Archive for the ‘Conflict Resolution’ Category

Tips for handling your emotion in tough conversations

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

These conversations are increasingly common for managers as people are having to do more with less.   It’s not just that you’re giving the person some difficult  news.  Other complications are that you are often under huge work pressure at the time and your team might be small so tensions loom large.

So there are huge emotions on each side. Some people say: ‘Just stick to the facts’ but this is a particularly bleak option.  The facts don’t ‘speak for themselves’ – the conversation is really all about the emotion – theirs and, as a result, yours.

If you are going to manage the conversation in a meaningful way you must do so through empathy for the person.   To achieve empathy, you have to manage your own emotions well enough to be able to focus on those of the other person.

Helping your team members through times like this touches the well-spring of compassion. You will be astounded at the impact on yourself and others.

Empathy can only really exist when it is honestly felt, but three tips can help in keeping your emotions out of the way and enable your honest concern to come through:

  1. Know how you instinctively react during strong emotion.  This means that you can identify the emotion when it happens and control  it rather than have it control you. For example, if you expect your heart rate to go up, it won’t take you by surprise, plus you can plan to breathe deeply to lower it.
  2. Work out the range of ways you think the other person might react and practice some effective ways of responding.  You need these responses to hand because it is hard to think of the right way to respond while you are coping with strong emotion.
  3. Work very hard at just listening.  Discipline yourself to just stay in empathetic silence, rather than feeling that you have to provide a solution.

Once the conversation is over, take a few minutes to recover and check in with your own emotions.


In an intense conversation trust your instincts

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Wellington is such a compact city that it is possible to have a complex conversation with someone just by meeting them in the street often enough. This morning I ran into a friend, Margaret,  who has her young child  in daycare. Over thelast  couple of months  we’d had pieces of an on-going conversations about Margaret’s concerns that her child was not very happy there.  Of course he was too young to express his fears adequately; she liked the staff; they said they were watching closely and there was no problem; but she just had this concern that he might be being bullied.

We talked about the validity of a mother’s instinct. I told her during a long period when my son was very ill and unable to communicate,  a nurse had advised me to never ignore my gut feel as a mother.  This morning Margaret  told me she had followed her instinct, shifted her son to another child care centre and he was much happier. And it was obvious that so was she! What do they say?: ‘A mother can only be as happy as her least happy child’

Until just now I have had a negative sense of the word ‘instinct’ as something a bit flaky, but when I checked the psychology definition it said:’ Instinct is a behaviour mediated by reactions below the conscious level’. So now I do believe in instinct – that definition of instinct anyway!

What is likely to have been going on is that Margaret  received many signals from her son that all was not well for him at the day care. Many of those signs would have been so subtle and fleeting that they didn’t register at a conscious level, but eventually accumulated into this gut feel  that he might be being bullied.

The closeness of the parental relationshiph means that mirror neuron responses registered between mother and child must be extremely highly attuned. Gut feel is immensely important to survival of dependent children.

We could apply the same rule – Never ignore your gut feel’ to any intense conversation.

How can we trust your instincts more?  We have to pause long enough in the intensity; cut through the static and listen to that gut feel. Don’t immediately leap into action as a result, but do take your instinct seriously:  Check out what you are sensing instinctively with the other person.  You can do this by asking a neutral open question to probe: ‘ I’m getting the sense that…  What do you think?  Then proceed accordingly.

For an easy practice, spend some time in a meeting tuning in to your instinct for what is happening and check its reliability. For follow-up, there’s an interesting conversation thread on this topic in TED




The widespread impact of workplace bullying on witnesses

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Recently I wrote a post on the incidence of managers being bullied by staff members.  Then last week I noticed some research findings  about the surprisingly wide  negative impact of bullying on others in the organisation.   Research by Sandra Robinson at the University of British Columbia, shows that people observing  bullying are very negatively affected, even when they are not directly involved.

I say ‘surprisingly wide impact’  but given what we know now about the role of mirror neurons in people picking up emotions,  the research should be no surprise at all.

The term being used is ‘emotional contagion’.  The mirror neurons that cause us to reflect emotion can have  positive effects,  but they also transmit  negative emotions. Robinson’s research found that people witnessing bullying are even more likely to want to quit their jobs than the victims themselves!

