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Posts Tagged ‘emotional flooding’

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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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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