Conflict Competence Blog

Metaphors for conflict competence

September 24, 2011

It was a real pleasure to be in a workshop with Bernie Mayer on Friday in Edmonton Alberta. I learned a lot and very much enjoyed the conversation with about a dozen conflict managers. Somewhere in the discussion, this expression was used:–

Pick your battles.

It’s a cliché and it’s powerful in its message to walk away, avoid, withdraw.

‘Pick’ suggests exclusion, a narrowing down from many to one or a few. –˜Battles’ imports the image that we are facing many fights of which we will engage in the one or few we deem worthy of us. The aggression in ‘picking’ and ‘battles’ goes a little way towards making us feel in control of the course of life or relationships.

Other common clichés we say to explain the reason we accept something instead of resisting it, when the energy isn’t there for the effort.

This isn’t a hill to die on or
Live to fight another day.

  • Dying on any hill, literal or imaginary, detracts from the quality of the life I want to live.
  • Certainly, I want to live another day, preferably to engage with the world in a positive, productive and purposeful way.
  • We use hostile sayings mindlessly, meaning we don’t pay attention to the power of the words.
  • If we’re serious about creating a culture of conflict competence, here’s a good place to start – by being intentional about the metaphors and language we use.
    • Choose your conversation
    • My preference is to walk in peace
    • Live to engage in talk again

Next time you manage a situation to deal competently with conflict, give yourself credit for the decisions you made. Out of all the responses possible, let’s rewrite the expressions to use conflict competent words.

The power of apology in conflict

September 10, 2011

This week I witnessed the importance of sincerely offering or graciously accepting an apology. Granted, during times of high emotions, it isn’t always easy to do either. In these two cases, how an apology was offered (or not) and accepted (or not) had the power to change the outcome of the two relationships.

The first example was between a man and a woman who had recently started dating. He did something quite tacky that upset her. She explained how his actions had affected her. He had a choice to make about how to respond. He might have argued that she was wrong to view his behavior the way she did. Or, he might have justified how he acted in order to explain it away. Or, he might have ridiculed her for being upset and made it her problem for taking offense. Had he taken any of these options, their relationship might have ended that night.

Instead, he decided to listen to her perspective, respect her emotions, understand her point of view, apologize for upsetting her, take responsibility for what he had done and ask if she needed something from him to make amends. It was an artful apology, sincere and strategically offered. It diffused her emotional reaction to what had happened. Their relationship deepened and grew stronger instead of being damaged.

The second example involved a mother and teenage daughter who were hiking. The mother inadvertently took a wrong turn and they wound up across a gully from where the rest of the family waited for them. The daughter, trying to return to the correct trail, plunged into the gully despite the mother advising her not to go through the bush, The daughter was wearing shorts and sandals, so–  she was hurt when she bushwhacked through a patch of stinging nettles.

The mom apologized for getting them lost and tried to give aid to her crying and distraught daughter. The girl refused to hear her. She was in full blame mode. The daughter told the reunited family she would never hike with mom again. Mom was crushed that her apology was rejected but remained steadfast in taking responsibility and never mentioned the caution against entering the gully. Eventually, the daughter was able to chill enough to accept the apology and all was well between them.

Having seen how they improve relationships, it seems to me that offering and accepting apologies are skills we should practice more, whether the parties’ affiliations are strong or weak. The couple in the first example now have a wonderful relationship that might have ended before it had a chance. The mother and daughter might have endured a fracture in their communication as the daughter went through her teen years, when communication is most challenging. An apology, and its acceptance, healed both harms.

In these two cases, the players had strong attachments to each other that encouraged them to try to make things better. Even the weaker ties of workplace and social club attachments can benefit from people taking responsibility with the power of apologies. Both the person choosing to make and the person choosing to accept an apology– wind up feeling empowered when they make the decision to take responsibility and fix the conflict.

Immediate success can nurture future conflict

July 15, 2011

A small story in the media 12 July 2011, is a cautionary tale about trust in conflict zones and the law of unintended consequences.

The rumour is that the CIA used a nurse and doctor to withdraw some blood while vaccinating suspects. They used the needle to get a DNA sample. Sometime afterwards, the CIA performed a military operation in the compound because it had confirmed the suspect was indeed there. The CIA has not confirmed whether or not the story is true.

So, what’s the problem with tricking people using a fake medical scenario to obtain medical information or data?

