As we enter the holidays, we will be interacting with all kinds of people in both public and private settings. Consider some of the ideas I share in this recently aired interview with Lisa and Richie on BYU Radio's Lisa Show: today
Recently, I interviewed with Lisa and Ritchie on the Lisa Clark Valentine Show about workplace conflict. We had an interesting conversation that highlighted both understanding workplace conflict before you take the job and afterwards. During the interview, I mentioned an interesting interviewing experience that alerted me to an intense workplace environment.
Several years ago, while interviewing for a marketing position at large, established bank in Chicago, my interviewer’s boss burst into the office and began making demands of my interviewer. Based on the man’s verbal tongue lashing and aggressive attitude, I immediately got the drift of how things operated for my interviewer at the bank. Naturally, I made a definite note-to-self about how this job would play out for me…
Needless to say, I did not get the job, nor would I have taken it because of what I learned about the work climate during the interview process. Since that time, I have had numerous opportunities to interview and work in a variety of environments that have helped me better understand what kind of conflict situations I’d like to enter and what I would do best to avoid.
We don’t always know what we’re going into with different job situations, but there are some tangible steps we can take both during the interview process and once we’ve taken jobs that make life easier to manage from a conflict resolution perspective.
Before you Take the Job
While there’s a slim chance that I might have taken the Chicago bank job if I had been in extremely dire financial circumstances, I am increasingly more concerned with how to sustain a job rather than just how to secure one. Sometimes we can be too hasty in accepting positions in unbearable circumstances.
In order to avoid unnecessary conflict that will drive us away from certain jobs and their related workplace environments, we can do some work upfront during the interview process to consider our job longevity. Key steps may include:
Once you’ve Taken the Job
If you’re hired as a new manager of people, consider the following questions to prevent immediate potential areas of conflict with those you manage:
On the flip side, ff you’re the newbie being managed by others, I suggest considering that there are multiple ways to have influence even if you don’t have a big title, salary, or other form of leverage.
Too often, we think we have little influence or power because we don’t have the title or the salary. “Little people” can have a huge influence in even large corporations. As my Cisco boss once said, “Sometimes, all you need to do is just show up.” That’s what I did as a 27-year-old in my first really big job; I identified needs and went after meeting them for the company.
Whether you are managing others or are being managed, there are key constructive things you can do that relate directly to conflict resolution in the workplace:
In general, workplace conflict often signals a need for change—perhaps in both human behavior and the processes we have in place. Here are some general warnings for addressing conflicts in the workplace
In terms of warnings, there are a few key areas to consider:
General Opportunities with Workplace Conflict
Finally, let’s consider the opportunities that conflict creates for us to improve and move things forward. Yes, conflict may provide the necessary friction to get things moving in new and better directions.
First, consider the six principles of persuasion developed by Dr. Robert Cialdini. These principles can be harnessed from any level of an organization. The six principles of persuasion include: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus.
Second, we do best with conflict when we focus on understanding (rather than merely judging or evaluating) universal human needs, which are the same whether you’re at work or at home. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs includes the following types of needs: physical, safety, love and belonging, esteem, knowledge/understanding, aesthetic, self-Actualization, and transcendence
Third, as we learn to ask for what we need in constructive ways, we put ourselves in positions to generate effective patterns of cooperation. From Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication steps, I suggest following the pattern below:
Finally, whether you are the manager or the managed employee, take the time and effort to communicate your strengths and what motivates you. I suggest not leaving people to guess what you are good at and what motivates you. Rather than criticize yourself or others, focus instead on strengths that benefit the whole group when expressed constructively.
We have only touched briefly on many multi-layered topics, but here’s a start for considering positive ways to not only view, but address conflict both before and after you take a job.
There's a lot to consider both before and after marrying into a new family. This morning, I interviewed with BYU Radio about the topic of navigating relationships with your in-laws so I wanted to share some of my insights both from my notes and today's interview.
Reminders about Relationships, especially with In-laws:
Building Relationships Takes Time--Just because you’re married into a family doesn’t mean that you automatically have close-knit relationships with everyone you’re now related to.
Think One-on-One Relationship Building--Relationships usually deepen through shared conversations and experiences—usually through more one-on-one rather than just group experiences. You can have a public persona with the family at large, but you create security and meaning through individual relationships.
Joining a New Family Changes Life not only for you but for Everyone--even, and especially, your Spouse and his/her Parents. If you’re the new in-law, you’ve probably changed the family dynamic for the family you’ve just joined. The in-laws may appreciate the changes, but they may also be adjusting to you and how your spouse (their flesh and blood) are now behaving differently.
You and your Spouse are not Interchangeable—Allow individual family members to get to know you personally and take the time to build individual relationships with your new in-laws, which are separate relationships from your spouse.
Dealing with Conflict with in-Laws
Consider each of the Five Approaches to Conflict—In every conflict encounter, we have five main options—not just fight or flight. We can avoid, accommodate, compromise, compete, or collaborate. Relationships are dynamic and situations vary, so don’t just try the same thing every time.