Yes, we can work on staying positive in the face of bullying, but that is quite difficult and uses energy. Experts on road rage say that we experience emotional contagion even when safely locked up inside our cars.  If a driver starts exhibiting hostility on the road, nearby drivers will unconsciously imitate that behaviour.

So, as a manager when you are made aware of bullying, it is very important to move swiftly, fairly and firmly to stamp it out – not just to protect the victim, but also for the health of the whole organisation.  Look for early signs of bullying. If you suspect it is occurring, take action.  There are some simple tips here, and for more specific New Zealand content, look at: Advocating zero tolerance to workplace bullying.



Being bullied by a staff member?

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I used to think of workplace bullying as being directed downwards from those in power, yet recently I have noticed several cases where the bullying is the other way – a manager is being bullied by a team member. This ‘upward bullying’  is not as rare as we might think.  A 2005 report from the Chartered Management Institute in the UK says of 512 executives surveyed, 39% have been bullied at some stage in their careers.  The  research showed that middle managers are the most bullied  and women managers are more likely to be bullied than men.

In the examples I have come across, the staff member doing the bullying has usually been getting away with bullying other managers  and has often been doing it for a long time. If you are the manager in the situation, think about the possibility that you have inherited the problem.  This means that when you confront the behaviour you are dealing not only with poor behaviour from the bully, but also inadequacy from at least some of the hierarchy.  Rather than risk a PG, upper level managers will expect you to somehow work around the problem.  Give yourself a pat on the back for confronting an historic problem –  its effects are toxic on the workplace as well as on you.

Let’s start with handling behaviour that feels rather like that bullying but you are not sure if it is.  Admitting to being bullied is very embarrassing and it can be easy for the bully to convince you that this type of problemr is somehow caused by your own inadequacy.

  1. Start by keeping careful track of the negative behaviour – when, where, what was said or done etc. This gets your mind clear for step 2, but also may be necessary information further down the formal track.
  2. Address each problem incident promptly with the person involved. Work on your feedback skills so that you are giving clear, specific feedback to the person involved. Keep your emotions in check and make sure you ask questions so that you create the opportunity for the other side to be heard. Whilst using your listening skills, make sure you listen to your own needs for co-operative behaviour from the staff member concerned.

Le’ts say the first stage hasn’t worked, what next?

  1. Is this bullying?  Bullying is on-going unreasonable behaviour that is often aimed at undermining or humiliating the recipient. Bullying is bullying regardless of its direction. Check  out your perceptions with a trusted experienced person.
  2. Check out the workplace bullying policy in your organisation.  Consult with your Human Resources section to get some support and expectations in place. Often the HR people have heard rumblings about this person for some time and will be keen to get the problem sorted.
  3. Now make your own plan of approach that creates a set of deadlines for communicating with the person involved, expectation for changes in behaviour and so on. It is a lot easier to deal with the whole difficult process if you know where you are in your process  and know the next steps if you have to up the ante.
  4. Get yourself some background professional support in the form of EAP, or outside counseling. Dealing with bullying is very emotionally debilitating so don’t expect yourself just to battle on single-handedly.
  5.  Now embark on your plan of action.  The feedback discussions will now be much more formal. Workplace bullies do not like their behaviour being exposed. In very difficult cases, you may need to consider having someone else present.

The fight will be difficult, but you can get through it.

Communicating when travelling

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Many of you will be travelling at some time this year,or certainly will have travelled in the past.  Recently I was flying internationally and I began thinking about the habits we have when close sharing on planes is unavoidable.

Firstly unless you are travelling with a companion (in my case sometimes my husband) you almost always sit next to a stranger. They remain a stranger only for a very short time .Usually it is the glance, slight smile and then a short comment until the tray table comes down.

That seems to be the cue to begin ‘getting to know you’ sort of conversation.  Along the lines of “where are you off to?” or “Are you on holiday?”  Occasionally it can seem like a short interrogation

If you live in New Zealand and you are going on a long haul trip you then make arrangements for sleep.  Once again this has habit and ritual when travelling alongside a stranger. Avoid all eye contact as they snuggle into their blanket. Ignore noises you normally only hear from your loved ones and try not to wake them when you inevitably need to go to the bathroom!

