles and our conflict management skills.  In this way, metaphors can deliver an entire portfolio of client information that is otherwise only collected after several sessions of assessment tools and explorative coaching.

Allows easy access to difficult emotions

Working through metaphor allows the client to discuss difficult experiences and emotions with more distance than if they were simply asked to describe “what it feels like”.  Using metaphor enables them to step back and view the conflict situation almost as an observer and from that vantage point, to describe not only what they are feeling but also what they are seeing.

Acts as a vehicle for fundamental change

Staying with metaphor and inviting the client to choose alternative metaphors to describe the conflict or the conflict setting, can be a major step towards fundamental change.   In John’s case, he was able to replace the war metaphors he used for his workplace and career experiences with metaphors surrounding his former passion for rowing.  His focus turned towards becoming “one of a team”, looking out for others, “watching the flow”, “checking the current”, “carrying weight”, “sharing a load” and a wealth more of co-operative and collaborative metaphors that involve communication rather than ducking bullets and keeping one’s ear to the ground.  Needless to say, he felt less anxious going into work and despite performance pressure, was able to focus on getting his research team to the next milestone in one piece.  He turned his focus onto upgrading resources, improving training and furthering the team concept.

Clients love it and are amazed at how revealing it is

I have not yet met a client who is not amazed by what they reveal about themselves through their choice of metaphor.  This moment of discovery generally inspires a willingness and a curiosity to explore all aspects of the metaphor and in that way to uncover hard-to-get-at aspects of conflict.

So, next time your client talks about “storms brewing”, having “lost his bearing” or “feeling adrift”,  stay with the metaphor,  dabble in little linguistic magic and do some great coaching.

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I recently spoke to a friend who complained to me about his habit of impatience and the impact it was having on his new position as a team leader.   He sketched workplace scenarios that had everyone cowering in fear of his lightening judgement and his verbal dexterity and was unequivocal about the fact that he seriously disliked this aspect of himself.   But with a shrug, a sigh and a fatalistic “I wish I could change…” he reached out for his coffee cup and moved onto another topic.

 

The encounter left me wondering what it is it that keeps us from taking that crucial next step towards change despite apparent self-knowledge and the realisation that change is needed or is in fact long overdue?  And what is it that allows us to repeatedly commit to change but to fall back into old behaviours sooner rather than later?

 

It is commonly assumed that entrenched habit, fear of the unknown or the discomfort that change brings are what holds us back from breaking with unhelpful behavioural patterns or causes us to fail in following through on change.   But there is in fact an overlooked and yet absolutely essential prior step that must be taken before we can even consider braving the waters of change. Missing out on this first step is what has us failing time and again and belabouring the ears of friends with “if only…” tales.

 

To clients who say  “I wish I could…”, “How I’d love to…” or “If only I were…”   I ask permission to pose one question that always comes as a surprise, catches them off-guard and even ruffles and occasionally offends: “What benefit do you gain from not changing?” or “What’s the win in holding onto your pain?” The reply is always the same: “Holding onto pain? to a bad relationship? to an abusive partnership? to an overweight body or to ever-increasing personal debt?  How on earth could that benefit me?”

 

And yet,  that is exactly the question that has to be answered before we can consider committing to change for as long as we are reaping some benefit from our old pain, we will stay with it and its familiarity and resist all change.

 

 

The truth is that we remain trapped in unhealthy or unhelpful behaviours because in doing so, we find some of our deepest and often unacknowledged needs met. Yes, eating too much feels good in the moment of wolfing it down because it provides a primal sense of comfort that is more important than your waistline when loneliness and poor self-image overwhelm. Maxing out your credit-card limit satisfies a need for status and acknowledgement when self-esteem is low and impatience and perfectionism allow one to appear competent, in control and superior when in fact one is often plagued by feelings of inadequacy.

 

Acknowledging the benefits that we gain from holding onto bad habits, helps us to identify the deep needs that repeatedly draw us back into the “if only…” that we so wish we could cast off.   It is however, only through facing up to and acknowledging these needs that we can develop strategies to escape the black holes that await us during the process of change and to support us as we strive towards our desired goals.

