A conversation that goes awry at work can feel nightmarish and become the source of prolonged mental agonising and gut-wrenching stress. We can easily get stuck in loops of rumination and catastrophising:
Could I have said it differently?
Did I stand up for myself?
Why is Jim so unprofessional, mean and downright wrong?
Why am I still thinking about this at 2am in the morning?
This whole thing is going to blow up even bigger.
Now I’m dreading work tomorrow.
I should just quit.
Dealing skilfully with challenging conversations is a journey for each and every one of us. It is linked to our professional capabilities, our leadership strengths and weaknesses, as well as our relationships in and out of work. For most of us, increasing the health of our communications within conflict, is a lifelong pursuit.
So, if this is one of your personal challenges, here are seven suggestions to help you make a shift:
1. Give Yourself A Break
If ‘skill in conflict’ could be measured by an equation, what might it look like?
Skill in Conflict = (Life Experience x Role Models) / (EQ x Mood) ??
Whilst there may not be a mathematical formula to decode why we find conflict so difficult, the point is; our ability to navigate challenging situations touches on almost all aspects of our personal history and developmental journey. There is therefore a good reason why we all find this so tricky, so we might start out by giving ourselves a break. If you are feeling generous you might even acknowledge that you are doing the best you can (it really does turn out that most of us are).
Starting with a bit of self-compassion is also a good place to start because it has a beneficial side-effect: when we feel less self-critical, we are more likely to be generous and compassionate with others.
2. Get to Know Your Values in Conflict
When reflecting on how we did in the latest workplace showdown we tend to look at two uncontrollable factors: the outcome, and their reaction. Whilst both factors will offer you some relevant feedback, I have come to view this analysis as a bit of a dead-end for personal development over the longer term.
As an alternative, what about if we judged ourselves on how courageously and successfully our words and actions reflected our values in conflict? We would first have to know what they are. Mine are honesty, compassion, and integrity. What are yours?
Assuming you have identified your values, whatever then ensues, you can look back on how completely you represented your best self. If you reflect that you did this well, then even if the outcome was problematic, and/or their reaction negative, you might sleep easy. On the other hand, if you notice that you fell short against your own values, you may be motivated towards, or even feel positive about, making amends.
3. Gently Shift From ‘I Understand’, to ‘Help Me Unerstand’
We can all remember conversations where we held a deeply entrenched position which changed drastically when we heard just one more fact.
The smallest nuance has the possibility of changing everything, so hold on to that truth as you navigate each debate. If you cannot understand their position, get curious, ask questions, and remain open to what emerges.
4. Make Friends With Your Blind Spots
This is a tricky one. The three biggest blind spots are tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. When I get aggressive I am oblivious of these things because I literally cannot see them. I might think I am relatively controlled and reasonable but my inverted eyebrows, clenched jaw, and dancing forehead might be telling a different story. I can also be sure that my colleague will notice my scowling features in technicolour and have no choice but drink in their toxic impact.
I have learned that it is often the contortions of voice, face, and body that I am most apologetic for once I have been made aware of them. The simple truth is that adult human beings are scary, and we each need to take responsibility for how we show up, even for the things we cannot see.
5. De-Escalate Your Stress Reactivity
Everything gets harder when your stress reactivity kicks in. The amygdala sounds the alarm, the pre-frontal cortex goes offline, (disrupting reflective thinking) and we are left reacting as the stone-age characters we evolved from. Mindfulness is your friend here. There is a reason why the leading 8-week mindfulness intervention is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
Try this pocket mindfulness practice that we teach MBSR participants to use in stressful situations. STOP is very useful for conflict as we can utilise it before, during, and after. It takes less than a minute and you can do it during conversations without anyone being aware.
S – STOP
T – TAKE A CONSCIOUS BREATH
O – OBSERVE / OPPORTUNITY
P – PROCEED
6. Follow The Rules
In The Art of Communicating, Thich Nhat Hanh lists the following four rules of Right Speech:
Tell the truth.
Do not exaggerate.
Use peaceful language.
Try them out, they are simple, practical and solve a lot of problems.
7. Remember, You Can Always Make Amends
Given our human propensity for good intentions and haphazard follow through, if you are anything like me, your ability to navigate conflict will vary day-by-day. It is a sign of maturity and courage to make amends when your behaviour or words have not represented your best self.
Remember too, we must forgive ourselves first. It is very hard to ask for forgiveness or even apologise for lapses when we are still holding ourselves to a super-human standard. Role-modelling vulnerability through self-forgiveness and appropriate making of amends is a huge gift to the collective.
By Neil Seligman
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