Travelling is rewarding at times you can meet and have really good conversations with fellow passengers.

Just beware of the chatty ones. Then you need to resort to the eye masks, ear plugs and hope they don’t bump you when they get up to move.

This is a recent photo taken in Kuala Lumpur with a group of participants

Challenges of being an introvert in an extrovert world

Friday, March 30th, 2012

There is a very interesting TED talk on introversion:The Power of Introverts. Susan Cain’s amusing and compelling talk is about the bias against introversion in the modern world and the need to place far more value on this different way of being.

Listening to Cain’s talk., I realised I was guilty as charged – guilty of a bias towards extroversion as the ‘ right way’ to be. I remember years ago asking my wonderful introvert young daughter: ‘Would you like to invite a friend over to play?’ I was completely taken aback when she answered: ‘No thank you, Mum. I’d much rather enjoy myself’. This reaction was completely incomprehensible to extroverted me and utterly obvious to my daughter. Whilst I think I remember accepting the difference, I know I didn’t truly understand. If I am honest, the idea didn’t completely fall into place until I listened to this TED Talk.

Even if you are not an introvert yourself, you probably have introverts amongst your team – Cain states that 30 -50% of people are introverts and says that they live in a world that places a much higher value on extroversion. As a result, we are under-utilising the tremendous strengths of introverts. Take a look at the TED talk. Then think about how you might apply its ideas to positive purpose. If you are an extrovert, value the difference provided by introverts and give it room. As Cain says: “stop this obsession with group work!’ If you are an introvert yourself, time to glory in your style!

The key to understanding social interaction?

Monday, March 5th, 2012

When we were kids, my uncle used to play a trick on us while we sat at a meal: He would start scratching his nose, gradually we kids would start scratching too. Suddenly he would shout: ‘Caught you!’ We’d look up and burst into giggles, realising we were all doing the same thing.

That was back a few years….well, a lot of years. It turns out that such imitation is the very essence of what makes us human. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neurophysiologists found what could be a major way that the human brain creates this unconscious mimicry and called it the ‘mirror neuron’. If they are right, our rapidly expanding knowledge of mirror neurons has very wide implications for understanding how social interaction happens – how we develop into socialised humans, how we can improve our communication, even possibly an understanding of the basis of civilisation itself. So expect to hear the term used frequently in many fields.

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I am a little bit skeptical. In recent years, I’ve watched, at very close quarters, a relative make an exceptional recovery from a serious brain injury. A sample of one, I know, but it has left me in awe at the complexity, multi-layeredness and sheer unexpectedness of the connections in the human brain. The mirror neuron theory sounds almost too handy to be true – a bit similar to the gross over- simplification of the right brain/left brain dichotomy.

Still, who am I to know? Some scientists are expressing wariness. Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkley is one. She wrote the wonderful book, ‘The Philosophical Baby’, so she knows a lot about human social learning. On the other hand, the great V.S Ramachandran is a fan, so it can’t all be bad! The Integral Options Cafe has a good brief summary of some of the debate. Anyone have any thoughts on it?

How difficult is it to have a courageous conversation with a friend?

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Recently on Sky News an Australian cricketer was explaining how he had dumped a prominent player from the team “but it won’t make a difference to our friendship” Is that possible?

How many of us put off having one of those difficult conversations. When we do have them do you still feel comfortable afterwards? Or when someone ‘tells it to you ‘ how good do you feel?

It is one of the most difficult communications to have when there is a relationship at stake. Yet it is the basis of a successful and deep relationship.

Thinking about your emotions and taking into consideration their feelings during an exchange of views is a hard ask; however if you can ‘say it as it is’ and keep the relationship intact you are doing well.

Likewise if you can ‘hear’ the other person and not put up the barricades or tear down their message you are keeping the lines of communication open.

Some of the tempting tools we use include :sarcasm (tempting though) , attack (yes it is the first line of defence) and of course the old favourites tears and the silent treatment.

None of these are conducive to maintaining friendship and add to the sometimes quick demise of your relationship.

It’s not easy having the courageous converstaion and sometimes they don’t work out as well as you would like .

When that happens always remember a sincere apology can work wonders.