First, trust breaking. The West and the Arab world are in high stakes conflict situations in a few places. Medical personnel in high conflict zones put their lives at risk, relying on trust about their impartiality to deliver emergency services to all combatants in need of treatment. Will they now be trusted as impartial? Eventually, peace will have to be negotiated. Those negotiations will require some level of trust among the parties. Deceit and trust building are usually mutually exclusive.

Second, the law of unintended consequences. The Internet is– rife with conspiracy theories that inoculations are a Western plot against Muslims.– Already some Muslim communities are refusing vaccinations that they believe are a plot to sterilize them or introduce genetic mutations or illness. Polio could make a resurgence as a global plague because those communities don’t trust the West. This ploy to find a targeted man using a medical team to vaccinate and, without consent take blood for DNA testing, feeds that conspiracy story.

While the CIA operation of DNA analysis was high tech, the device for obtaining it was simple. However, peacemaking can suffer when linear thinking is applied to complex nonlinear conflict situations.– For one objective – finding a person – there may be a setback in a global health objective of using modern vaccines for eradicating diseases.

A conflict analysis of anger

May 31, 2011

Many people are uncomfortable with anger. It isn’t fun when you’re the target of someone else’s anger and it’s rarely a good feeling to be angry. Even non involved by-standers who witness an angry confrontation that has nothing to do with them can wind up feeling bad. It’s hard to know what to do when someone is showing the common signs of anger: loud voice, facial changes, rigid body language, aggressive words, and threatening gestures. What’s a person to do with that? To be clear, I’m not referring to violence – that’s another discussion altogether.

I find it helpful to think about the “because” of anger. To make it more explicit, think of anger as a secondary emotion. First, we feel something – for example, hurt, humiliated, rejected, misunderstood. Then, secondarily, we get angry because of that primary emotion and the meaning we make of the behaviour.

So, if I’m angry because my beloved has made me feel rejected through neglect, it’s quite a different than if I’m angry because I believed that my beloved had publicly humiliated me. In both cases I’m angry with him. In my opinion, he crossed a boundary in each case. The results I want from him are quite different in the two cases.

Unless I have the insight to differentiate between how his neglect makes me feel and how his statements in public make me feel, then telling him I’m angry is potentially unhelpful in initiating a useful conversation. In the cases of rejection from neglect, I may want him to talk. In the case of humiliation from his public statements, I may want him to stop talking. The statement “I feel angry …” seems to call out for a deeper exploration of the “because” underlying that statement.

The most helpful response in the face of anger is often to intuit the feeling underneath the situation that led to the anger. Stopping at ‘anger’ as the identified emotion seems to be stopping too soon.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence

High salaries don’t guarantee conflict competence

January 28, 2011

Even billion dollar deals can fall apart when the highly paid executives doing the negotiating get hurt feelings. Here’s a cautionary tale about the value of doing interest based negotiations, of managing your reactions to another person and of understanding how to have difficult conversations.

The Globe and Mail reported on January 28, 2011 (page B4), that the CEO of “of the fertilizer giant (Potash Corp.) who fought hard to fend off the $39-billion bid” blamed his opponent company (BHP Billiton Ltd.)– for the failure of the hostile takeover.

It wasn’t an economic failure, but a failure to make Potash Corp. feel good about– BHP Billiton Ltd.,– and its intentions once it had ownership.

“BHP Billiton Ltd. has itself to blame for Ottawa’s decision to reject its hostile takeover offer for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.”, he said. In one of his first media interviews since Ottawa denied the takeover almost three months ago, Potash Corp. chief executive officer Bill Doyle said the Australian mining giant — got in their own way– when they launched the bid to buy one of Canada’s resource champions. "Had they come with just a little bit of humility they might have had a different outcome,– Mr. Doyle said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Thursday.”
That’s right; even $39 billion dollars couldn’t buy the company after the suitor BHP Billiton Ltd. allegedly insulted the decision makers of Potash Corp. If ever you wondered about the importance of relationship building in the high stakes of big business, this is a classic case study in the making. Even had BHP Billiton Ltd. done its conflict analysis and apologized for its faux pas, the CEO of Potash Corp. ought still to have done his conflict analysis of his reaction (over reaction?) to the slight. Some conflict competence training for all concerned might have been more valuable than humility.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence

Hollywood can teach about conflict management

November 17, 2010

It isn’t often I go to a Hollywood movie and then want to buy the DVD to use in my conflict management classes. When Martha, my colleague and friend, suggested we sneak in a matinee of “You Again” I agreed only because it was a rainy day and I didn’t have any pressing deadlines.

Now, I want to see it again and show it to everyone I like. I’ve bought the DVD.