Dogs, Leashes, Joggers, and City Codes: How the Element of Surprise May Incite New or Greater Conflict
In war, effective use of the element of surprise can make the difference between victory and defeat. Similarly, in conflict resolution, applying surprise to already volatile conflicts can cause sudden combustion and push people toward contempt rather than mere annoyance. In short, using the element of surprise in interpersonal conflicts can lead to serious defeat, especially in our closest relationships.
For example, how did you feel and react when you have returned to your car only to find a heavy parking fine for a minor violation? Have you ever received a phone call about a child’s injury or fight at school that knocked you off balance on an otherwise normal day? What about the shock of a car accident when someone else failed to follow a traffic rule, only to ruin or damage your otherwise functional car?
No one likes these kinds of negative surprises. Nor do we really enjoy additional less shocking developments that further surprise us with more bad news. When we receive and are digesting bad news, we are put on the alert to fight or flee. While we are wired to be prepared to handle new stresses, when we receive new threats when we are already on high alert, we may explode with only the slightest provocation.
Let me illustrate. Recently, I decided to take my dog, Maisie, on a run while I rode my bike alongside her. I’ve biked up the same bike and running path many times with my faithful Brittany spaniel on a leash by or near my side. While dangerous, I have never felt too threatened and have been treated well by my fellow travelers up the canyon pathway during the past year.
However, one particular morning, my dog, Maisie, suddenly swerved around a hooded male jogger on my right along the concrete pathway. Following close behind my leashed dog, I heard a blur of negative comments as I whizzed around the jogger on my bike. Because I was cold and not too interested in what the jogger had said, I continued on my way as Maisie raced along the path. I hoped to simply avoid this stranger who shouted incomprehensible things while I enjoyed the fresh air and my energetic dog.
Yet, while returning home on the same pathway down from the canyon, I noticed the same hooded male jogger plodding toward me at a methodical pace. I didn’t think much of him because he drifted from the concrete path toward a dirt side trail off to my left. Without great concern, I proceeded to zoom by him alongside my dog.
This time around, I was surprised when this same man began to call out insistently, repeatedly, and loudly: “That’s illegal! That’s illegal! That’s illegal!’ No one had ever cared so much about my riding a bicycle with a dog on a leash besides my husband who is concerned with saving my life from a nasty bike accident. As I pedaled out of earshot and digested his words, my heart raced for a few minutes. I questioned, “Is it illegal to ride a bike with a dog on a leash?” I had never heard of such a law, but it was possible that my suburban town might have such a code.
I have since learned that rarely do US city codes outlaw riding a bike while running a dog on a lead. (Feel free to peruse the world of social media for various opinions on my presumed bike-dog violation). Civic codes aside, I spent some time reflecting on why my bike riding with a dog upset this jogger so much. While I didn’t interview him later for details, I sense that my dog suddenly appearing before him as he ran otherwise undisturbed listening to his headphones surprised him. He was not expecting to see a medium sized dog darting in front of him followed by a full-sized biker—even if I was clear of his person in terms of direct physical proximity.
That sense of shock and surprise led to his angry shouting—both the first time that I didn’t completely understand and upon my return when he called out several times that what I was doing was illegal. I think the shock of seeing Maisie at his feet, awoke a sense of fight or flight that led to anger based on his need for safety. I am presuming this, but the explanation helps clarify his rant upon seeing my return down the pathway, even when he was well out of the way of me and my dog.
When has a negative surprise sent you into a fight-or-flight tailspin? Or, when have you chosen to withhold negative information only to shock others into an overwhelming sense of conflict? I’m guessing that all of us have either been shocked by bad news or have shocked others with bad news. Naturally, we may have unnecessarily sent otherwise manageable conflict into something shocking and overwhelming.
So, I think the challenge here is to be very careful to not shock and surprise others in ways that exacerbate and fuel unnecessary conflict. Of course, we don’t want to shield others from truths that they need to eventually hear. However, we can be more considerate and prepared with relaying details and developments that change, inflate, or expand already difficult situations.
Finally, we can demonstrate compassion and understanding by addressing issues early before they grow so large that they have the “drop the bomb” potential. We can learn bravery in dealing with conflict more directly before it becomes overwhelming or surprising—in a bad way-- to us and all those involved.
My two cents for the day!
Many of us are familiar with how “suspending our disbelief” helps us enter into the magic of the theater. Similarly, when entering into conflict resolution, we must also suspend certain areas of disbelief in order to create better outcomes.
For example, a couple of months ago, I had a professional experience that required me to suspend my disbelief in order to help others engage effectively in the mediation process:
After talking by phone with a disgruntled man who stated that “mediation would be a waste of his time,” I almost agreed with him. He was behaving so stubbornly and in such a patronizing way to me that I had begun to believe him. I almost allowed him to convince me that he could predict the ultimate outcome of the mediation process because of his current mood and behavior. Despite my gravitation toward this client’s negative viewpoint, I hesitated. And, I’m glad I did.
