Posts Tagged ‘personal 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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Feedback is one of those words that mean different things to different people.  Personally, I have on more than one occasion been at the receiving end of an unsolicited “May I give you some feedback?” only to find that it served as the opening gambit to a volley of finger-pointing and blame-laying without even a smidgen of remorse.  On the contrary – the recipient of such well-meant service to one’s person is meant to show gratitude and willingness to reform!    Little wonder then that to many who have experienced this type of misunderstood “feedback”, the word smacks of “heartburn”, something with a “bad aftertaste” or the kind of “static buzz” that you get when you try to tune into a short-wave radio station.

And yet feedback not only has its place amongst the best management tools, it is in fact one of the most basic of them and if understood and judiciously used, a brilliant instrument for managing potential conflict and supporting constructive change and growth.

So what is it about feedback that makes it so tricky? And how do we give good and effective  feedback?

1.  Make it timeous

It is often said that feedback should be immediate.  I prefer to temper this by saying that it should be at an appropriate time and as close as is realistically possible to the event that gives rise to its necessity.   This means that matters that need addressing should not be pushed around until someone explodes or stored away until the next best public occasion for a dressing-down.  This avoids the “Why didn’t you tell me that ages ago?” when an event that is weeks or even months old is suddenly tabled.

2.  Focus on the problem not the person

Address the behaviour or problem that has given rise to a need for feedback,  instead of an aspect of the person’s personality that you may consider is obviously to blame:  “Your laziness is costing us real money”  is different to saying “Late deliveries coming out of the depot are causing our clients to go elsewhere and making us lose money.

3.  Be Specific

Address one or two issues only rather than a “laundry list” of complaints.  Having a bucket of one’s misdeeds turned out over one’s head is not very encouraging when it comes to righting a current wrong.  Neither do generalizations make managing the situation any easier.  As in the case of our delivery agent above:  “losing clients” and “losing money” are too general.  Specifying the problem on the other hand would sound something like:  “ABC Books have given notice on their contract because they’ve received their order late three times in the last six weeks. That means we’re losing US$10.000,00 a month.”  Now the agent knows and understands what you’re upset about.    Specificity identifies and frames the issue clearly and allows the person receiving the feedback to focus his/her energy on addressing that particular problem.  Laundry lists and generalizations on the other hand are overwhelming, confusing and daunting in scope and serve instead to leave recipients of this type of feedback on the defensive.

4.  Substantiate 

Explain what it is about the behaviour that is problematic.  In this way the other is able to understand the problematic consequences of a situation instead of simply receiving a blanket complaint.  “When you’re late home after work, I have to start doing the things with the kids that you’re actually responsible for.  That means that I often don’t get out to the gym and can’t keep up with my weight-loss programme” There is no misunderstanding here as regards what the partner doing more than his/her fair share of housework is upset about

5.  Be respectful

Asking “May I give you some feedback?” should not be the opener to an unkind dusting-down but truly an act of respect.  The same also applies to choosing the venue and the appropriate time for feedback, to ensuring that feedback cannot be taken personally and to explaining the reasoning behind the feedback

6.  Take it one step further

Ask how you can support the recipient of feedback.  Whether in developing a plan of action, allowing time for reflection, offering to brainstorm with them or pointing them in the direction of secondary sources of help turns words into actions and sets the recipient of feedback on track to initiate change.

Like so many things in life, the feedback rule is simple:  give feedback as you would like to receive it – in the right place, at the right time, politely, kindly and constructively.  Everything else causes heartburn.

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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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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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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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“To forgive is not just to be altruistic, it is the best form of self-interest”  Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Like any journey worth the trouble, the first step towards forgiveness is the most difficult.   Once started, it becomes easier if we take it one step at a time and allow ourselves a margin of error, of occasionally re-tracing our steps and of stopping for breath and replenishment.    This seven-step plan is an outline for a forgiveness process that I have used successfully with clients.