You Again has a terrific cast and the script has truly funny lines. It’s marketed as a chick flick, which is unfortunate. Everyone of any gender or age could enjoy this movie and take away something for his/her own life.

The main character, Marni, was bullied in high school. She went on to achieve success in business. It did indeed get better for her. Her brother became engaged to the cheerleader who bullied her, so Marni sets out to sabotage the wedding. Marni’s intention is to save her brother from marrying a woman that Marni believes is a bad person. It gets hilarious as all the generations become involved, which doesn’t at all detract from the serious messages about bullying that lurk under the skin of Marni, her mother and grandmother. It seems that all three experienced bullying from their own perspectives.

The subtext also includes the transformative power of insight into our own behaviour and the adaptive changes we are all capable of undergoing. Marni is hostile to a memory of what someone did to her, and that person no longer exists. The enemy has evolved into someone Marni could actually like. And, the bully has her own story to tell about what it was like for her in high school.

All the characters turn out to be sympathetic and likable once we get to know them. The story is a conflict management equivalent to a work of art. You’ll find something in You Again that reflects your taste and point of view.

Relationships matter as much as technology

October 22, 2010

There is a pattern in two major events that occurred this month:– 33 miners were rescued— in a breathtakingly heroic effort in Chile and, at the other end of the hemisphere,– Calgary elected a new mayor. What they have as a common theme is the credit the media gave to the technology that led to the success of both endeavors.

In Chile, amazing machines brought 33 men and a few rescuers to the surface. In Calgary, an almost unknown professor with about 1% popular support when he entered the race used electronic devices to raise his popularity high enough to sweep the competition. At least, those were the stories that made the news.

The better and mostly untold story is about the relationships of collaboration and consensus decision making that created the conditions for success in both cases.

The 33 men in the mine shafts, after initial trial and error about how to get along in extraordinarily harsh circumstances, self organized their lives underground and averted interpersonal disaster. When the technology found them, they had figured out how to survive as a group. The new mayor of Calgary understood the technology was only a tool for policy and platform content. He had something to say that was worth hearing and social media and networking was how to get out his good messages.

Bottom line: the technology is good to have, but it isn’t the whole story. Without the tools of interpersonal relationships and consensus decision making, which supported and made the technology fit the situations, both stories might have ended differently.

We still need to have our own resilience, conflict management, and interpersonal relationships skills. We might never run for office or be trapped by forces beyond our control. Yet, each day we have challenges that technology can’t fix and our skills can.

Clear roles and goals reduce conflict and stress

August 22, 2010

Last month I wrote about confusion in roles and responsibilities contributing to conflict. Having said that, someone asked for more information about how to fix the situation.

Clearly understanding roles and goals greatly contributes to stress management in many situations, whether in a family or organization. Uncertainty is stressful and becomes blame, confusion about who does what, and feeling what work you do is unappreciated. In one case I mediated, the manager and employee had such different ideas of what each one’s role was, that their goals were constantly clashing. By the time I was invited to help, the manager’s goal was to find a way to get rid of the employee, while the employee’s goal was to replace the manager. They were both very stressed and mistrustful.

One of the relevant conflict management skills is asking good opened-ended questions. Here’s some steps to take, which is not an exhaustive list but will help frame the approach:

1. Determine the particular reason for having a goal.
The reason for a goal is fundamental to the approach to setting the goal. If the reason is to meet a target, such as sales, then setting the goal might have quantitative questions: how much, what size, which territory, who is responsible etc? If the reason for the goal is to support someone’s personal growth and development, the questions might be more qualitative: what feelings, whose perspectives, when in time, is it in the job description etc?

2. Discover the nature of the relationship between the people involved in setting the goal.
The context for the goal setting influences the process. Is there a power differential that might set of tone of the more powerful person dictating goals to the less powerful person? Is the relationship so strained that the people involved might never be able to agree on who has what role or responsibility? Is it peers who are collectively setting a team goal that all will be asked to meet?

3. Delve into how empowered the people involved are.
A common scenario might be a supervisor, who we’ll call R, giving a yearly performance review to a staff member, who we’ll call D. R and D may have a tense relationship based on past history of irritating each other, or a friendly relationship because they think on the same wavelength. R must still reflect on what his/her intentions are for the meeting with D about work goals. The choices for R would range from: having a friendly conversation because all is well with D’s work, to having a disciplinary tone in which consequences are set out if D does not meet R’s expectations, or anything in between.

