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Posts Tagged ‘workplace conflict’

I know a woman who created a winning design label in her cellar at night while navigating the stormy waters of marital disintegration.  She would put the children to bed, clean up and then go downstairs and cut, match, sew and assemble pieces of fabric until the early hours of the morning when she had something to show for her labours and her head was “clear” of the nagging questions and worries that beset her days.  It was when she was focussed on a specific task, working out the practicalities of making a zipper disappear into the folds of a pair of trousers or a dress float like gossamer that her mind would switch off and she could distance herself from the gnawing worries of an unravelling life.  And it was often at the end of a long night of working that bingo! – she had the answer to the next sticky question:   “It would just pop into my head, as though someone was talking to me” she said,   “I had no idea where it came from but it was always surprisingly enough, the best next move for me.”

My personal refuge in such challenging times is generally the kitchen and although I love both cooking and baking, it’s preserving fruits and changing them into jewel-coloured jams and marmalades that is my refuge of choice for truly creative conflict resolution.  The wonderful smells of sugar and fruit marrying to form a heady perfume banish all negative thoughts while the activity of washing, cutting and paring fruit, sterilizing and heating jars,  getting out the sugar thermometer and then watching over the process until the setting point it reached, takes care of the rest.    I take no short-cuts and no recipe is too difficult or time-consuming. I seek to lose myself in jam-making nirvana and yes, in the process of switching off I am always able to let go of the problem that besets me and almost always find solutions popping into my head that I had simply never thought of before.

So what is it about throwing oneself into creativity that fosters great conflict resolution?

  • Psychiatry has long known of the benefits of crafting and creativity on mental health.  World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock were taught to knit and knitting remains one of the most popular therapy crafts used in managing depression today
  • Creativity and crafting switch activity from the left, problem-solving side of the brain to the creative, right-hand side of the brain.  In so doing, the pressure to think is literally taken off the cortex, heart rate, blood-pressure and breathing slow down, the amygdala’s fight or flight response ebbs and we become physically and mentally quiet and peaceful.
  • The often repetitive patterns and the focus on detail required in a lot of crafting activities are deeply calming and require us to be “fully present in the moment” as is the case in practising meditation.  In doing so, we are able to distance ourselves from worries about the future.
  • Crafting is also a source of pleasure that brings with it a sense of accomplishment.   Creating something to share with others heightens this pleasure even more. This activates the pleasure centres in the brain that flood our bloodstream with beta-endorphins, dopamine and all the good vibe chemicals that make us feel great.

So instead of focussing all your mental energy on actively solving problems, try gardening, baking, doing woodwork, putting ships into bottles, sewing, knitting or whatever it is that gets you going creatively.   Reap physical and mental health benefits in abundance and surprise yourself with some of your best decisions yet.

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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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I recently spoke to a friend who complained to me about his habit of impatience and the impact it was having on his new position as a team leader.   He sketched workplace scenarios that had everyone cowering in fear of his lightening judgement and his verbal dexterity and was unequivocal about the fact that he seriously disliked this aspect of himself.   But with a shrug, a sigh and a fatalistic “I wish I could change…” he reached out for his coffee cup and moved onto another topic.

 

The encounter left me wondering what it is it that keeps us from taking that crucial next step towards change despite apparent self-knowledge and the realisation that change is needed or is in fact long overdue?  And what is it that allows us to repeatedly commit to change but to fall back into old behaviours sooner rather than later?

 

It is commonly assumed that entrenched habit, fear of the unknown or the discomfort that change brings are what holds us back from breaking with unhelpful behavioural patterns or causes us to fail in following through on change.   But there is in fact an overlooked and yet absolutely essential prior step that must be taken before we can even consider braving the waters of change. Missing out on this first step is what has us failing time and again and belabouring the ears of friends with “if only…” tales.

 

To clients who say  “I wish I could…”, “How I’d love to…” or “If only I were…”   I ask permission to pose one question that always comes as a surprise, catches them off-guard and even ruffles and occasionally offends: “What benefit do you gain from not changing?” or “What’s the win in holding onto your pain?” The reply is always the same: “Holding onto pain? to a bad relationship? to an abusive partnership? to an overweight body or to ever-increasing personal debt?  How on earth could that benefit me?”

 

And yet,  that is exactly the question that has to be answered before we can consider committing to change for as long as we are reaping some benefit from our old pain, we will stay with it and its familiarity and resist all change.

 

 

The truth is that we remain trapped in unhealthy or unhelpful behaviours because in doing so, we find some of our deepest and often unacknowledged needs met. Yes, eating too much feels good in the moment of wolfing it down because it provides a primal sense of comfort that is more important than your waistline when loneliness and poor self-image overwhelm. Maxing out your credit-card limit satisfies a need for status and acknowledgement when self-esteem is low and impatience and perfectionism allow one to appear competent, in control and superior when in fact one is often plagued by feelings of inadequacy.

 

Acknowledging the benefits that we gain from holding onto bad habits, helps us to identify the deep needs that repeatedly draw us back into the “if only…” that we so wish we could cast off.   It is however, only through facing up to and acknowledging these needs that we can develop strategies to escape the black holes that await us during the process of change and to support us as we strive towards our desired goals.

 

So, with our new year’s resolutions still fresh in mind, the key to forming really strong intentions and to staying the course of change is to ask oneself where the benefit lies in not changing.  It’s never too late to change but it’s a waste of time trying if you’re not prepared to be honest about what it is you’re holding onto and what it is that’s holding you.   

