Posts Tagged ‘interpersonal conflict’

On one of the first days of 2013, while digging deep into the back corners of my desk-drawers to trawl in the dust-covered odds and ends that had slipped out of my line of vision over the last twelve months, I came across a hand-written quotation given to me by my son on New Year’s day two or three years ago.  It was so much to the point, that I was left wondering why this particular scrap of paper had found its way back into my hands.  As I sat there pondering the significance of my find, I thought of its wider relevance to those of us in interpersonal conflict and decided to pass it on to you with my very best wishes for a wonderful new year.  Here it is:

“We spent January 1st walking through our lives, room by room, cleaning up, a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives not looking for flaws but for potential”   Ellen Goodman

This inspiring quote beautifully describes the process of personal stocktaking that we should all perform at least once a year:    identifying the different rooms of our lives – family, career, friendships, health, education, spirituality, values – and then going through  the list and evaluating where we stand in each of them and recording where improvement or change is necessary.  So far so good but the true inspiration in this moving image of two people wandering through the dusty rooms of their lives together and taking stock lies in the call to redirect our eye to the hidden treasures hidden beneath the debris.   We’re asked to break from the mould and not,  as we often do, to highlight the flaws and defects but to uncover and explore the hidden potential in that which is imperfect in our lives.  Why is something not working? What does this tell us? Where is the lesson we need to learn?  and What is the gift that lies waiting in our imperfection?

Conflict is always a sign of one or more parties seeking change to an aspect of their relationship.   While we willingly acknowledge that there is no growth without pain and that conflict is par for the course in relationships, when we encounter conflict head-on,  we often run and hide or respond inappropriately and in so doing, overlook the wonderful opportunity for growth that it brings.

Instead of avoiding conflict, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away or answering the conflict challenge aggressively and hoping to defeat the other, let us recognise the potential that conflict brings, the chance for a deepening of connection and for personal growth.

As we walk through the rooms of our interpersonal relationships at the beginning of this year, don’t sweep away the conflicts you see lurking in the shadows,  welcome them in as opportunities to create stronger and more meaningful bonds between us all.


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Corporate conflict management employs a wealth of tools and instruments to assess and analyse conflict, to support decision-making processes and to engineer change.  These grids, charts, flows and spreads all named after their various creators (and often franchised by them) promise a wealth of revelatory data on everything from leadership styles to risk assessment, strategic thinking and creativity and are state of the art  for corporate clients today who expect value for money and ROI.

Many of these instruments are unaffordable for private conflict management use but just as many of them are free so that there is no reason why such tools or the idea of using such instruments of assessment should remain the privilege of corporate clients only.    The best of these tools are those that require nothing more than your imagination and pen and paper to jot down the great ideas they generate.

One of my favourites  stems from the father of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono and is his Six Thinking Hats tool:  easy, creative and playful on the surface and yet once you know how, a wonderfully accessible instrument for breaking out of our habitual thinking patterns, gaining a more complete picture of a problem and uncovering aspects and options which would not otherwise have been apparent.   It is a great exercise in perspective-taking that works just as well for problems involving a number of stakeholders as for individuals tackling challenging problems alone.

The tool is based on six different (metaphorical) coloured hats, each standing for a different mode of thinking.  Imagine them however you like – from pointed wizards hats to baseball caps – whatever you feel most powerful in! The idea is that while wearing one of the hats, you think only in that mode.  Once all the possible information is gathered in that thinking particular mode, you remove the hat, put on the next and start the process again until you have as thorough and full a picture as possible.  The colour and thinking modes are as follows:

  1. White:   purely factual information
  2. Red:   emotion, gut reaction and instinct
  3. Black:   negative, pessimistic thinking
  4. Yellow:   positive, optimistic thinking
  5. Green:   unleashed creativity
  6. Blue:   process control (applicable to facilitators or chairs when working with groups)

So for example, the White Hat collects all the necessary information to a problem, identifies what information is available, what is missing and what is still needed.  The Red Hat then invites pure gut reaction to step in and invites the parties to explore how they feel, what they fear and how they are reacting to a situation.  The Black Hat provides negative thinking around the problem allowing for the more conservative perspective, warning of possible weaknesses in the plan or of short-cuts and potential dangers that could lead to disaster.  The Yellow Hat then steps up with the best-case scenario – what if we’re in luck, what if everything turns out well, what if things go our way?  The Green Hat then pulls out all the creative stops and imagines how the edges could be smoothed and the difficulties overcome, the gaps closed and the worst and best-case scenarios provided for.  The Blue Hat manages the process in a group situation.  In an individual situation, it can step in as a balancing force and return you to one or other hat to dig deeper or explore further.

What a great way of thinking!  Imagine the wealth of information you’d collect even in small-scale problems.  Practising the Six Hat tool regularly also attunes you to your inner voice allowing you to realise at any given time, which hat you’re wearing, which thinking mode you’re in and what aspects of a problem are yet to be explored for a solution to really be constructive and complete.

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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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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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When I think back to the many people who have shared larger and smaller chunks of life’s journey with me until now – from  earliest childhood friendships to turbulent teenage companionships, from first loves to family bonds and deep, supportive friendships formed as an adult, I am not surprised to find that like most of us, I have a tendency to remember the good times and overlook the bad.

Delving deeper in search of memorably “bad” human experiences, I find (fortunately) that few readily come to mind and on closer examination, realise that these are or were all relationships that  suffered unapologised injury and have as a result, carved themselves indelibly into my memory and still have the power to move me even at a distance of many years.

In some cases, I hardly remember the faces or am no longer really sure of the names, but I do still feel negatively stirred by the thought of the relationship and in the case of those injuries which are fresher and closer to where I am now in my life, I can still hear and replay the words or feel the scar of the wounding.  I hear you saying, “get over it” and I want to make it clear that I am not overly sensitive by nature but that there are simply certain injuries, which despite the best intentions and a robust disposition, will simply not go away.  What these injuries have in common is the fact that they were not followed up by an appropriate and meaningful apology and as a consequence,  we struggle in coming to terms with and “getting over” such transgressions.

After all is said and done, the lack of apology remains almost the greatest wounding  –  an  archetypal example of  insult being added to injury.

What would a well-executed apology do for my lingering, injured ghosts and  how does apology serve as one of the primary instruments in a conflict resolution toolbox?

The good news for those who are unpractised in the art, is that apologising benefits not only the receiver but also the giver.

For the receiver the benefits include:

  • Emotional healing through the acknowledgement that you have been harmed
  • The opportunity to label the wrondoer as something other than a personal threat in one’s life and to give them an opportunity to fill the new role
  • The ability to move past anger or other negative emotions which keep one stuck in the past
  • The opportunity to empathise with the perpetrator and to forgive as the final step in letting go and moving on

And for the giver, benefits include:

  • Freedom from the gnawing sense of guilt,  shame and self-reproach that we feel at having injured another
  • Self-respect and increased self-esteem through overcoming our resistance to apologising
  • Mending fences and salvaging relationships which enable us to maintain intimacy and important bonds to others

Is there anything else you need to be convinced? Apologise (even if it’s years overdue),  reap benefits in abundance and allow others to “get over it “in the best (and the only) way possible.

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