Posts Tagged ‘conflict responses’

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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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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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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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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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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A client recently came up to me just before the beginning of a mediation session:   “I forgot to mention one little thing on the phone:  could we just stick to discussing the facts and not get into all the emotional stuff?”  As a mediator, I know only too well how anxious people are about dealing with other people’s emotions and how sadly unprepared we are for dealing with our own.  But conflict and challenging conversations are never just about facts, they are also always about emotions.   The challenge is not how to avoid them but how to deal with them successfully.

Emotions are indeed insistent, tricky and unpredictable: they turn up at the oddest times, undermine our best efforts at self-control and can leave us looking foolish and feeling vulnerable. However hard we try to bridle our emotions, to control and to hide them, they have a way of surfacing and bursting onto the scene of our conflict discourse that flaws us time and again and foils all our attempts at staying in control of the situation.

Little wonder then that we would all rather leave emotions well and truly out of it when it comes to resolving conflict or negotiating our way through tough conversations and instead, “stick to the facts” and rely on logic and reason to build solutions.  We hope in this way to appear rational and reasonable, to avoid offending or being offended, to escape the quagmire of messy feelings and scenes and to avoid losing face particularly in a workplace setting.

The truth is however, that emotions are as much a part of our physiology as are our breathing and our heartbeat – we simply cannot avoid them let alone control them. Blushing, laughing, perspiring, frowning and smiling are all driven by emotions as are the butterflies in your stomach and the urge to smash something that the road-rage driver gives vent to.

It comes as no surprise then that emotions are not only at the heart of all interpersonal conflict but are often the very generators and escalators of conflict.  It follows, that without taking on and dealing with the emotional aspects of conflict, there can be no uncovering of the issues at stake and no true, satisfactory and lasting conflict resolution. As Stone/Patton/Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project put it in Difficult Conversations: “Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without the music.  You’ll get the plot but miss the point”[1]

Understanding the role that emotions play in dealing with conflict, in improving relationships and getting the results you want will form the topics of the upcoming weeks’ writing.   Until then, make a game of it: remember the “don’t smile” game of childhood requiring you to keep a straight face while someone else regales you with jokes and anecdotes to draw the shadow of smile out of the corners or your mouth?  Play it with your family this week, recapture a bit of childhood innocence and observe just how difficult it is to control simple emotional responses.

[1] Stone/Patton/Heen,  Difficult Conversations.  How to Discuss what Matters Most, Penguin, NY, 2000, p. 13.

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However well or badly we have managed to manoeuvre ourselves through a difficult conversation or a hostile confrontation, one skill always has the power to lighten the situation and change the tide of communication for the better – that of a well-executed  apology.

An apology can go a long way in resolving conflict and restoring faith in relationships but be warned,  it does have to be the real thing for it to work its magic.  You’re heading for trouble if you think you’ll get away with a cheap, mumbled “sorry, didn’t mean it”  type of apology – these only serve to pile insult upon injury and harden the fronts.  The secret to knowing how to use this brilliant conflict resolution tool lies in the correct dosage of four essential elements which all good apologies have in common:

  • Acknowledgement

This means stating one’s understanding of what happened in a specific and objective manner as well as how such actions have offended or hurt the other person.

  • Responsibility

This means taking full responsibility without any excuses whatsoever and irrespective of whether the resulting offense was intentional or not.  Think of it as  happily picking up the check, knowing that there are no tax breaks.

  • Remorse

This means an expression of the genuinely sincere regret that we feel at our understanding that through our actions another has been hurt.

  • Reparation

This might range from a promise not ever again to repeat an action to an offer to replace something damaged or in someway to compensate the other for the injury caused.

Watch John Cleese in his inimitable style  put a light-hearted spin on the art of apology while nevertheless paying close attention to these four essential elements.  And then,  trawl your memory for any outstanding apologies which you might need to make, formulate them to include the four essential ingredients above and then go ahead and  apologise,  before you too find yourself hung out to dry!

Next week:  The effect of an apology.

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