Jan. 2011: One Word To Avoid During ConflictsJanuary 3, 2011
Surrounded by trailless Adirondack peaks and dense forests, and ten miles from the nearest dirt road, the Cold River Wilderness might be a suitable home for a hermit. In fact, it was. Beginning in 1929, Noah John Rondeau lived for more than 21 years by himself on a bluff overlooking the Cold River.
Rondeau embarked on the solitary life because he was “not well satisfied with the world and its trends.” He traded the messiness of social contact for quiet self-sustenance. For the privilege of having no one to argue or disagree with, Noah Rondeau paid a hefty price – complete isolation.
Though he still had to contend with the inner tension generated when his thoughts and feelings duked it out for the upper hand, or when fantasy and reality competed for his attention, Rondeau discovered the only way I know to avoid interpersonal conflict. He simply dropped out of society.
Those of us who choose a socially engaged instead of a solitary life also accept a trade-off: Choosing to live with other humans, we face the inevitability of conflict.
Wanting benefits without challenges
Many leaders devote substantial energy and time to sidestepping conflicts and disagreements. At the first hint of tension, they whip out their emotional gas masks to protect themselves from the discomfort of difficult interactions.
These leaders want it both ways. They seek the benefits of human contact without the emotional challenges. The result is the avoidance that happens routinely in families, businesses and nations.
The alternative is learning how to conflict respectfully and effectively. Much of our work at Leadership Coaching involves mentoring leaders in the art of respectful conflict.
I have found that as leaders become more skillful at healthy conflict, their avoidance decreases; they learn to take on issues and tensions without making either a federal case.
Several specific capacities can de-escalate a conflict. The most important might be reducing the use of a single word: “You.”
When tensions rise between two parties, blame often follows. The pronoun of choice for blamers is “you:”
“You didn’t deliver on time.”
“You said you wouldn’t need a ride from me this morning.”
“You always blame others!”
“You just can’t help yourself from taking advantage of people, can you?”
“You always put on a phony face when something goes wrong!”
Using the “you” word marks a conversational shift from exploring to blaming. It resembles pulling a gun on an opponent. Like bullets in an “Old West” gunfight, “you” is blasted back and forth until someone drops out. That’s not productive.
Astute leaders replace “you” with “I”. Saying “I” indicates the speaker is taking responsibility for what he/she communicates. This is especially valuable when anxiety spikes, because that’s when one is most vulnerable to uttering irresponsible words that might later be regretted.
Communicating “I” positions instead of telling others what they are feeling or thinking takes practice:
“I expected an earlier delivery.”
“I didn’t hear you say you needed a ride this morning. It’s possible I just missed it.”
“I want to figure out my own role in this.”
“It’s hard for me to tell whether anyone was taken advantage of here. I need to get more information.”
“I’m interested in understanding what contributed to the problem, and how I can learn from it.”
When leaders employ “I” positions during tense encounters, they widely report a decrease in their own “tightness.” That helps them think more clearly.
In any group, conflict tests the mettle of leaders. When the spirit of the group is calm, upbeat and harmonious, leadership tends to run smoothly. Leaders earn their stripes according to how they respond in times of tension and crisis.
How would you grade yourself as a conflict manager within your family or business? Do you face tensions squarely and skillfully? Do you tend to be more of a hermit? Or somewhere in between?
Let me know.
Conscious New Year!
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