Before succumbing to his pessimism about the mediation process, I chose to discuss the specifics of the conflict case with my colleagues. One colleague, in particular, strongly encouraged me to at least get both parties into the mediation conference room to give the process a chance. So, I set up the mediation and primarily doubted what good it would do.
However, instead of failure, I witnessed a change not only in the most stubborn party but in those who had originally complained. They (and I) were shocked by how pleasantly and humanely they all interacted with each other once everyone was sitting across from each other in the mediation conference room. This doesn’t always happen, but it occurs more often than I had been willing to admit.
What is clear to me now is that I was about to decide both parties’ future for them even when I have an insider view of how effective mediation can be. Rather than judge the man’s ability to resolve conflict effectively by how he behaved during a phone call, I needed to allow him to act for himself within a situation that outlined clear boundaries and rules along with positive opportunities to communicate with the other party in the conflict.
While I have witnessed many different types of interpersonal conflicts and the varied ways people react to being in conflict with others. I believe that there are common tendencies that we need to first identify and, second, push back against in order to effectively work through conflicts.
First, we must identify the main culprits of our thought-processes that prevent us from even attempting to resolve conflicts with others. These tendencies may include:
To overcome these tendencies, we must begin by suspending our disbelief about those tendencies. We must actively push back against common patterns that prevent us from healing, reconciling, and renewing our relationships with each other.
What does it mean to suspend judgement with conflict resolution?
When we suspend judgement in resolving conflict, we allow ourselves and others the freedom to act in different ways that we may expect. We may even give the other person the benefit of the doubt: both our doubt about them and maybe even their own doubt about their ability or desire to change.
Pushing back against disbelief to resolve conflict
When we suspend our disbelief in conflict, we actively push back against the three mentioned tendencies that we can easily fall into. In the situation I shared upfront, I needed to push back on trying to define and predict how I thought someone would behave in an unknown situation. I also had to mentally push back against the desire to keep someone in a safe and understood category of “uncooperative” or “stubborn” and move them into a realm that is undefined because I cannot always predict the future.
(1) Relying mostly upon our past experience to judge current situations and/or future possibilities
Naturally, we often use the past to predict the future. The past often does help explain the present, which we then use to forecast probable future conditions. Yet, we are dynamic beings in dynamic environments with the ability to respond and change in marvelous ways.
Given those possibilities for future change, growth, and understanding, there are several other areas of doubt and disbelief worth pushing back against in order to resolve conflict. These include:
In short, we push back against the idea that the future will only be a mere repeat of the past. Instead, we use our imagination and sense of determination to see diverse positive possibilities and outcomes.
(2) Succumbing to the fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error is a social psychology theory that suggests that we are susceptible to faulty judgement patterns when considering others’ negative behavior as opposed to our own. We are more likely to attribute another person’s flaw or fault to their character rather than acknowledge the role of circumstance in their actions and behaviors. For example, if someone is late to a meeting, we might judge that person to be lazy or disrespectful.
However, when we consider why we are personally late to the same meeting, the theory suggests that we will look to important circumstantial evidence to justify why we are late. We are much less likely to interpret our actions in terms of character but will tend to present outside factors such as traffic, the kids needing help with homework, or a last-minute call from a client as reasons for being late.
Naturally, each of us enter into, struggle with, and walk away from certain conflicts with ideas about the character of the parties we’re fighting with. First, we create stories to understand how we got into a conflict in the first place, which often focus on the character faults (not circumstances) of the other party. Then, we often try to project how things will play out in the future based on our judgement of the other person’s character. You an see how this can stymie efforts to resolve conflict. If it’s all about their faulty character, we feel powerless in changing someone’s entire personality or way of being.
Often, we begin acting on tendencies outlined in the fundamental attribution error when we are dealing with an emotionally challenging conflict. We may have a hard time imagining anything good about our nemesis.
To curb the effects of the fundamental attribution error, we choose to actively recognize and push back against our tendency to attribute conflicts or faults to the character of the other person. We also need to trust in a productive process, not just in our past experiences with the person(s) we’re in a conflict with.
(3) Seeking to justify our positions rather than seeking to understand both sides of the conflict
To successfully resolve conflict, we must learn to take the perspective of another person rather than just focusing on why we are right. To move past positions, we will likely have to try something new and make ourselves vulnerable in certain respects. Specifically, we might have to push back on old tendencies to merely justify ourselves rather than try to understand the other party’s position:
In short, we hope—and suspend doubt and disbelief about—that different processes might produce different results. Most of this change first takes place in our beliefs that we and others can actually change; we do not have to remain stuck in ineffective patterns. If we personally change, the whole conflict interaction can change.
Replacing Doubt with Productive Beliefs
When we don’t believe in something, we don’t act. But, if we have decided to push back against disbelief, we then need to focus on replacing our doubt with trust in effective processes and mindsets that lead to constructive change and greater connection with others.
Once I have suspended my disbelief in the three tendencies, what should I then believe in?
