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How to get unstuck from a conflict

If you’re feeling stuck in a conflict situation it’s not your fault. Sure, you’re part of what’s going on, but you need to know that it’s not all about you.  In this post I share some starting points for getting unstuck and changing the conflict.

Know that’s it not you

The first part to get unstuck is to let go of guilt and stop beating yourself up for being in this situation. Know that being affected by a conflict is in no way a comment on your worth or value as a person. Conflict is normal and inevitable and will happen.

Conflicts between people nearly always connect to bigger systems that need addressing.

They point towards a reality that is being highlighted.

I wish someone had told me this when I started out in the world of work around twenty years ago. I had landed my dream job pioneering a brand new initiative. It was exhilarating and exciting. It was also complicated, unclear and full of tensions.

At the age of 22, my ego told me that I was entirely to blame and what a terrible person I was for not being able to handle it better.

Hindsight tells me that there were cracks in the way the project had been set up from the start. Anyone else would have faced similar issues. I had no clear manager, a totally over-ambitious brief that kept changing, no clear decision-making process and six people advising me from six different perspectives! No wonder I was conflicted.

 

Ask for support

Asking for support is vital. The longer you try to battle on alone, the worse things are likely to get. Many of us have been schooled to prize independence – me included. When it comes to handling tensions, crises and change, we all need support. The kind of support you need most will depend on the nature of the conflict and your exact situation.

Examples include:

  • Someone external to facilitate a difficult conversation.

 

  • A meeting with your manager to get more clarity.

 

  • A team conversation with clear guidelines and a skilled chair.

 

  • Pushing for training to develop everyone’s skills.

 

  • An independent mediator to help you have ‘that’ conversation.

 

  • 121 conflict coaching.

 

Trust your judgement about what support you most need.

Talk about it

This sounds so blindingly obvious it almost goes without saying. Except it doesn’t.

People e-mail, text, direct message or simply avoid each other. Often they have stopped talking. Perhaps they tried talking and it went horribly wrong. Or maybe they avoided it altogether for fear of what might come up.

Or one person voted with their feet and decided to leave.

Leaving deals with the immediate issue but what is lost in the process? The opportunity to learn from the conflict, what it wanted to show us or to the organisation as a whole.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I’ve done all of those”, don’t be hard on yourself. Most of us probably have. At the time you were doing the best you could.

If you’re stuck in a conflict situation right now, talking can be one of the hardest things to do. It can also be one of the most transformative things you can try. Talking in a safe and supported context can get things unstuck in a way that you never imagined.

It can open up opportunities to learn about yourself. It can highlight ways in which the organisation needs to change and grow.

And remember you don’t have to go it alone. An independent facilitator, mediator or coach can be worth their weight in gold.

It takes courage, commitment and determination to ask for support and to talk when you’re in a conflict situation. However, these things are key to getting unstuck and moving forward.

Get in touch if this is you and you want that kind of help. You really don’t have to do it alone.

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5 top tips to have difficult conversations better

Would you like to have difficult conversations better? In this post I aim to share my experience of what works and what doesn’t.

 

Most of us avoid difficult conversations because deep down we hope that the need to have them will go away.  Occasionally, this happens and we are proved right for putting it off.

 

The person chooses to leave the organisation and we never see them again. A restructure and we’re given a different project. Or perhaps we move on ourselves and that deals with the issue.

 

In reality though, most of the time the problem does not go away and can even get worse if we don’t find a way to tackle things that are coming up.

 

Over the years of working as a mediator, I’ve learned some top tips  that make it more likely that we’ll get what we want when we have difficult conversations.  Here are my five top tips.

 

 

 

Have the conversation sooner rather than later

 

Many of us wait until things are really difficult before broaching the tricky subject. This makes the conversation more daunting than it needs to be.

 

This is true even in low-level situations where there isn’t really an overt ‘conflict’.

 

Imagine the following situation.

 

You are new to the organisation and your manager gives you a brief on a project that she wants you to work on. After reading it, there are several acronyms and terms that you don’t understand.

 

If you’re totally honest, you’re really not that clear on exactly what it is that you’re being asked to do either. You feel a bit frustrated and annoyed that she didn’t explain it in more detail.

 

However, thinking that you need to prove yourself because you’re new to the job, you get on and give it your best shot.

