Posts Tagged ‘strong emotions’

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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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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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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