However, despite how widespread some of these habits many be among us, we have the capacity to change our beliefs and the actions that flow from those beliefs. I trust that we are dynamic and, ultimately, creative beings. So, once we identify these discouraging tendencies within ourselves, we can actively push back against them and replace our doubt and disbelief with productive beliefs and participate in effective conflict resolution processes that will be discussed in future articles.
Why Loving—not Just Tolerating—Your Neighbor Just Makes Sense: Preventing and Working through Neighborhood Conflicts
Recently, I interviewed with Julie Rose of BYU Radio’s Top of Mind program. We only had a few minutes to talk about neighborhood conflicts, but I hope to expand upon that conversation here in my blog. For a recording of our interview click here.
Whether you’re living in an apartment or on a large estate, investing in neighborhood relationships in the good times just makes sense for building community and working through conflicts. Too often, we only get to know our neighbors because we have a conflict with them or if there’s some kind of emergency that brings us together.
Rather than ignore investing in relationships with our neighbors, I advocate for making a long-term investment, even if we live in an apartment situation that seems temporary. Sometimes the most temporary of neighborhood situations lasts for many years and sometimes the ones that seem like they will never change, do. That’s the nature of our modern lives, but we still need each other…probably more than we think we do.
In a time when too many of us feel unattached to our communities, consider the benefits of investing in better relationships with those who may literally live within a few feet of us but who may be perfect strangers to us today.
Some of the benefits—both large and small--of strong neighborhood relationships include:
Most of these benefits are tied to the depth of the relationships we choose to develop with our neighbors. I have found that when I have positive emotional capital in my relationships with neighbors, I can not only ask for favors but am also more likely to exercise restraint in potentially contentious areas of communal living.
From my own life, whether in an apartment or a single-family home, my life is just better when I have closer relationships with my neighborhoods. Of course, we encounter differences—that’s just life. However, when I have better relationships with my neighbors—that I have nurtured during the periods without conflict—we have an easier time dealing with potential areas of conflict when they do arise.
Understanding Different Types of Neighbor/Living Situations
Whether you live in an apartment, condo, or single-family home, the key is to plan for a long-term relationship with someone you may believe only shares your same economic demographic—if that.
Consider the potential issues with any living arrangement you may experience:
Each of these situations demand negotiation, time and effort. Sometimes, we have third parties such as HOA leaders or leasing managers to assist us, but often we are still left in situations that require our best relationship skills.
The Expected vs. Unexpected Conflicts with Neighbors
While many of us like “good” surprises such as a birthday party, most of us do not appreciate a negative surprise. So, I suggest communicating with neighbors before rather than after a conflict about things like this:
Of course, we don’t have to change all of our plans just because our neighbor disapproves of what we intend to do. However, we benefit from considering the long-term relationship rather than just moving forward with the “act now and apologize later” mode, which can destroy the potential for solid neighborhood relationships. In short, when we communicate beforehand rather than during or after, we are building trust.
Neighbor Conflict Traps
Finally, let’s talk about fairly universal traps that we fall into that lead to contentious neighbor relationships.
Take Lateral Conflict Resolution Steps Before Vertical Moves
When we conflict with others, especially neighbors, we often think of going to authorities (vertical) before going to our neighbor (lateral). This is backwards. We need to focus first on using lateral methods to resolve conflicts then resort to vertical methods. Consider the following lateral and vertical conflict resolution moves:
Lateral Conflict Resolution Steps
After I have exhausted efforts laterally, then I try to figure out how to vertically influence my neighbor with whom I have an issue that focuses on preserving a long-term relationship.
Vertical Conflict Resolution Steps
If lateral conflict resolution methods fail, I may try steps like the following:
Lateral and vertical conflict resolution steps relate directly to the concept of the five conflict approaches that I have written about previously on my blog. Please click here to review that article: Exploring the Five Conflict Approaches.
While there is much more to be said on the topic, we all benefit by investing in relationships with our neighbors, regardless of our perceived differences. We can spend all the time in the world wishing they were different, but when we accept who our neighbors are right now, we can begin making changes to improve the quality of life for all around us.
This is no small thing. A nation is comprised of individuals grouped in neighborhoods who either successfully get along or they don’t. It’s up to each of us to do our part—not just in resolving differences with our neighbors but in making sure we build strong relationships with each other during the good times too.
Punting Conflict: Communicating that You’re not Ready, Willing, or Able to Engage in a Potential Conflict
A few months ago, during the tense nationally televised Senate confirmation hearings for our newest supreme court justice, I dared to post on Facebook a sincere but potentially controversial comment about my feelings about the proceedings.
Rather quickly, in response to my post, I noticed a vitriolic response on my feed from one long-time acquaintance. Soon thereafter, I received a somewhat provocative individualized response on Messenger from a different friend. Given the varied tones of the messages, I disregarded the post on my feed but stewed over how to respond to the one on Messenger because I perceived that it came from a place of caring. Despite this perception about caring, I still believed that this type of “difficult conversation” was not compatible with the text-like medium of social media.
