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Posts Tagged ‘conflict response’

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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The first of John Gottmann’s four hell-bound horsemen dragging us hanging from the stirrups to a certain and unhappy end is criticism.   This creature comes upon us quietly and with nothing more noticeable than a flaring of the nostrils but it unmistakeably opens the stable door to the other three furies to follow.

I am talking here about the whining, finger-pointing criticism that is so often the prelude to expressing frustration at any number of minor irritations:  “Why are you so….?”, “You always/never….” are the most common first words (but seldom the last) to this kind of conflict exchange.


This form of criticism attacks the person rather than the problem and is correctly called blame.   It is the opposite of what we would understand as constructive criticism and is distinguished in conflict literature from the less critical term “complaint”.     Blame focuses the discourse on attacking the person of the other who in turn instinctively becomes defensive and rises up for the counter-attack.   When this happens, the amygdala’s fight or flight response is awakened, reason is shut down and real trouble becomes possible.  Thus begins what is colloquially known as  “the blame game”  so-called,  because two can and generally do and before you know it, things have spiralled out of control and become dirty and mean.

So how do we avoid the blame game?  How do we get our messages of complaint across constructively and avoid the thorny briar of blame?

1.    Take responsibility for your response to conflict

Even if you are not responsible for the problem you wish to address, you are always responsible for your reaction to the problem and for how you choose to initiate and conduct the conflict encounter.

2.    Practise perspective shifting

Before voicing criticism, step into your partner’s shoes and imagine how the language you are about to use would sound to you.    A well-timed perspective shift not only takes the sting out of your discontent and the edge out of your voice but prepares you mentally and emotionally for more constructive and creative problem-solving.

3.    Focus on the problem, not the person

To  step away from blame and towards a constructive form of criticism is to turn your focus and your conflict talk away from anything that has to do with the person and towards the problem that you want remedied.  It’s not your partner that’s a slob, it’s a room that needs to be tidied; it’s not a colleague that’s lazy, it’s a presentation that needs to be in on time; it’s not a team-member that’s stupid, it’s a concept that needs more exploration.     The Harvard Negotiation Project to which we owe the concept of principled negotiation, calls this approach being hard on the problem but soft on the person and identifies it as the key feature of the type of problem-solving that manages to uphold relationships

4.    Request rather than demand

Express your criticism as a request rather than a demand and explain why it is important to you:  “I would like us to find a way of keeping within our budget.  It will free up our holiday fund and prevent unnecessary worry for both of us. What do you think?”  Adding “what do you think?” after your request opens the floor to conversation,  invites an exchange of ideas and shows a willingness to engage in joint problem solving.   Demanding on the other hand smacks of ultimatum, builds inner resistance and shuts down communication

5.    Think “partner”, not “enemy

Envision yourself as partnering rather than challenging the recipient of your constructive criticism.  In this way you automatically take up a position of carrying a shared load, of commonly seeking a solution and of being jointly responsible for the outcome.

Next week:  The Second Horseman – Defensiveness

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When it comes to saving a marriage, forget the great boudoir secrets of the world or all your mother ever told you about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach  –  US marriage guru Dr. John Gottmann predicts the success or downfall of relationships with astonishing 90% accuracy by simply observing couples argue.

How well we fight and how we deal with conflict even at the very early stages of a relationship is apparently the best indicator yet of how likely we are to be together five years down the line.

From his vast collection of empirical data, Gottmann has identified what he calls the  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – four conflict habits that, if allowed to develop, are a sure-fire indicator that you’re on your way to a sorry end sooner rather than later.

1.  Criticism

This is the personality or character-type criticism (not to be confused with constructive criticism) that usually serves to allocate blame and by which we feel fundamentally set upon by our partners.  The usual text begins with generalisations like “you always…”, “you never…”, or specific assertions like “why are you so…?”

2. Defensiveness

This conflict response serves to block off communication, to score against the other through counter-attack or to launch a pre-emptive strike by slipping into the role of the victim.  Typical texts here are “yes, but…”, “its not my fault…its yours”, “I didn’t…you did”.  Out of the victim’s corner one might hear “you’re always picking on me” or “I can’t do anything right”.

