Posts Tagged ‘hot buttons’

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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“What would you say your strengths are and where do you see your weaknesses?”  is a daunting question for most young job interviewees today.   But employers and HR professionals regularly require potential candidates to present well-considered answers to these and similar questions if they are to face down stiff competition and secure sought-after positions.  Apart from disclosing personal Strengths and Weaknesses, job seekers might also be asked to give a break-down of the Opportunities they see in a position as well as any potential Threats to their executing it and how they intend to overcome them.

These four elements, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats make up the acronym SWOT and describe a  change-management tool of the 1950’s and 60’s that has been developed into an easy-to-use instrument for assessing the pros and cons of new or challenging management situations. 


But SWOT analyses are just as valuable to conflict management practitioners and to individuals involved in interpersonal conflict as they are to management and HR executives .  Apart from the obvious application in assessing  concrete conflict situations, SWOT  is  a wonderful tool for understanding and delving deeper into one’s own conflict profile or helping clients better to understand theirs.

To do a SWOT analysis, divide a page into four equal parts.  Head each part as follows:  Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats and ask yourself the following questions:


  • What am I particularly good at in conflict situations?
  • What skills do I have that support me in times of conflict?
  • What can I rely on about myself in conflict encounters?
  • What do I do best in conflict?

Strengths here would include skills such as listening skills, thinking on one’s feet, staying calm, keeping a cool head, having a great sense of humour, not taking things personally, being able to focus or  having good communicative skills.


  • What trips me up time and again in conflict encounters?
  • Which conflict behaviours have I most regretted in the past?
  • What triggers the “worst” in me?
  • Where do I feel most vulnerable in conflict?

Weaknesses might include traits and habits such as short temperedness, a tendency to over-react, a tendency towards emotional flooding, feeling personally attacked or speaking first and thinking later.


Here answers could include insights such as:  conflict is the opportunity to clear the air, to re-boot a relationship, to make one’s needs known, to lay down or define boundaries, to explore new directions and to bring about change.


  • What threatens a positive outcome to conflict?
  • What might cause a conflict encounter to fail?
  • What would make engaging in conflict futile?
  • What outcome would I want to avoid?

Threats might include the risk that one manages the conflict situation poorly, that the encounter does not achieve the desired results,  that the other party is not willing to resolve, that relationships are damaged or that situations worsen through engaging in conflict.

Using a SWOT assessment in this way not only reveals our desires and fears surrounding conflict but more importantly, uncovers the areas in which we are lacking essential skills in dealing with conflict.  And with self-knowledge as ever the starting point for conflict competence, such assessment can then be followed by focussed training and application to close these gaps in our conflict capabilities and provide us or the client with an invaluable resource when it comes to conflict management.

In concrete conflict situations, a SWOT analysis can help one  prepare for difficult conversations and  take precautions to avoid pitfalls of one’s own making.  It can also highlight one’s strengths and allow one to play these to one’s advantage.  If I for example know that I have a great sense of humour, I can use this to deflect tension and improve communication.  If on the other hand I know that my weakness is a tendency to take things personally, I can be on my guard for this response, watch out for the warning signs and step back well in time from situations that would otherwise cause me to react blindly and to my disadvantage.

The question I always like best is  the one about the opportunities in conflict:  this is where we are often most surprised by what a simple SWOT analysis can reveal about some of our deepest fears and needs surrounding conflict:  the desire to maintain or to re-establish relationships, to find our needs understood and answered and to improve communication.     Isn’t that what conflict competence is all about?

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Dissing or the act of expressing verbal disrespect (originally between Gangster-Rappers and Hip-Hoppers) has become so mainstream that even I know what a diss is.   A form of scathing urban banter, dissing piles up scorn and aims to humiliate the other by attacking their deepest vulnerabilities – the family (particularly mother or sister), the gang or the victim’s abilities.  The diss furthermore, allows the person dissing to appear superior and  powerful and is designed not only to provoke but to destroy the other by exposing these vulnerabilities to public hearing. Understandably, dissing leads to deep personal wounding and is the cause of often intractable conflict.  It also serves as a perfect example of contempt and has all the elements of this strong emotion as it is experienced in the workplace and in our homes.

From the point of view of interpersonal conflict management, contempt in the words of John Guttmann, is “sulphuric acid for relationships” and one of the strongest indicators that our relationship has hit the skids.

How do we recognize contempt?

Contempt has 4 elements:

  • Expressed when people are interacting with each other
  • A negative evaluation of another’s behaviour or person
  • A sense of moral superiority over the victim
  • Positive feelings about oneself

Speaking down at someone, joking at another’s expense, ridiculing, insulting and name-calling, raising doubts about the other’s capabilities or integrity, challenging the other’s qualifications or running a private smear campaign by gossiping or rumour-mongering are all forms of contempt.    Similarly, blanking, overlooking or ignoring someone, rolling the eyes in exasperation, smirking or raising the eyebrows in that “oh really!” look, interrupting the other when speaking to correct an expression or point out a grammatical error or clearly waiting for someone to “get over it” are all expressions of contempt guaranteed to offend the other at a deeply personal level.

What does contempt look like?

Research has shown that the facial features of contempt involve a unique unilateral curling of the lip on one side of the face only, often accompanied with a slightly raised and tilted head by way of “looking down one’s nose” as well as a turning away or leaning back from the person held in contempt.