 

You set up some meetings to get started and at one of the meetings, someone asks for more background information about the project. You have no idea, so you blag your way through but the other person questions some of your answers. You feel mortified. You promise to go away and bring back some answers.

 

Now you know that you really need to have that difficult conversation with you manager and you feel embarrassed because it’s been three weeks and you know that you could have had the conversation three weeks ago.

 

 

 

Have the conversation in person, however hard it may seem

In the example above, the temptation might be to send an e-mail to your manager with a number of questions instead of facing her to ‘fess up’ that you need more clarity.

 

 

However, in my experience as a mediator, 99% of the time having difficult conversations over e-mail only leads to greater confusion and often worse. This is an extremely common trend because it sometimes feels easier.  Take a deep breath and ask for a meeting.

 

 

 

Prepare yourself for the conversation

 

Make some time in your diary to prepare for the conversation.  As you prepare, consider the following questions. What is your intention with this conversation? What do you need to get out of it? How do you want your approach to be with the other person?

Even taking 15 minutes to reflect on these questions will more likely lead to a better outcome.

 

Taking our example above, you decide that your intention is to admit that you’re not sure about the project and you need a bit more support getting to grips with it.

 

In terms of what you need to get out of it, you need some clarity on what the various terms mean and also on your role. You also need to know who is the best person to call on for future support and questions – your manager or someone else.

 

Finally you need to be heard and for your manager to understand that you need a bit more direction and support as someone totally new to the company.

 

You decide you want to be open, honest and to make an apology for not asking sooner.

 

 

Go in there with the intention to listen first rather than waiting to be heard

 

If you go in there with an intention to really listen, you’ll build rapport and be much more likely to get your concerns and needs heard.

 

 

A simple tip here is to reflect back some of the key things that the other person says. This is an extremely effective communication tool that has several purposes. It builds connection. It lets the other person know that you have heard them. You act like a mirror to their words and that means that they can correct anything that you may have misunderstood.  It creates much clearer communication. It’s about reflecting back the most important points.

 

 

 

In our example, let’s say that your manager tells you what the terms mean and a bit more about your role. You say to her, “so can I just check I’m getting this? You’re saying that IGP means the ideas generation project and that you want me to coordinate this project by focusing on building key partnerships and coming up with ideas for how to integrate these new technologies? So it’s an ideas generating role mainly?”.

 

 

 

However, you’re still left unclear about who to go to for support and reporting back. Your manager seems too senior but you’re not sure who else to go to.

 

 

Be clear, open and direct with your communication

 

 

It can take time to get clear. Don’t give up! If you still don’t understand what’s been said or think that they haven’t heard your perspective, you can state your point of view clearly, respectfully and directly. In this process, aim to communicate what your main need is.

 

 

“OK I think I’m much clearer on my role. I’m still not quite clear on who I report back to once I’ve done this initial scoping work on the IGP? Where does it go from there? I really need to know who to report to and also who I can go to if I still have questions.”

 

What would your top tip for having difficult conversations better be?

 

 

I’d love to hear!

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A lesson in preparing for conflict – from a 9 year old 

When I explain to people what I do, they’re often surprised and ask me, “so what kind of organisations call you in to do conflict resolution training for them?”.

It’s a great question.

 

What’s behind it is usually some level of disbelief along the lines of, “who has enough conflict that they’d need training in how to handle it?”. Or even, “who would need an external mediator?”

 

Sometimes, it will be followed up with, “That’s so interesting. I’m really lucky though, we don’t have much conflict at our place.”

 

I’m not denying that this is probably accurate for them. Right now.

 

 

Conflict is inevitable

 

However, conflicts will happen. It is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’. The beautiful diversity of us as people is that we have different perspectives, life experiences, stories, values and viewpoints. It’s quite possible to go weeks, months or sometimes even years without much tension with others.

 

Then there is a change of some sort and suddenly all hell breaks loose!

 

A restructure and new appointments are made. A new boss and suddenly you’re being micro-managed. A new member of staff on the team who has a different way of working to others and quickly gets labelled as ‘difficult’. A troubled pupil starts at the school from a very ‘challenging’ background.

 

Often we feel that we should be better a handling these situations.

 

I think we can cut ourselves some slack here though. Let’s face it, how many of us had lessons at school in this? And even as adults, it’s only a lucky few who’ve had any high quality training in how to handle difficult situations.