3. Contempt

In Gottmann’s view, this is the relationship’s red card and the surest indicator of impending disaster.  Contempt attacks the partner’s sense of self and includes put-down tactics designed to expose or belittle the other, showing one’s superiority, pulling rank, flaunting  status or being openly insulting.  Expressions of contempt include verbal abuse, sarcasm, scorn, humiliation or “jokes” at the other’s expense.

4.  Stonewalling

This conflict response comes in the form of body language:  the partner withdraws from the conflict encounter by turning away physically, avoiding eye contact and withholding the natural signs of communication such as nodding, repeating phrases or words used or making the little noises that indicate that we’re still on track and following the interaction.  It also includes waiting impatiently for the other to get done, walking out on discussions, blanking or ignoring the other, maintaining an icy distance or living in stony silence.

Despite all this bad news, Gottmann points out that the major feature that distinguishes relationship ‘masters’ from relationship ‘disasters’ is their ability to repair the interaction.  This is where apology and forgiveness come into play and where relationships that are based on strong friendship, shared meaning and purpose are more likely to succeed and recover.

So, if you hear the hooves of one of those apocalyptic stallions charging through your living room, be warned.  It might be time to pull out your conflict toolbox and take a good, hard look at its contents and start on the repairs.  Becoming a relationship ‘master’ is hard work but picking up the pieces after the four horsemen have passed through your life, might cost you years.

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I often think of a little girl who spent just a term at the boarding-school I attended while her parents travelled abroad (in the days when “travelling” was not last-minute and low-cost  but an investment and an experience to be savoured).   She was small, robust and boisterous, was immune to reprimand and,  Pippi longstocking-like,  seemed never to have heard of rules or discipline.   But more than her feisty spirit, I remember her deep and effervescent laugh and the way it bounced off walls and infected everyone around her, adults and children alike.

Whether she was pulled up short for misbehaviour, admonished for not doing homework or required to keep silence, she simply laughed out loud and in that vibrant moment, diffused trouble in the nicest and most magical way possible and gave everyone’s feel-good factor a tremendous boost.  In retrospect, an amazing display of what is increasingly recognized today as a powerful and effective tool of conflict resolution.

The physiological benefits of humour and laughter are scientifically well documented and include:

  • muscle relaxation
  • lowering of blood pressure
  • strengthening of the immune system
  • pain reduction
  • improved oxygen flow to the brain
  • decrease in the production of stress hormones

In short, humour fully reverses the body’s chemical and physical responses to conflict.  In addition it brings about:

  • a lifting of mood and boosting of spirit through the release of endorphins
  • a sense of connection at a deeper level between parties in conflict
  • a change in perspective allowing for a more playful point of view
  • a drop in defensiveness
  • a shift in focus away from conflict and towards resolution
  • the generation of goodwill and positive emotions that increase the readiness to cooperate constructively

But be warned: what has me rolling on the floor, need not necessarily amuse my neighbour.  To avoid humour backfiring, it needs to be well-timed, appropriate, culturally relevant and understood.   Taking a dig or making a jibe at someone else’s expense is not humour and is guaranteed to escalate rather than to decrease conflict.

As a rule of thumb, topics such as age, sexual orientation, physical appearance, culture, politics and religion are taboo and will only serve to alienate and increase hostility.  Apart from the appropriateness or type of humour, the efficacy of this conflict resolution tool further depends on the seriousness of the conflict and the power relationship between the parties.

We laugh progressively less as we age, but the opportunity of exploring a conflict resolution tool that is second nature to us and has enormous physical and emotional benefits in addition to furthering intelligent conflict management,  perhaps explains the worldwide growth in recent years of laughter yoga, laughter clubs and the success of organisations such as Clowns without Borders.  Apart from keeping us healthy, laughter and humour unite, heal wounds, build bridges and resolve conflict.

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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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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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