  1. The first step is a commitment to ourselves and to our healing.  Forgiveness is about you and for you and is exclusively your choice to  make. Remind yourself that it is not about condoning what has happened or reconciling with the offender. It is a readiness to commit to a new life, free of the burden of unforgiveness.
  2. The second step in the process is to return to the narrative of the harm done to you, to describe it and how it has affected you and your life.  This can be in a piece of writing to yourself or can be told to someone in your trust.  It might also be beneficial at this stage to tell your confidante or to write down to yourself that this act of telling the grievance story is part of your process of forgiveness.
  3. The third step is to write down as many reasons as you can for NOT forgiving.  Then go on to record in as much detail as possible how holding onto unforgiveness is affecting your life.  Add to this a list of your unmet expectations as a result of the harm done to you and follow this up by recording what it costs you to hold onto these expectations.
  4. Now consciously address the grievance and allocate it a resting place in your past.  This means giving up all dreams of a better or a different past.  It sounds easy enough but unforgivers are firmly committed to the “if only” dialogue.   Bann all such thoughts and expressions from your discourse.  The past is as it stands.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change it.
  5. Next, think of times in your life in which you have wronged, hurt or disappointed others and remind yourself that we are all human and subject to errors and failures.  It is easier to forgive, when we call to mind our own fallibility and when we acknowledge our own weakness and shadows.
  6. Think of new ways of meeting your needs for recognition, love, respect and whatever else you feel has been lost through disappointed expectations and wounding and turn your creative attention and your power towards filling these gaps in your life as you would want to see them filled.
  7. Create a cleansing ritual for your forgiveness.  This could include:  burying the unforgiveness that you have been holding onto and putting it to rest together with an item however small, which symbolises the painful past; gathering and burning your forgiveness writings and so setting free the negative and dark thoughts that have held you; clearing out any remnants of the past that symbolise the unforgivness and your pain; inviting a confidante to share these rituals acts with you.

Forgiveness is about changing your perspective and in so-doing, gaining enormous personal power.  It is about taking responsibility for your happiness and not leaving it squarely in the hands of someone who has hurt or offended you.  Forgiveness is about living your best life not only in the face of difficulties but because of the unique chance of growth and personal development that overcoming difficulties bring with them.

Forgiveness is about re-writing the grievance narrative to include the life-changing power of your act of forgiveness and the new pathways to joy that forgiveness holds for you.

Need anything more to convince you to forgive?

Next week:  Forgiving oneself.


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I have often puzzled over reports of people who have survived years of inhuman hardship at the hands of others yet  have lived the rest of their lives to the full, have built homes and families and found joy and pleasure in abundance. And then there are those who having experienced the same, have spent their lives in misery, bitterness and hostile regret, blaming and revisiting the injury time and again,  burning up their life-force in  a battle with dark and destructive emotions.

The question to myself has always been – which of the two would I be, if I had walked in their shoes?  Where lies the source of this life-affirming energy in the face of such misfortune? And why do many of us tend instead to build an altar to the suffering and in so doing, to entrench it firmly into our lives?

The key to coming out at the other end of much of what human beings do to each other is forgiveness.  I don’t mean the popular admonishment to “move on” or to “get over it”, nor the good fortune of a cheerful disposition or a thick skin but rather, a deep understanding of the meaning and pathways to forgiveness that allows us to leave even the greatest misfortune behind us and despite our suffering, to live well, fully and joyfully.

Is this a matter of spiritual grace, a survival skill or a technique for stress release and if so, why are we so resistant to exploring its potential for restoring balance in our lives?

The reason for our reluctance to forgive lies in the misconception that forgiveness is a sign of weakness, that it requires us to forget what we have experienced, to acknowledge that our suffering was in some way deserved, to relinquish our right to justice and retribution for the wrongs against us, to condone our tormentor’s actions and to let them off the hook.   We are afraid that through forgiveness, we will forgo the recognition of our status as victims of another’s making in the hope that this will bring us relief and satisfy our longing and need to be heard and acknowledged.   This is why many of us hold onto our injuries so stubbornly, revisiting the story they tell time and again and living in a dark state of unforgivness where there is no peace and no joy and where we continue to suffer often years after the actual event.

The truth is that forgiveness does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, denying or reconciling with our offenders.

Forgiveness in fact is a voluntary and conscious choice.   Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation nor does it require either the presence of or communication with our offenders for it to be effective.  Forgiveness is a personal choice to view one’s life and the events of one’s life differently, it is the decision to acknowledge and then to let go of the injuries caused and to allow compassion to lead us towards a lighter and more joyful form of living.

As is to be expected, a conflict tool as powerful as forgiveness does not come as a “quick-fix”  but generally means a long and challenging process that requires great courage, self-awareness and personal insight as well as the understanding that healing comes from within only through letting go of dark and emotionally debilitating experiences.

Set against the consequences of a lifetime engaged in active unforgiveness, it is a journey well worth the taking – as much for our emotional and physical wellbeing as for the lives of those that we touch along the way.

More next week on how to prepare for forgiveness and the skills we need to see it through.




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