 

So, with our new year’s resolutions still fresh in mind, the key to forming really strong intentions and to staying the course of change is to ask oneself where the benefit lies in not changing.  It’s never too late to change but it’s a waste of time trying if you’re not prepared to be honest about what it is you’re holding onto and what it is that’s holding you.   

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Ever gone into a difficult conversation reminding yourself to “stay on the mat”,  to “stick to the facts” or to “keep the lid on” and found at some stage (and generally sooner rather than later) that your emotions have run away with you?    There is probably none of us who hasn’t.  This is because whether we like it or not, conflict is always about emotions irrespective of whether we’re hot-blooded or cool-headed by nature and quite independently of whether or not we’re well-intentioned.

In Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro of  Harvard Negotiation Project  fame turn their focus to just this problem.   They identify five core concerns that if ignored or impacted in difficult conversations are guaranteed to lead to strong emotions and to negotiation derailment.   The key to avoiding such unfortunate results in challenging conversations lies in understanding how these five core concerns affect our emotions and those of our partners in conflict.  Once we  do, we become able to prepare for these emotional landmines, to maneuver our way through them skilfully,  to avoid frustration and disaster and to reach satisfying solutions.

The 5 core concerns are as follows:

  1. Appreciation:  we all have a need to feel acknowledged and appreciated.  Statements like “I like your thinking”; “I see where you’re coming from”; “that’s a great point to make” make us feel valued.  Don’t make the mistake of following these up with “but” if you have another point of view you wish to put forward; try “and” instead and acknowledge that both viewpoints have equal validity.
  2. Affiliation: making someone feel that they don’t belong is certain to trigger strong emotions:  “that’s how WE do things here” is not welcoming to a new team member and does not encourage a sense of belonging.  “We’re used to doing XYZ like this here.  How would you tackle it?” is more likely to draw someone in and give them a sense of being valued.
  3. Autonomy: imposing solutions on people pulls the mat out under them and strips them of their autonomy.  Whatever the issue at hand, we do not like to feel tied and bound to someone else’s dictates.  Be careful not to point that authoritative finger and lay down the law in difficult conversations but instead to invite cooperation, contribution and initiative at all times.
  4. Status:  acknowledging someone’s status, be it their expertise, their life-experience or their social or organizational standing is crucial if you wish to avoid major derailment.  Particular caution is advisable around status issues where cultural differences exist between  parties.
  5. Role: who doesn’t want to feel part of the solution?  Including people by carving out a role for them goes a long way in getting and keeping them on board and in tempering the frustration that comes with being overlooked.  Invite someone’s evaluation, ask for their advice on how to proceed or draw them into the resolution process as brainstormers or planners and in that way make them feel essential to the solution.

So for your next difficult conversation, start with yourself: check what needs to happen and how you need to feel to satisfy these five core concerns – and then as ever, step into your conflict partner’s shoes and apply the same five point check making sure that you think of ways to meet their essential needs for appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status and role.  Then and only then, are you equipped to “keep the lid on” and to reach constructive conflict solutions.

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Don’t you just love the eternal optimists, hell-bent at making you see the bright side of things when all you want is a willing ear and good old moan?  And yet, they have a point that makes a lot of sense:  conflict research agrees that optimists fare a lot better than pessimists when it comes to coping with conflict.  (more…)

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Walking my dog through the woods on a glorious Indian Summer morning, I feel a blister developing on my left heel.  Little wonder:  I’m wearing regular boots – not walking shoes and because it’s not yet winter, I’m wearing them without stockings.   I’m halfway through my walk and have at least 3kms back home.

At first I’m just irritated by it and admonish myself for not dressing appropriately but the pain is low-grade and I muster all of my coaching skills to walk myself through it:  I focus on my long-term goals: what I’m going to do when I’m back home and what my planning for the rest of the week looks like; I mentally structure my walk by breaking it down into chunks, marked by the trees and the path I know so well and in that way make the distance before me seem less daunting and more manageable and,  I distract myself by looking out for mushrooms and birds to while away the time and take my mind off my foot.