What is the effect of contempt?

Relationships visited by contempt suffer the consequences of deep wounding and mistrust.   John Gottmann points out that of the four deadly relationship sins (the other three being criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling), contempt is the most odious and the clearest predictor of a short-lifespan of a relationship.   In addition, the caustic nature of contempt is directly linked to a weakening of the immune system and is a strong indicator of poor health in years to come.

In our private lives, contempt is the death-knell for relationships.  In our professional lives it heralds in some of the most severe consequences of workplace conflict: sick-leave, early-retirement and job loss for the victims of contempt, while for organizations,  contempt substantially influences abstenteeism, staff fluctuation, poor performance, low morale, sabotage and damage to property as well as placing higher demands on social resources such as those for early retirement, health benefits and legal expenses.

How to counteract contempt?

Are you the name-calling type or do you “fight dirty” when you feel cornered?  If this is the case, ask yourself how else you could express your frustration or whether requesting time-out in a tight situation might give you the necessary distance and down-time to gather yourself and respond appropriately and proactively

  • Always be willing to repair damage:

Once you are aware of what constitutes contemptuous behaviour, be willing to apologise and repair the damage if you do behave in this way

  • Cultivate a culture of appreciation in your relationships:

John Guttmann calls this the antidote to contempt.  By cultivating the habit of expressing appreciation rather than criticism within a relationship, contempt is outlawed.  By simply replacing every contemptuous thought with an appreciative thought and if you have to speak, then doing so appreciatively, you not only prevent toxicity arising but at the same time, shore up good credit in your relationships that will pay off a hundredfold.

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Sharing my life with Apollo, a castrated Parson Russell terrier, I know all about defensiveness.   Funny, cheerful and easy-going as he is, he can turn into a short-tempered piece of trouble if big dogs spend too much time sniffing his nether regions.    This is because as a castrate, he gives off a confusing scent to non-neutered male dogs who tend to sniff him longer than usual trying to work out whether he’s female or not.

Defensiveness is defined in conflict literature as a reaction to a real or imagined threat or attack to one’s sense of wellbeing or self-esteem.  Such threats or attacks generally focus on matters of honour, virtue, reputation or integrity and are always an indicator of deep-seated vulnerabilities that we are at pains to protect.

In the case of Apollo, the prolonged interest in what lies below his tail raises his fear that the attention he is receiving is going to lead to an act of dominance on the part of the other dog.   And being the terrier that he is, he’s not going to let that happen in a hurry and protects himself by attacking first.  The other dog, taken aback by this defensive blow out of the blue particularly from someone who barely reaches his kneecaps, usually beats a hasty retreat.  In Apollo’s case, the act of sniffing (the trigger) is in itself harmless dog-talk, but a terrier’s reluctance to be dominated (his vulnerability) is the underlying sensibility that gives rise to the unmeasured defensive behaviour.

Not unlike our friends in the animal world,  we bluff, growl, ignore and deny  in order to protect deep-seated vulnerabilities which we feel are under attack.   Our defensive responses are similarly less about the object of our rebuttal than about the underlying value that we seek to defend.    What  “I didn’t take the money” really says,  is “I’m an honest person”,  what “I didn’t leave my child alone in the car” says,  is “I’m a responsible parent” and what “I didn’t say that about you” says, is “I’m a good friend”.

So, what are our most common defensive responses, how do they impact a conflict situation and how best do we deal with defensiveness?

Defensive responses fall into 5 main categories:

  1. Denial.  “I didn’t do it.”
  2. Blame.  “It’s not my fault.  You should have….”
  3. Justification.  “I only did it because…”
  4. Deflection.  “What’s the big deal? Everyone does it.  Why are you picking on me?”
  5. Withdrawal.  This includes blanking, ignoring and other forms of shutting down communication.

Defensiveness impacts conflict interactions by:

  1. creating smoke screens and confusion around the real issues at stake
  2. increasing the surface area of the conflict by introducing a further (hidden) element into the conflict discourse
  3. hijacking the communication process
  4. encouraging the conflict partner to become defensive in turn
  5. keeping us from taking responsibility in conflict

Dealing with defensiveness:

Declaratory statements such as “You’re being defensive” are only likely to illicit a  “No, I’m not” in reply followed by more defensive toing and froing and an escalation of the conflict discourse. This is not the way to go.

A three-step approach is more likely to counter defensive feelings effectively:

  1. adopt a curious state of mind at the first signs of defensiveness
  2. ask yourself what vulnerability is under threat in this conflict encounter
  3. attempt to address the vulnerability empathetically

“I know you’re a good friend and that’s why I’m surprised to hear that you said that about me. ” is much more likely to expand communication and allow the real issue to surface than an exchange based on the back-and-forth of accusation and denial.

And,  if the key to breaking through defensiveness lies in uncovering the root of the other’s defensive response, then the best way to do this is to start with ourselves:  taking responsibility for our own defensiveness, identifying the defensive behaviours that we most commonly resort to and exploring the vulnerabilities that we protect by responding defensively is the best way  to understand defensiveness in others.  As ever, walking in the other’s shoes (or in the case of Apollo walking on his paws), is the master-class in perspective-shifting and the most fundamental tool for constructive conflict resolution.

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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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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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