In response to the second message, I ended up writing to my friend on Messenger that the topic was a very tough and emotional one for me. I requested that if we speak about it, that we should do so in person so there would be fewer misunderstandings.
That may have seemed like a cop-out to my friend, but it felt right to me because I knew I needed appropriate frameworks for success in that seemingly difficult conversation. In addition, I noticed that I may not be willing to put the effort into difficult conversations that lie outside my key personal relationships where I want to put my best efforts.
In today’s post, we continue the discussion about signaling in conflict by exploring the importance of communicating that you’re not ready, not willing, or unable to work through a particular conflict at the time requested or when things explode unexpectedly.
Why wouldn’t you be ready, willing, or able to communicate with someone about a conflict? There are thousands of potential reasons why we might choose not to communicate or engage in a conflict, but here are just a few general considerations:
Yet, given any of these reasons mentioned above, why couldn’t I just shrug my shoulders and not respond to my feisty uncle at the family dinner table or just never return someone’s text if I don’t want to communicate with them?
In our minds, we may think that the other person understands why we are not communicating or responding to him or her, but we put ourselves in a very strange position by not deliberately communicating anything at all.
The tricky part with merely avoiding contact or any type of communication is that others will create their own stories about why we are not communicating. Usually, the stories others tell themselves are not positive ones about our intentions or motivations.
Given the tendencies described through the fundamental attribution error, we are more likely to attribute others’ silence or lack of communication to negative character traits rather than to environmental factors. When regarding ourselves, we are more likely to give ourselves credit for extenuating circumstances for not communicating or engaging.
On the flip side, when others evaluate our silence or lack of communication, they will not usually give as much weight to our particular environmental factors when evaluating our behavior. In short, we are more likely to interpret others’ silence in negative terms and attribute it to the other’s negative character traits, and vice-versa.
Certainly, when dealing with strangers, we may not need to communicate anything at all. However, with our loved ones and even acquaintances, we can prevent a lot of heartache and stymie the creation of false beliefs or untrue stories by communicating that we are not ready, not willing, or otherwise unable to communicate at the time.
For example, several years ago, my child’s elementary school teacher just stopped showing up for work. Of course, we expected a sub for a few days if the teacher was sick, but the teacher’s absence became long and extended with no explanation from the school administration.
If this teacher had been a rather bad one, perhaps all the parents would have been pleased with the teacher’s absence, but she was a beloved teacher by many students and parents. Her absence was marked, strange, and demanded an explanation.
As the days of the teacher’s absence led into weeks and the weeks led into months, parents developed their own theories about why this teacher was no longer teaching our children. Rumors and gossip spread but the administration remained silent throughout this period.
Finally, after a month or two of waiting, the principal called a meeting in which she affirmed that she still had no information to share with us, the parents and school community. We were all pretty upset by this lack of information at the meeting, but by this time, our anger, frustration, and patience been exacerbated by the administration’s longtime lack of communication from the beginning.
In my annoyance with the situation, I raised my hand and pointedly asked the principal: “Why didn’t you communicate with us at all during the past couple of months?”
She responded by saying that she had had no information to communicate with us. I persisted in my line of thinking and said, “It is better to communicate that you don’t have anything to communicate at the time rather than leaving us to wonder about what’s going on with the administration.”
I still feel that same sense of responsibility to communicate that I’m not ready, willing, or able to communicate in certain situations for a variety of reasons. I believe that we can use very simple phrases to communicate these ideas with others and prevent a lot of heartache and misunderstanding.
1. When not ready to communicate:
2. When not willing to communicate:
3. When not able to communicate:
Punting conflict for another time is not a panacea answer to all the conflicts in our lives. We all know that a more nuanced and multi-pronged approach works best. We are much more likely to strengthen our relationships when we use all five of the general conflict approaches of avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating rather than just fighting or fleeing.
Yet, despite the desirability of using all five approaches appropriately throughout our many relationships, we benefit ourselves and others when we communicate about our readiness, willingness, and ability to confront both expected and surprise conflicts that arise in our lives.
Remember, in football, punting takes skill, precision, and a lot of practice. In our own lives, punting conflict requires the same: skill, precision, and a lot of practice to be effective within the larger framework of our overall conflict resolution strategy.
Warning: Potential Conflict Ahead! Signaling to Others When Approaching Potential Conflicts
Driving without signaling
You know how crazy you feel when you’re driving along and someone darts in front of you without signaling, cuts you off, and leaves you barely enough room to slam on your breaks so you don’t hit their car in front of you? Those feelings of anger, fear, and unsafety are familiar to us when we are in physical danger—especially when we’re driving.
Why use signals?
Reflecting on the quick driving example above, if the other driver had just used a signal to let you know what they were going to do and waited for the best moment to merge, you wouldn’t have been put in danger. In driving we can use our turn signals, our break lights, and sometimes even our facial expressions (if we make eye contact) to communicate with other drivers. We have limited, but necessary ways of communicating with other drivers about our intentions so we can safely get where we want to go.