But as is the nature of blisters, they seldom just disappear and the problem on my heel won’t be ignored.   Within a short time it has developed into a major pain and I am forced to think seriously about how I’m going to make it back.

When I finally do, I am struck by the similarity between my blister and our inherent reluctance to acknowledge conflict and deal with it timeously.  In fact, my experience with the blister tallies almost perfectly with the phases that we go through in dealing with conflict:

  1. Ignore the problem.  (I feel that something is amiss.  I identify what the problem is but tell myself that this can’t be happening halfway through my walk. Denial.) (more…)

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I recently listened in on a discussion on the merits of opposing political systems between two people very dear to me.  Each stated his position, defended it and described what was bad about the other’s preferred system and why his own preference was superior.  The other then did the same: positioning, defending, disassembling and re-stating the original position in ping-pong fashion until it was clear that they were going nowhere.

Suddenly, one of them interrupted the other just as his position was being proved lacking for the umpteenth time with a little question that knocked my socks off:   “What’s good about it?” (“it” being his preferred political system currently under attack). The person asking the question was my 20-year-old son.  Both as a mother and a conflict resolutionist, I was impressed by the tool he had instinctively chosen to turn a conversation that was heading for the sticky wasteland of intractable positioning into an opportunity for expanding viewpoints and finding common ground.  A short while later I found them both taking an amicable refreshment break in the kitchen.  They continued their discussion and in the end were both happy with the outcome describing it as constructive, informative and “adult”.

Lying awake in bed a few nights later with the usual line-up of problems robbing me of sleep, “what’s good about it?” popped into my mind.  I started applying the question to each of the persistent problems that haunt those gloomy hours and the result was amazing – eyes shut and stretched out in the dark, I found new and positive angles to my old problems and within no time was relaxed and off and into a deep sleep once again.  Since then, I have applied it in my coaching practice and have received a similarly grateful response from clients who were amazed at the power it holds to change our hitherto held take on things.

So, what’s the secret of this little question and how does it turn the tide on a conflict experience?

1.  Fight or Flight Response

The anxiety and fear surrounding conflict, the horror scenarios of how everything is going to go belly-up are all outgrowths of our fight or flight response, that millisecond answer to conflict that the amygdala holds ready for us.   These doomsday visions shut down creative thought around conflict and stand in the way of constructive conflict resolution.

“What’s good about it?” takes us out of the automatic pilot mode of doom and destruction and shuts down the knee-jerk amygdala-driven response of fight or flight.

Instead, it takes us by the hand and leads us to that part of the brain responsible for logic and reason, for creativity and new ideas bringing with it a wealth of physical benefits including lowering of blood pressure and heart beat as well as the release of chemicals into the bloodstream responsible for positive emotions.

2.  Perspective

“What’s good about it?” is a call for a change of perspective around a problem.  Particularly in the case of stubborn or recurrent conflict,  negative thought patterns and conflict narratives become firmly entrenched in our minds preventing us from entertaining alternative outcomes or viewpoints. In this state “nothing good about conflict” becomes our mantra.

The invitation to search for the positive contained in this little question therefore comes as a surprise and following it forces us into a perspective-shift on established thought-patterns.  It takes us out of our dark tunnel-view of conflict and onto wider plains where we are invited to see and discover new aspects of a problem from different vantage points.

3.  Creativity

“What’s good about it?” is nothing other than the essence of the brainstorming exercises that fill flip charts and whiteboards across the planet millions of times a week in an attempt at finding new answers to old problems.  It introduces creativity to problem-solving by challenging us to break out of old thought patterns and entertain new.

To get to the “good” about something that we perceive as “bad” requires quite a stretch of the imagination and this is where creativity comes in.  We’re invited to think differently, to believe everything is possible, to dream big and to entertain the hitherto inconceivable. Simply posing the question as you ponder a problem lifts the spirits, widens the gaze and introduces an element of playfulness and pleasure to the challenge of facing conflict. It makes you shake your head, sit up straight and put on a different thinking-hat.

