Posts Tagged ‘fear’

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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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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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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A recent online discussion amongst conflict resolution coaches sparked a fond memory which I think is well worth passing on:

I was so taken by a book that I read to my children when they were small and it stayed in my mind so persistently, that I subsequently went to great lengths to trace it long after it was no longer available on the shelves of major bookstores.   It’s called “It came through the Wall” by Tim Healey and is about a little boy who is visited one night by his very worst nightmare – a huge hairy monster that comes through the wall of his bedroom.

From under his bedclothes he observes the gradual emergence of the hairy beast claw-by-claw as it steps through his wall and comes to sit on his bed.   The monster speaks to him, tells him about the dark and gloomy place that he comes from and says enough to spark the boy’s interest so that after his departure and despite his fear, the boy finds himself yearning to see him again.

He finally manages to step through his wall himself and visits the monster only to find him  terribly unhappy because he is as he says,  “unnamed” and as such, a “no-one”.  To the monster’s delight, the boy names him “The Great Nameless Dread” and the monster celebrates his naming in great style.  In return for being named, the monster gives the boy a handful of “mysterial light” to take back with him and sends him on his way back through the wall.  The book ends with the boy mourning the fact that he was never again able to visit the monster, nor was he ever again visited by him.  But he has clearly left his fear behind him and in its place at the bottom of his sock-drawer is the handful of “mysterial light” which he turns to, to remind himself of the power he has to overcome anything and the trust in his ability to do so.

It is a wonderful tale about overcoming fear by

  • a willingness to examine it closely
  • a readiness to acquaint oneself with its origins
  • the naming of it
  • the ability to leave it behind one after doing the above

The benefits of the process include

  • overcoming even our most paralyzing fears
  • belief in oneself and one’s ability to face fear
  • the reward of resolution
  • the personal strength that is to be gained from mastering the challenge of fear

In dealing with fears or anxieties which surface during the course of coaching, this childrens’ story aligns perfectly with the coaching goals and to a large extent, with the steps of the coaching process.    Out of the mouths of babes or wisdom indeed from the nursery!

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