The problems with over-signaling
Equally frustrating and confusing are the drivers who forget to turn their turn signals off or who push on their breaks constantly. When we continuously signal, others don’t know what to think about our intentions. Most likely, when other drivers don’t know what we’re going to do because of over-signaling they think we’re not paying attention at all.
Using signals when approaching conflict
In conflict, we have similar choices about signaling to others our intentions so that they can adjust and modify their actions to move along in harmony with us—even if we’re ultimately headed to different destinations.
Similar to sudden dangers we encounter while driving, when we are in emotional danger and feeling vulnerable, we need effective ways to communicate with others before unnecessary conflict erupts. Unfortunately, we often fail to signal to others our true intentions or needs. Instead, we surprise each other with unshared emotions, opinions, and hurts that seem like they have come out of the blue or are so rushed that we don’t know what to think.
On the flip side, we may have our “needs, wants, and expectations” blinkers on so constantly that others don’t know what TO react to and what NOT to react to. The constant “blinking” or “breaking” makes it like there’s no blinking at all. The people around us tend to avoid this situation of overload and confusion because it’s just too much altogether.
While we are wired to fight or flee danger, if we are made aware of potential dangers in our way, we can strategically prepare to meet them without unnecessary stress and discomfort.
In this post, we will compare various ways this analogy of signaling while driving relates to understanding how to constructively signal to others when approaching potential conflict where needs or goals appear incompatible.
As we add signaling to our conflict resolution tool kit, we are better equipped to avoid the unnecessary conflicts of life and put ourselves in a position to more effectively choose our responses to conflict rather than merely reacting based on instinct or habit. In short, while conflict is normal, signaling helps us to avoid truly ineffective and often unnecessary conflict situations.
HOW CAN WE SIGNAL IN CONFLICT?
Refresher on what conflict actually is and what it is not
Before we dive into our signaling analogy, it’s important to remember that conflict is merely a difference that matters to one or more people. Most often conflicts relate to real-- or what appear to be-- incompatible goals between people. Conflict does not necessarily involve negative feelings, but contention implies that we have negative or hostile feelings about the differences we experience or perceive. Conflict is normal and continuous in human relationships, but contention is a choice.
Remember there are five approaches to conflict
Just like with driving, we have a variety of options to use when approaching conflict. We can avoid (take a different route), accommodate (you go first), compromise (take turns), compete (buzz the other driver or cut them off), or collaborate (little trickier to apply to the driving analogy!).
We can use both verbal and nonverbal signals to signal and warn about potential conflicts and prepare for an appropriate approach to any given potential conflict.
What types of things would a person signal about in conflict?
There are a variety of needs and stresses that influence the development of real or perceived incompatible goals between people=conflict. The range of human needs is broad, but covers such topics as:
Why would I want to signal to someone that there’s a potential conflict coming?
While these and other human needs are universal, we may not always be able to meet the needs of others in the way that they desire (at the time) for different reasons including:
When we perceive needs and requests of others as we approach conflict situations, there are a variety of ways we can respond. I mentioned the five conflict approaches of avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating, but we have access to both verbal and nonverbal signals to communicate with others with these approaches.
What types of signals can we use with potential conflicts?
Whether with a stranger or loved one, we have a variety of ways to verbally signal and respond to expressed needs that cannot be fulfilled immediately. Whether I am the person who first expresses a need or am the party responding to a need, I have words to facilitate constructive interaction and conflict management.
Expressed Need: “I need help with this project—it’s due in two days and I don’t understand the assignment.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I don’t think I have the time and energy to get that done tonight. Can we decide on another time for tomorrow once I’ve had cleared off my schedule?”
Lack of Confidentiality
Expressed Need: (at the company Christmas party) “I really want to talk about my performance review with you (my boss). I don’t understand why I didn’t get more than a 1% raise.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I’d really love to talk to you about your performance review, but let’s schedule a time next week when we are in a better situation to talk about private matters at the office.”
Limited Emotional Capacity
Expressed Need: “I really like it when you come along with me and golf with the guys. Could you come along tomorrow for the tournament?”
Response to Expressed Need: “I could go with you, but I don’t think I’m up for the small talk and chatting this weekend. Could we plan for another time soon and put it on the calendar?”
Expressed Need: “I’m really stressed about this project so I’m hoping that you can take the kids to practice tonight so I can finish this up.”
Response to Expressed Need: “Sorry that you’re so stressed. I’ve got something going on already tonight. Do you know anyone else who could take the kids? Is the sitter available to call?”
Expressed Need: “I really need to talk to you about our budget tonight before I pay these medical bills.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I hear you. We have some decisions to make. I’m currently on a call with my boss but I’d like to look over the bills before we chat about it. Could we set a time to talk tomorrow night once I’ve gone through everything?”
Illness or other Health Issue
Expressed Need: “Could you help me move the desk back upstairs? It’s annoying to have it still sitting in the middle of our bedroom.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I would love to, but I just pulled my hamstring this morning while playing basketball. Could you get the boys to help you out? If they can’t I can call some friends.”
