In working with people as a mediator I’ve noticed a pattern about how differences turn into conflicts.
Usually, there is a single important event that happens between two people. It can be something said or done, or an e-mail or text message. I call this event a ‘precipitating moment’. From this moment one person starts to distrust the other just a little bit and from there it grows.
Let’s take a typical story. Sarah and Karen* worked for a medium sized charity based in different teams. On a new health project, their work crossed over and they needed to work together and liaise with the same external partners for the first time. Karen had been with the organisation for twelve years to Sarah’s seven months.
Karen prided herself on her attention to detail and good relationship with partners. Sarah was excited about the new role and keen to get stuck in. They had two partner meetings where Sarah suggested some ideas that Karen thought were not properly thought out. Karen said as much in the meetings and afterwards she’d got a number of ‘angry’ e-mails from Sarah.
Sarah, on the other hand, was getting frustrated. This was her first big project and she was keen to make an impact, but Karen was blocking her ideas. She e-mailed Karen to try and sort it out and they e-mailed back and forth but the messages became more and more heated.
Eventually, they just stopped communicating.
The ‘precipitating event’ in this story was the first partner meeting where Karen spoke of her concerns about Sarah’s ideas. This is where they started to distrust each other. The thinking goes, “I have been wronged, my perspective is right and they are at fault.” It becomes ‘me’ against ‘her’.
If I’m lucky as a mediator this goes on for a few months and then I’m brought in. More often though, this pattern goes on for a few years before it is dealt with and then I am contacted.
In this story, both women gained supporters for their point of view. Bringing others onboard creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario, which is another common pattern. By this stage, often people stop using names and simply refer to ‘her’ or ‘they’.
In this case, the project limped on for a year until their senior manager found out what was going on. She tried to help by supporting Sarah’s side, which only made matters worse. The project was handed over to others and a mediator was brought in.
After an individual meeting with the mediator and one joint session together, they were able to sort out their differences and mend the relationship.
In fact, they booked a monthly lunch date to catch up since their manager had just won another contract that needed them to work together.
What went wrong?
Communication between Karen and Sarah was a big part of it. Although ideally they could have met before the very first partner meeting, they were both new to the work and feeling their way into it. However, after that first meeting, they could have recognised that there were some tensions they needed to talk about before the next partner meeting. It seemed quicker and easier to sort it out over e-mail so that is was they tried to do.
This seems like such a small thing but in my experience e-mail communication almost never works where there’s tension. Often it makes the situation worse, takes longer and creates more stress.
Meeting in person would have been much more effective, even if they had ended up arguing.
However, like most of us, Sarah and Karen have never been taught how to ‘disagree well’ and were both feeling rather annoyed and frustrated. In truth, they were anxious about the idea of speaking face to face, so they avoided it.
Once they talked together with the mediator’s support they resolved the issues in one day. The conflict had gone on for a while so it took hard work and commitment, but they each apologised to one another and were able to understand each other’s perspectives much better. Together, they created a working agreement.
As well as these external events there were also a series of internal reactions and decisions made by Sarah and Karen. After that first meeting, each of them started to form thoughts and judgments in their minds about the other person, their behaviour, motives and even their core character.
This is a natural tendency when we find ourselves strongly disagreeing with someone else. It quickly becomes not just about us having different ideas, but about them being flawed as a person. These beliefs often come from a place of fear and anxiety about our own worth. It takes conscious effort, discipline and a choice to trust to move away from those beliefs and meet with ‘the other’. However, it is what can make the world of difference.
Changing the way we deal with disagreements starts with noticing them and making a conscious choice to do it differently this time.
Because conflicts always begin with the small things.
That is why they matter so much.
*not their real names. The story has had key details changed to protect anonymity.