4. Develop a clear intention for the process of setting goals
If you intend to set achievable goals, have an understanding of the power dynamic and options for how to frame the conversation. Some questions to ask yourself before going into the goal setting meeting might be: what assumptions do I have about the reasons, goals and employee; are those assumptions skewing my intention; if I change those assumptions do my intentions change?

Conflicts from confused roles and responsibilities

July 26, 2010

Two new cases came in this past week. A small nonprofit organization with four staff hired a new coordinator and within months communication had broken down between him and the office manager. The other case was in a very large organization where two managers had stopped speaking to each other, which was hard on staff who needed the managers to direct the work flow seamlessly. In both cases, the problem turned out to be confusion over who did what, when and how. Because the roles were unclear, it was natural that blame, finger-pointing and defensive excuses followed.

There are at least two places where clear roles and responsibilities matter to harmony. One is among members of the Boards of Directors of profit or nonprofit organizations. The other is any workplace with more than one employee.

Boards of Directors are often made up of volunteers recruited for their skill, experience and talent, plus a passion for the cause of the organization. Or, maybe just to pad a resume with ‘good works’. Whatever the motive, once on a Board, just having passion and being a do-gooder isn’t enough to prevent conflict from arising among the Directors. What they have in common with other kinds of people who are paid workers, is that their conflict often stems from unclear job descriptions, or ambiguous roles with uncertain responsibilities.<

When the roles and responsibilities lack clarity, there are three risks. The first is that gaps in who is responsible for certain tasks exist where it’s no one’s job to do that task. Whether people notice the task is falling into the gap or not, no one steps forward to do it because it’s no one’s job. The consequences of having gaps is blaming and fault finding in who ought to have assigned it to someone, or who should have done it without being asked, or at least have noticed it wasn’t being done.

The second risk is in overlaps. Where the roles and responsibilities fall into more than one person’s plate, it might get done, but in a way that sends inconsistent messages or skews the ability to evaluate the outcomes. The frequent outcome of overlaps is jealousy and hostility that one’s ‘turf’ is being disrespected, the work is being second-guessed and people tend to feel undermined or their competence questioned. Otherwise, they reason, the other person would not have been doing work that is mine to do.

A third risk comes from slaps. Whatever is causing people to feel bad about confusing roles and responsibilities, the outcome tends to be the same. Someone feels slapped for doing or not doing something that should or should not have been done. Likely, it was something that might have been avoided if everyone had been clear on whose job it was to make the necessary decisions associated with the neglected or overly attended to task.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence

Being difficult and being yourself

May 29, 2010

I’ve been reading, as perhaps you have as well, that happiness lies in having friendships and collegial relationships, and not in having excess money or in acquiring things. This is not a recent discovery. The Greek philosopher Epicurus, in about 307 BCE, taught that having an emotional connection with other people was a requirement for true happiness.

It makes sense, therefore, that knowing how to have and to be a friend and colleague should be one of the skills we learn as children. Usually socializing and interacting with other children teaches us the skills for getting along well with people, but not always. Some children have experiences that make it difficult for them as adults to have connections with others. And, realistically, everyone can– not– get along with everyone else. There will always be someone we’d rather not call a friend. Still, we are hard-wired to want to connect and get along with people, even with the difficult ones.

At a recent workshop on dealing with difficult people, one of the participants confessed that at work she was one of the difficult people others had to deal with. She didn’t want to be difficult. She just didn’t know how to release the friend and colleague that she knew was inside her, which others weren’t seeing. She felt internal conflict with herself over how she wanted to relate to people in the ordinary way that others seemed to and still be her unique self. How, she asked, could she change to be like everyone else so that people liked her, without selling out what she liked about herself?

Change is never easy, so we started with the simple few things we could do. Changing one thing would set off a chain reaction because everything is connected to everything else. We identified three conflict management techniques for connecting with others in a satisfying and– authentic– way. Adding those to our repertoire won’t change our unique personalities. However, they could change the nature of our relationships – for the better. The three conflict management skills we discussed are:

  1. using questions to move from positions to interests;
  2. understanding conflict management styles so that she uses the one that’s appropriate for the situation; and
  3. matching the level of conversation (was the level about facts, emotions or identity?) of the other person so that the discussion is about the same thing.

Difficult people are hard to get to know so assumptions about them often substitute for understanding them.– If we use the conflict management skills, it won’t guarantee others will like us. It will mean they won’t consider us difficult to deal with, and that means they get to know us and from there can decide if they like us or not.

Filed Under: Conflict Competence