Expressed Need: “I’d really love to talk through our argument from last night.”
Response to Expressed Need: “I know we need to do that. I’ve been up since 5 am. Is there any chance, we could grab lunch tomorrow and talk about it after I’ve had a good night’s sleep?”
These responses to expressed needs can seem like excuses. They might actually BE excuses and, consequently, ignite greater conflict if they are not sincere. However, sincere responses to expressed needs like this can be the beginnings of a true conversation (and collaboration) about needs—especially in close, intimate relationships.
In the United States, we often expect people to use words to signal to each other how they’re feeling. I have learned that you don’t necessarily always need to use words.
My husband and I have talked about creating signals with each other for public situations when something’s headed in the wrong direction. A little wink, or a nod can do the trick to signal that something’s headed in a negative direction and that we need to course correct.
While living in Japan as a young adult, I learned to appreciate the many different nonverbal ways we have to alert others to potential conflicts.
Rather than voice concerns, Japanese people often use a variety of nonverbal signals to communicate signs of danger or discomfort. For example, when asking a direct question that Japanese people did not want to answer, I would often receive a shrugging of the shoulders, signaling a desire to change the conversation.
Of course, I could have—in my direct American way—followed up about the shrugging with a question like this: “I see that you’re shrugging your shoulders. Does that mean that you don’t really believe what I’m saying?” This would have only made the Japanese person more uncomfortable and awkward upping the conflict ante or diminishing the intimacy of the relationship.
While it may seem awkward to discuss deliberately, even American couples, families, and friends can develop nonverbal signs for each other that allow the diffusion of tension and create opportunities to choose the time and place that would be best for difficult conversations.
Like the driver trying to squeeze into the small space ahead of me in the fast lane, I might respond better to your needs, if you let me know you want to come into my lane and if you wait until there’s a little more space.
With important conversations and potential conflicts, timing and space make a big difference. Rather than trying to work out the fight late at night when we’re both tired, what if we decided that meeting for lunch after we’re rested and have had space to think would build rather than diminish our relationship?
The forms of nonverbal communication are really endless, but we can begin with small gestures that allow for nonverbal communication in potentially volatile or otherwise difficult situations. These gestures include:
These are very simple examples of expressing and responding to needs, but they allow us to start thinking about the myriad of possibilities for signaling to each other about our needs as we approach potential conflicts.
The next time you perceive potential incompatible goals (i.e., conflict) with someone you know very well or even not at all, consider how you can signal and respond to needs in a way that avoids unnecessary conflict and allows for more constructive resolution based on choice rather than instinct or habit.
Recently, I have been struck by my own occasional awkwardness with trying to resolve private conflicts in public places. In this post, I am just beginning to explore this particular problem focused on private versus public conflict resolution. My thoughts are fluid and perhaps loosely tied up but please add in your comments to create a deeper conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this common problem.
To illustrate this issue, I will share two separate experiences: (1) a particularly awkward couple dispute among some neighbors at a bus stop and (2) a personal conflict I had with a stranger during a routine shopping trip to Target.
To begin, I will relate a short experience I had with some neighbors.
A couple of years ago while waiting in the morning with a large group of neighborhood kids and parents at the elementary school bus stop, a couple began fighting with each other.
As the couple verbally spared with each other loud enough for others to see and clearly hear, I felt squeamish and kind of embarrassed for them and all of us. While I understood their general feelings of frustration with each other, I winced knowing that the audience of other parents and lots of school children were uncomfortable witnessing a private dispute out in the open. At the time, I also believed that their public fighting would damage rather than improve their chances at resolving their personal issues with each other.
Have you ever opened a truly private conflict in a public place? Do you remember the feelings that were involved once you realized that you had an audience to your private dispute?
I certainly have made this mistake at different times of my life and largely regret trying to resolve private conflicts in public spaces. When looking back on these experiences, I realize that there were several reasons I knowingly or unknowingly participated in fighting or trying to resolve a conflict in public.
Why do we try to resolve private conflicts in public?
During my Target experience with a volatile stranger, I was both surprised by a turn of events and witnessed how another party tried to leverage a public audience to gain support for her position.
One day, while shopping at Target with my three young children, I decided to purchase slurpies for the kids because I did not want them to cry and cause a scene while shopping in the store. While not nutritionally sound, I had also purchased a Cherry slurpy for my youngest toddler-aged daughter, which she happily sipped while I shopped. My plan had worked brilliantly for keeping her busy until we arrived at the checkout stand. Before I could stop her, my little girl had removed the top of the slurpy and dropped the lid on the ground behind us. I didn’t think much of it until I realized that the lid had flicked up a few small splashes of red slurpy that landed on the white pants of a fifty-something year old woman behind us in line.
I immediately apologized profusely to the woman who did not initially seem angry. However, she soon began criticizing my parenting and telling me that I needed to keep better control of my kids. I tried to apologize and then pay for my purchases but when I looked up again the white-pants lady had come all the way around the cashier to confront me and bar my exit from the store.
