Managing Conflict

Recently the First Person Plural: EI and Beyond podcast featured Professor George Hohlrieser (Lausanne, Switzerland) discussing, How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict.  The podcast series involving collaboration between Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his son Hanuman Goleman and Emotional Intelligence (EI) coach Elizabeth Solomon, is designed to raise listeners’ awareness through stories provided on interview by inspiring people.   The hope is that listeners can grow in mindfulness and resilience in living proactively within the systems that surround them – within their personal, social, natural and global systems.

George works with multiple Fortune 500 companies as a clinical and organisational consultant.  He recounts during the podcast the story of how he became an accidental hostage negotiator while working for the police.  He has continued working in hostage negotiation (sometimes at considerable personal risk), as well as working with people who are suicidal.  George is an internationally renowned speaker and best-selling author.  His widely acclaimed book, Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance, is undergoing revision and updating and will be published on 30 November 2022.  In the book, he recounts compelling stories of real hostage situations and draws out the psychological principles that enable hostage negotiators to be successful.

Conflict management principles

During the podcast, George explained some of the principles that underpin his approach to conflict resolution and how they can apply to leaders who are attempting to influence others and develop high performance teams:

  • Don’t be a hostage: people can be a hostage to others – their children, parents, teachers, bosses, clients, suppliers or employees.  A hostage thinks they are powerless and the pandemic generated feelings of helplessness in a lot of people.  Not thinking like a hostage involves, among other things, thinking clearly about a desired outcome and establishing a positive mindset about that outcome.   It also involves establishing a secure personal base, not being hostage to your own emotions.
  • Become a secure base: manage your own fight/flight/freeze response so that you are not caught up in what Daniel Goleman describes as the “amygdala hijack”.  Develop calmness so that you “see opportunities not threats”.  George mentioned that in his leadership development programs he does not use the traditional Harvard case studies but tells participants that the case study is “you” – building self-awareness, developing insight and courage and tapping into personal intuition and creativity.  Being calm and secure builds trust – an essential element for conflict resolution and management.
  • Tell it like it is: George argues that you should not “sugar coat” the unsatisfactory situation, e.g. poor performance or inappropriate behaviour.  He gives the example of telling someone that “you are too aggressive with clients – that needs to change”.    
  • Address the conflict directly: George uses the analogy, “put the fish on the table” – drawing from his experience working with fishermen in Sicily who were scaling and cleaning fish on a table, removing the bloody, smelly bits and preparing the fish for the “great fish dinner a the end of the day”  The analogy means addressing the conflict not ignoring it (“not putting the fish under the table”), dealing up front with the messiness of the issues and looking forward to a positive resolution.
  • The person is not the problem: George maintains that you should not “write off” the person(s) involved, e.g. “they are just argumentative, nasty or thoughtless”.  He argues that there is a real problem underlying a conflict situation, e.g. the person may feel slighted or disrespected; they may feel taken for granted when passed over for a promotion or project; or they could be experiencing distress in a home situation.  He illustrated this principle by telling the story about a father involved in a hostage situation – it was not that he was a “naturally violent person” but that he had been prevented from seeing his child (locked out by unreasonable access rules).  The core problem in this situation was the inability of the father to see his child and the solution lay in finding a way for the father to gain access to his child.
  • Identify the “pain point”: George argued that you make little progress in managing conflict if you focus on “selling points” versus “pain points”.  This requires active listening, not trying to persuade.  The pain point is often related to a loss – past, present, future or anticipated.  He mentioned Warren Bennis’ idea of “hidden grief” – that leaders are often blind to their own underlying sense of grief and can be grieving over things that happened many years earlier.  George illustrated this point by recounting the stories of two CEO’s who committed suicide out of a sense of grief over some situation – economic or workplace related.
  • Be caring: listen for understanding and be willing to be empathetic.  Express the desire for their wellbeing and demonstrate a caring attitude.  George suggests that this creates a bond even with people you might consider your “enemy”.  Bonding helps to dissolve conflict.
  • Be daring: learning a new skill such as conflict management takes you outside your “comfort zone”. Be willing to dare yourself as any new talent you desire to develop requires daring on your part – facing the fear, acknowledging the challenge and preparing yourself.  Daring your employees by presenting them with challenging work or projects, develops and motivates them.
  • Ask questions: George suggests that asking questions empowers the other person, even in a situation where a person is suicidal.  Curiosity can communicate care and concern.  Questioning can help to explore the “pain point(s)” and to work towards a solution that they can accept.
  • Provide choice: avoid a “command and control” approach as this damages bonding and trust.  The command and control approach does not motivate – it disempowers and disables people.  It can lead to compliance, but not sustainable change. Provide choice wherever possible so that the person feels a sense of agency in relation to the underlying issue.

Reflection

George’s approach to conflict resolution has been developed through his experiences as a hostage negotiator and working with people who have suicidal intentions.  He has also refined his approach through working with organisational leaders around the world to help them implement the fundamental conflict management principles he has developed.  He emphasises that conflict management involves both caring and daring – it challenges us to move outside our comfort zone to achieve a resolution.   It requires us to avoid relying on positional power and instead employ the personal power associated with integrity, humility and compassion.

His approach requires us to grow in mindfulness so that we gain the necessary self-awareness and insight into our inner landscape to operate from a calm and secure place.  Mindfulness helps us to achieve the emotional regulation involved in dealing with conflictual situations and working to de-escalate the emotional tension involved.  Reflection on our own resentment(s) can assist us to achieve calm, caring and daring.