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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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Don’t you just love the eternal optimists, hell-bent at making you see the bright side of things when all you want is a willing ear and good old moan?  And yet, they have a point that makes a lot of sense:  conflict research agrees that optimists fare a lot better than pessimists when it comes to coping with conflict.  (more…)

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Walking my dog through the woods on a glorious Indian Summer morning, I feel a blister developing on my left heel.  Little wonder:  I’m wearing regular boots – not walking shoes and because it’s not yet winter, I’m wearing them without stockings.   I’m halfway through my walk and have at least 3kms back home.

At first I’m just irritated by it and admonish myself for not dressing appropriately but the pain is low-grade and I muster all of my coaching skills to walk myself through it:  I focus on my long-term goals: what I’m going to do when I’m back home and what my planning for the rest of the week looks like; I mentally structure my walk by breaking it down into chunks, marked by the trees and the path I know so well and in that way make the distance before me seem less daunting and more manageable and,  I distract myself by looking out for mushrooms and birds to while away the time and take my mind off my foot.

But as is the nature of blisters, they seldom just disappear and the problem on my heel won’t be ignored.   Within a short time it has developed into a major pain and I am forced to think seriously about how I’m going to make it back.

When I finally do, I am struck by the similarity between my blister and our inherent reluctance to acknowledge conflict and deal with it timeously.  In fact, my experience with the blister tallies almost perfectly with the phases that we go through in dealing with conflict:

  1. Ignore the problem.  (I feel that something is amiss.  I identify what the problem is but tell myself that this can’t be happening halfway through my walk. Denial.) (more…)

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I recently listened in on a discussion on the merits of opposing political systems between two people very dear to me.  Each stated his position, defended it and described what was bad about the other’s preferred system and why his own preference was superior.  The other then did the same: positioning, defending, disassembling and re-stating the original position in ping-pong fashion until it was clear that they were going nowhere.

Suddenly, one of them interrupted the other just as his position was being proved lacking for the umpteenth time with a little question that knocked my socks off:   “What’s good about it?” (“it” being his preferred political system currently under attack). The person asking the question was my 20-year-old son.  Both as a mother and a conflict resolutionist, I was impressed by the tool he had instinctively chosen to turn a conversation that was heading for the sticky wasteland of intractable positioning into an opportunity for expanding viewpoints and finding common ground.  A short while later I found them both taking an amicable refreshment break in the kitchen.  They continued their discussion and in the end were both happy with the outcome describing it as constructive, informative and “adult”.

Lying awake in bed a few nights later with the usual line-up of problems robbing me of sleep, “what’s good about it?” popped into my mind.  I started applying the question to each of the persistent problems that haunt those gloomy hours and the result was amazing – eyes shut and stretched out in the dark, I found new and positive angles to my old problems and within no time was relaxed and off and into a deep sleep once again.  Since then, I have applied it in my coaching practice and have received a similarly grateful response from clients who were amazed at the power it holds to change our hitherto held take on things.

So, what’s the secret of this little question and how does it turn the tide on a conflict experience?

1.  Fight or Flight Response

The anxiety and fear surrounding conflict, the horror scenarios of how everything is going to go belly-up are all outgrowths of our fight or flight response, that millisecond answer to conflict that the amygdala holds ready for us.   These doomsday visions shut down creative thought around conflict and stand in the way of constructive conflict resolution.

“What’s good about it?” takes us out of the automatic pilot mode of doom and destruction and shuts down the knee-jerk amygdala-driven response of fight or flight.

Instead, it takes us by the hand and leads us to that part of the brain responsible for logic and reason, for creativity and new ideas bringing with it a wealth of physical benefits including lowering of blood pressure and heart beat as well as the release of chemicals into the bloodstream responsible for positive emotions.

2.  Perspective

“What’s good about it?” is a call for a change of perspective around a problem.  Particularly in the case of stubborn or recurrent conflict,  negative thought patterns and conflict narratives become firmly entrenched in our minds preventing us from entertaining alternative outcomes or viewpoints. In this state “nothing good about conflict” becomes our mantra.

The invitation to search for the positive contained in this little question therefore comes as a surprise and following it forces us into a perspective-shift on established thought-patterns.  It takes us out of our dark tunnel-view of conflict and onto wider plains where we are invited to see and discover new aspects of a problem from different vantage points.

3.  Creativity

“What’s good about it?” is nothing other than the essence of the brainstorming exercises that fill flip charts and whiteboards across the planet millions of times a week in an attempt at finding new answers to old problems.  It introduces creativity to problem-solving by challenging us to break out of old thought patterns and entertain new.

To get to the “good” about something that we perceive as “bad” requires quite a stretch of the imagination and this is where creativity comes in.  We’re invited to think differently, to believe everything is possible, to dream big and to entertain the hitherto inconceivable. Simply posing the question as you ponder a problem lifts the spirits, widens the gaze and introduces an element of playfulness and pleasure to the challenge of facing conflict. It makes you shake your head, sit up straight and put on a different thinking-hat.

4.  Optimism

In Learned Optimism: How to change your Mind and your Life, Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of  positive psychology claims that contrary to common belief, we’re not born either optimists or pessimists and that optimism can be learned.  In the process of proving his theory, he shows in scientific studies that optimists are healthier, happier and more successful because of how they think about what happens in their lives.  “What’s good about it?” is a question that could be almost tailor-made to suit Seligman’s theory – hence, a tool of choice for the optimist.

So, no more counting sheep and no more pacing the floorboards when you lie awake in the wee hours visiting and re-visiting the same problems:  instead, ask yourself “what’s good about it?”,  indulge yourself in the unexpected pleasure of creative conflict resolution and enjoy your best and most restful night’s sleep ever.

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