She stood with her hands on her hips and demanded that I pay her $30 to replace her new white pants. When I suggested that she get them dry cleaned or use a stain remover, she only grew firmer and more belligerent. Nearly 10 people, including the Target store clerk, stood silently around me as I faced this furious woman. No one dared stand up to her but she used that silence to her advantage to maintain her position of power as I cowered by the checkout with my three young children.
Not knowing what else to do, I rifled through my purse and handed her $30 in cash. With MY money in her hand, she finally removed herself from my presence to allow me and my three children to leave the store. Once I had quietly exited the store and sat down in my car, I was shaking and felt like I had just been robbed.
Certainly, there were drops of red slurpy on her pants, but did this small conflict demand such as public scene? In retrospect, I wished that the clerk had called the store manager (or that I had asked her to call the manager) so that the white-pants lady and I could have worked out an equitable solution to our private conflict without what felt like a Western shoot-out scene.
When looking back on both of these experiences, I realized that neither my neighbors nor I had a plan for how we would handle our private conflicts publicly. In disasters, I have heard that the people who are able to survive, act, and help others, have envisioned in their minds beforehand what they will do when disaster strikes rather than never spending any time thinking about it.
In terms of conflict resolution, what if we each assumed that we might have conflicts with each other and developed individual, family, or even work plans for how to handle conflicts when they occur? In short, rather than assuming that we will never get mad or disagree, what if we assumed the possibility and moved into constructive action in public when conflict occurred rather than being immobilized with fear, anger, or a desire to gather others to support our side?
Even with the stranger at Target, I can now anticipate (but not panic) about the possibilities for conflict resolution and draw from a variety of tools for handling private matters in public places. Before we look at those options, let’s first consider which conflicts should be resolved in public spaces.
What conflicts should be resolved in the public sphere?
Certain conflicts necessarily reflect public issues that involve many different parties, opinions, and societal processes. When conflict involves many people, the public or society needs to weigh in to make sure there is due process of law through legitimate processes. Issues of law, environment, health, safety, and other human rights demand public attention and participation.
While this post focuses on the problem of trying to resolve private disputes in public spaces, there are many public conflicts that should remain necessarily in the public sphere for a variety of reasons.
What are the benefits of public conflict resolution?
Despite the need for public conflict resolution for major public issues, we are very familiar with high profile private conflicts that are broadcast throughout social media and especially the tabloids at the check-out stand. While we may be attracted to read about celebrities’ brushes with the law or their painful divorces, I often feel the same squeamishness reading about a famous person’s private conflicts like I do with witnessing a private marital dispute at the bus stop.
So, despite the necessity and appropriateness of resolving many public concerns in public spheres, there are good reasons for keeping certain conflict resolution processes private.
Why keep certain conflict resolution processes private?
Just in terms of large numbers of peoples and opinions, involving too many people in conflict resolution may limit our ability to reach a decision. Even in a large family like mine, when we ask the kids where they’d like to go for dinner it turns into a big dispute when we’re just trying to buy dinner. Sometimes, my husband and I just make executive decisions in private about small matters that don’t necessitate a democratic process (or brawl).
While inquiring minds want to know, see, and understand every process in the public sphere, certain conflicts, even large political conflicts, usually relate back to interpersonal relationships among public representatives that need time, space, and confidentiality to be worked through.
You may recall that even with the Camp David talks that led to the Camp David Accords between American and Middle Eastern leaders in the 1970’s. During private time at Camp David in Maryland, world leaders met in an intimate setting without public constraints. In this private setting, high profile leaders could reach understandings that were informed by the public but remained based in interpersonal relationships where much of the real conflict resolution action takes place.
Finally, there are many situations which demand privacy/confidentiality that allows for greatly expedited and enhanced conflict resolution. Consider the settings for marriage counseling, working with a personal coach, meeting with HR in a corporate setting, hiring a mediator before filing a court case, or even visiting with one child during a separate outing to discuss what’s working or not working in sibling relationships. Each of these settings demand a real sense of confidentiality and trust that is grounded in fewer rather than larger audiences.
What should we do when we feel the need to resolve conflict in public situations?
We all recognize the gut feelings of discomfort when we try to resolve private matters in public, and we know that we may not always get it right. In fact, we’re going to occasionally be surprised with confrontation by the white-pants lady at Target or the splash of slurpy on our own pants. We will encounter private conflict situations in public situations with those we know and with strangers that signal a need for an effective response.
By differentiating our public and private conflict resolution needs, we can begin making changes that will lead to more harmony both in our private and public lives.
In particular, there are a few things we can do to be better prepared for dealing with private conflicts that may erupt in public situations.
These are just a few of my thoughts as we approach the hustle and bustle of the holidays with overlapping private and public interactions. Make sure that you are actively choosing how to respond to the conflicts in your life rather than just reacting to whatever happens to you in a given situation. You may even want to ask for time to think in a public situation, so you don’t behave in a way that you will regret.