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Posts Tagged ‘emotions’

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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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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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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Christmas like no other holiday, raises the bar when it comes to expectations.  Unfortunately, it also often ends for so many of us as the season of disappointment and unmet expectations.

Whether it be young children drawing up their wish-lists or adults racing through the retail industry’s tinsel-trends to find the perfect gift for a loved one or the obligatory gift for the not-so-loved, we all buy into the expectation that by jumping onto the Christmas bandwagon we stand in line for peace, harmony, love and good cheer.  How disappointing then when we find ourselves faced with grumpy relatives, bickering children, ungrateful recipients of our bestowals and gifts that are not what we wished for or that don’t have the desired effect.  Little wonder that for conflict practitioners the world over, Christmas is the holiday in which families and relationships experience the highest tensions and conflicts despite (or because of) all of our seasonal expectations to the contrary.

So how do we turn the holiday period around and get our share of good cheer despite such sobering conflict statistics?   How do we manage Christmas so as to come out of it feeling some of the love, peace and harmony? The secret is to give the truly personal gift – the giving of oneself instead of or in addition to the wrapped offering under the tree.  Any or all of the five gifts below will go a long way in making this holiday season wonderful and memorable and in the process, benefit not only the recipient but also the giver:

  1.  Step back and let conflict pass you by this holiday season.   Ask yourself whether the irritations of the day will matter in a week, a month or a year and create distance to the small irritations that so easily trip us up.  If visualisation is your thing, take a bird’s eye view of your festive setting and distance yourself mentally from the conflict encounter.  Take “time-out” in whatever way works for you – it’s often all we need to deal with tricky situations more constructively.  By engaging with conflict you become part of the problem; by stepping back you become part of the solution.
  2. Listen:  there is no greater gift than being well and truly listened to.  If you want to be remembered as someone  special this Christmas  – listen to those around you.  Whether it is your wife complaining that she’s been on her feet all day or your father-in-law discussing the markets, listen consciously, ask questions that show your interest and allow them the space to feel heard and understood.  Deep listening creates an expectation of understanding and a true willingness to reciprocate. In addition, the enormous physiological benefits of feeling listened to,  calms waters and creates natural harmony.
  3. Speak for yourself:  preface your statements by using the “I” word and only speak about how things make you feel.  If you assume to know what the other is thinking or feeling without them telling you so expressly, you’re way off track and heading for trouble.    Make a gift of inviting and opening up discussion by allowing others the space to speak about their own feelings or thoughts and observe how your conversational skills put everyone into a feel-good space.
  4. Change your perspective by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.   Allowing yourself to imagine the unbridled excitement of a child or the exhaustion of a parent takes the edge off any irritation at their behaviour that you might otherwise feel is inappropriate for the season.  Walking in someone else’s shoes is a sure way to soften our expectations and to open the door to compassion.
  5. Give the gifts of acknowledgement and gratitude. Say thank you for all you receive – not only physical gifts but the effort that has gone into preparations, the wonderful meal that has been laid out, the time that has been spent searching for a gift or the effort that someone has taken to be with you on this day.  And remember to say thank you for the gifts of companionship, sharing, support and love that are made to us by our friends and family throughout the year – acknowledging these everyday acts takes your connection to an even deeper level.

And if, despite our best efforts, we do fall prey to holiday conflict, remember the value of a well constructed apology and the power of forgiveness and make this holiday season one in which we surprise ourselves and those around us by meeting their deep-seated needs for connectedness, compassion, understanding and respect in a way that exceeds all expectations.

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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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