4.  Optimism

In Learned Optimism: How to change your Mind and your Life, Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of  positive psychology claims that contrary to common belief, we’re not born either optimists or pessimists and that optimism can be learned.  In the process of proving his theory, he shows in scientific studies that optimists are healthier, happier and more successful because of how they think about what happens in their lives.  “What’s good about it?” is a question that could be almost tailor-made to suit Seligman’s theory – hence, a tool of choice for the optimist.

So, no more counting sheep and no more pacing the floorboards when you lie awake in the wee hours visiting and re-visiting the same problems:  instead, ask yourself “what’s good about it?”,  indulge yourself in the unexpected pleasure of creative conflict resolution and enjoy your best and most restful night’s sleep ever.

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“What would you say your strengths are and where do you see your weaknesses?”  is a daunting question for most young job interviewees today.   But employers and HR professionals regularly require potential candidates to present well-considered answers to these and similar questions if they are to face down stiff competition and secure sought-after positions.  Apart from disclosing personal Strengths and Weaknesses, job seekers might also be asked to give a break-down of the Opportunities they see in a position as well as any potential Threats to their executing it and how they intend to overcome them.

These four elements, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats make up the acronym SWOT and describe a  change-management tool of the 1950’s and 60’s that has been developed into an easy-to-use instrument for assessing the pros and cons of new or challenging management situations. 

 

But SWOT analyses are just as valuable to conflict management practitioners and to individuals involved in interpersonal conflict as they are to management and HR executives .  Apart from the obvious application in assessing  concrete conflict situations, SWOT  is  a wonderful tool for understanding and delving deeper into one’s own conflict profile or helping clients better to understand theirs.

To do a SWOT analysis, divide a page into four equal parts.  Head each part as follows:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and ask yourself the following questions:

Strengths:

  • What am I particularly good at in conflict situations?
  • What skills do I have that support me in times of conflict?
  • What can I rely on about myself in conflict encounters?
  • What do I do best in conflict?

Strengths here would include skills such as listening skills, thinking on one’s feet, staying calm, keeping a cool head, having a great sense of humour, not taking things personally, being able to focus or  having good communicative skills.

Weaknessess:

  • What trips me up time and again in conflict encounters?
  • Which conflict behaviours have I most regretted in the past?
  • What triggers the “worst” in me?
  • Where do I feel most vulnerable in conflict?

Weaknesses might include traits and habits such as short temperedness, a tendency to over-react, a tendency towards emotional flooding, feeling personally attacked or speaking first and thinking later.

Opportunities:

Here answers could include insights such as:  conflict is the opportunity to clear the air, to re-boot a relationship, to make one’s needs known, to lay down or define boundaries, to explore new directions and to bring about change.

Threats:

  • What threatens a positive outcome to conflict?
  • What might cause a conflict encounter to fail?
  • What would make engaging in conflict futile?
  • What outcome would I want to avoid?

Threats might include the risk that one manages the conflict situation poorly, that the encounter does not achieve the desired results,  that the other party is not willing to resolve, that relationships are damaged or that situations worsen through engaging in conflict.

Using a SWOT assessment in this way not only reveals our desires and fears surrounding conflict but more importantly, uncovers the areas in which we are lacking essential skills in dealing with conflict.  And with self-knowledge as ever the starting point for conflict competence, such assessment can then be followed by focussed training and application to close these gaps in our conflict capabilities and provide us or the client with an invaluable resource when it comes to conflict management.

In concrete conflict situations, a SWOT analysis can help one  prepare for difficult conversations and  take precautions to avoid pitfalls of one’s own making.  It can also highlight one’s strengths and allow one to play these to one’s advantage.  If I for example know that I have a great sense of humour, I can use this to deflect tension and improve communication.  If on the other hand I know that my weakness is a tendency to take things personally, I can be on my guard for this response, watch out for the warning signs and step back well in time from situations that would otherwise cause me to react blindly and to my disadvantage.

The question I always like best is  the one about the opportunities in conflict:  this is where we are often most surprised by what a simple SWOT analysis can reveal about some of our deepest fears and needs surrounding conflict:  the desire to maintain or to re-establish relationships, to find our needs understood and answered and to improve communication.     Isn’t that what conflict competence is all about?

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