__________________________________

Image by iqbal nuril anwar from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Being Vulnerable: How to Improve Our Relationships and Contribution

In the previous post I discussed Tara Brach’s presentation on vulnerability and intimacy and ways to overcome our defence mechanisms. In this blog post, I want to focus on becoming vulnerable to improve two aspects of our lives – our contribution and our relationships.

Vulnerability is universal

Vulnerability is “part and parcel” of being human. When you think about it most people you encounter in life will have experienced at least one trauma – a significant frightening or disturbing event – in their life at one time or another. A traumatic event may take many forms and people will react differently to varying events such as the death of a child, partner, parent, sibling or friend; the break-up of parents through divorce; a major car or workplace accident; loss of a job; experience of chronic illness and/or pain; severe financial difficulties resulting in the loss of a home; break-up of an intimate relationship; a period of mental illness; addiction to drugs or alcohol; or any manner of distressing events.

Tara makes the point that “the more wounding there has been, the greater are the defences”. We each have been wounded at some time through various events, traumatic or otherwise, that have intensified our sense of being vulnerable and precipitated our defence mechanisms designed to protect us from such vulnerability. Ian MacLaren recognised that everyone experiences vulnerability when he wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

Because of our past experiences, we may feel afraid to speak up, to take part in a group activity, to perform publicly, to engage in conversation or to give positive feedback to another person. We may feel that we will be rejected, laughed at, or cut out of a group. We might be concerned about experiencing embarrassment, lack of control or overt emotions expressed as tears.

How we hide our fear of being vulnerable

There are many ways that we can camouflage our fear of being vulnerable such as:

  1. excessive criticism of others, constant judging (people never measure up to our expectations)
  2. projection of our own fears or anxiety onto others (“they are too fearful or lack courage”)
  3. aggressive emotions such as anger, blame (fight behaviour)
  4. withdrawal through depression (flight behaviour)
  5. inertia (freeze behaviour)
  6. overcontrolling others
  7. overconsuming – food, social media, goods and services, drugs
  8. hiding behind a mask/role – being the boss, the helper or the victim

The problem is that these ways of hiding our feelings of vulnerability are often subtle, elaborate, sub-conscious and developed over long periods of time. It takes a concerted effort and continuous training to be able to identify our defence mechanisms and overcome them through sustained, focused attention in meditation.

Being vulnerable to improve our contribution

Tara at one stage in her presentation tells the story of how a disturbed teenager’s life turned around when he heard a monk sing a song both loudly and off-key in front of an audience. He was taken with the courage required by the monk to do that and make a “fool” of himself. The monk showed bravery by placing himself in a potentially embarrassing situation.

I previously recounted a similar story of coach Mo Cheeks (who could not sing in tune) getting up in front of thousands of people at a NBA playoff and helping a 13 year old girl complete the national anthem after she was overcome with nerves.

Both these stories illustrate the power of being vulnerable (overcoming our natural defence mechanisms) to make a contribution to others and the community generally. Mo’s action, for instance, has been a source of inspiration for more than half a million people who have viewed the video of his compassionate intervention.

Improving a relationship by being vulnerable

Tara tells another story of a mother who was feeling very vulnerable because her daughter had become addicted to heroin and was continuously in and out of treatment centres for her addiction. The mother hid her sense of powerlessness and being vulnerable by her angry, blaming and controlling behaviour towards her daughter. Through psychotherapy the mother was able to let go of her defences and need for control and provide compassionate support for her daughter – to be with her daughter in her struggle, trusting in her daughter’s own wisdom to break free of the addiction.

The daughter did succeed and overcame her addiction and the mother and daughter built a deep relationship through this mutual experience of vulnerability. The mother was able to overcome her defence mechanisms to provide constructive support that enabled her daughter and the relationship to move forward.

A meditation on vulnerability

In her presentation (at the 35.45-minute mark), Tara provides a basis for reflection on your own sense of vulnerability and how it is impacting your relationships. She suggests you focus first on a relationship that you want to improve in terms of closeness or one that is bogged down in a pattern of behaviour that is not constructive. The focal relationship can be with anyone – life partner, friend, child, sibling or work colleague.

The reflection then revolves around exploring the ways that you are creating separation through your own thoughts and actions. Tara provides some questions to explore how your vulnerability is impacting the relationship:

  1. in what ways are you protecting yourself in these interactions?
  2. are you judging the other person?
  3. are you projecting on the other person some expectation of how they should be?
  4. are you withholding yourself and pretending to be who you are not?
  5. are you trying to impress the other person by constantly explaining how good you are at some endeavour or how much better your trip or experience was?
  6. are you operating from a low level of trust of people generally?

Once you have addressed these questions, the process then involves getting in touch with how you feel in your body when you are defending yourself – are you uptight?; does your face reflect your intensity?; are you physically rigid?; or are you looking distracted (as you search for a self-protective response)?

You next ask yourself how would you manage if you let go of one or more of your defences in your interactions with this person – how will you need to feel differently? A visioning question can be helpful here – “What if I reduce my armour, what will our interaction be like and how will I cope with being seen to be flawed or being rejected or looking foolish”? You can ask yourself, “How likely is it that these outcomes I fear will actually occur?”

The final step is to face your fear and sense of being vulnerable, acknowledge it and use your breathing to bring it under control. You can adopt a mindful breathing approach, deepen your in-breath and out-breath or envisage the fear as you breathe in and envisage its release as you breathe out.

As we grow in mindfulness through noticing and managing our vulnerability through meditation practice, we can open ourselves up to more creative contributions to our community and to deeper and more meaningful relationships. As the defence barriers we construct begin to come down or weaken, we are able to free up our creative abilities and let people into our life.

____________________________________________

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.