 

 

Training in handling conflict well

 

 

It’s exactly that kind of conflict resolution training that can pay for itself many times over. Research has shown that just being able to identify and name our feelings makes us feel better.  This is true even when the trigger for the stress is still there.

 

Imagine then what is possible if we offer staff outstanding created-for-you conflict resolution training? Training that will really help when tensions arise and persist.

 

Creating an open culture around handling conflict can pay off many times over. It’s an investment well worth making. If you’re considering getting some specialist training, but not sure if it’s worth it, consider this: what will happen if you don’t do it?

 

 

Changing a culture

 

 

Take a school I’ve worked with over the past couple of years, for example. The headteacher needed support because conflict on the playground was escalating and some children were on the edge of being excluded. We worked with her to bring about a culture change around handling tensions.  We trained both staff and pupils in working effectively with conflict.

 

A group of twenty children were selected to be peer mediators. One of these boys I’ll call Luke*. Luke came into the training and I was ‘warned’ about him. “He’s on his last chance”, the Head told me.

 

I expected to work hard at managing his behaviour but he sat there as quiet as a mouse that first day, taking it all in and fully engaged.

 

By the end of the training, he had come out of his shell and was one of our star mediators. The teachers were amazed. “I can’t believe Luke”, they said in whispered tones at lunchtime. “He’s doing so well.”

 

At the evaluation six months later, the Headteacher told me, “Luke has completely turned his behaviour around. He has taken his role really seriously and has become a role model for others. All the children look up to the peer mediators and want to be like them.”

 

I spoke to her again yesterday, as we approach the end of the school term and she said, “We’ve got involved in a lot of initiatives but we’re letting go of some of them as it’s a bit much. This one, though, we want to keep doing as it’s making such a difference. The year 4 and 5 teachers have commented on what a difference it’s made in their end of year reports.”

 

What might have happened if they’d decided it was just too much time, effort and money to invest in the peer mediation programme?

 

Have you invested in any kind of conflict resolution training? If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts below on what kind of impact it made.

 

*Not his real name.

Conversation

3 tips for talking about thorny issues in your relationship

I knew that my husband and I needed to talk about money, so I brought it up.

It did not go well.

We had an argument that left an atmosphere.

Although we discussed one topic, there were several other key areas not even broached and we got to bed late, both rather deflated by the whole experience.

This used to be a familiar scene when it came to talking about money. 

So where were we going wrong? 

Firstly, timing. My husband is a morning person and I am an evening person.  It was after 9.00pm when I initiated the conversation, so it suited me perfectly but not so much my other half. He starts thinking about heading to bed at around 9.30pm, so I was not respecting his natural rhythm.  

Tip 1: Pick your timing carefully

If your topic is a thorny one, pick your timing carefully. Set aside a specific time to talk and avoid times of day when you’re hungry, tired or stressed out by a big life or work event. Nowadays, my husband and I prioritise having our money conversations in the daytime, so we’re starting from a good place.

Secondly, both of us became defensive quickly. This meant that we stopped hearing each other. We each had an agenda about what we needed to discuss and were trying to ‘win’ at that.

Tip 2:  State your expectations at the start

Take it in turns to state briefly at the start what is important to you so that you can work out an agenda together.

Thirdly, we didn’t practice active listening. Driven by my internal sense of urgency, I focussed on making sure that my husband heard me and forgot to really show that I was listening to him. He followed suit.

Tip 3: Practice active listening

Listen actively, which means summarising what you’ve just heard the other person say. This lets them know that you are really listening and checks out your understanding from the start.  

It sounds like common sense, right? But start doing it when you’re in a tense situation with your partner and it’s harder than you think.

If your other half is struggling with this, try an encouraging, “Can you tell me what you just heard me say? I just need to check that I’ve communicated it properly?”.

Nowadays, my husband and I talk about money less frequently but with more purpose and focus. It’s still not easy, but we are definitely hearing each other more.  

In the early days of our relationship, I remember once asking a very good friend to just sit and watch while we talked about money. It was one of the best conversations we ever had.

The final ‘bonus tip’ is that having a third party present can really help to change the frame of the conversation and create a way forward. I have worked with couples to support them in talking through those thorny issues, often in just one or two sessions. Though these sessions, those involved have learned about themselves and developed skills for discussing those tricky topics in the future. 

If this is something you think might benefit you, get in touch with me for an informal conversation on 0785 556 7563.

I’d love to hear from you.  What are the ‘thorny issues’ in your relationship?

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