By Anne-Marie Daniel
A few years ago, the executive director of a well-known social impact organization called me for a coaching session. This individual had received an email from a loyal volunteer of 20 years who was quite upset about recent events. The email outlined how the volunteer was thinking of ending her relationship with the organization over her perception of how things were being run.
Naturally, this ED felt panicked. Who wants to lose a strong supporter regardless of the why?
By the time the ED reached out to me for coaching, they had been sitting on this email for a couple of weeks, in a state of total paralysis. They didn’t know how to move forward.
This is not an unusual state of affairs — and exactly the point at which we get into trouble.
Making matters worse, the volunteer wrote again, asking why no one had got back to her. She was even more upset than she had been in the first email.
This executive director’s desire to find the perfect words and protect the relationship … was ruining the relationship.
In avoiding the situation to try to figure out a plan of how to handle it, the ED had actually made it worse. The time lag allowed this volunteer to create a story in her mind, and get fully bought into it.
I imagine many of you are nodding your heads. Problems compound when, in the heat of a conflict situation, we go dark. It’s not that we go dark for any sort of vengeful reasons, either; usually it’s just that our bandwidth is low, we’re not sure what the right course of action is, we’re worried that we’ll weaken trust, or we’re afraid of making it worse.
Waiting often makes it worse.
1. Pick up the phone.
Research backs this up, telling us that if it’s a conversation of any weight — if you’ve got any sort of knot in your stomach about it—having the conversation live is the best option. Email is a limiting form of communication because it lacks so many cues: tone of voice, gestures, pauses, sequence of messages. It’s so much easier to get upset about an email — and then to sit and stew.
To improve the quality of the conversation, take it a step further than the phone, and connect in person or by video. This way, your conversation partner can pick up as many cues as possible — not just your tone of voice, but the look on your face and a sense of your surroundings. These are just some of the small cues our brain looks for as we build understanding with another person.
If you need a record of the conversation, then you can follow it up with an email that shares the new understanding — not where both parties started from.
Being aware of what is driving our actions and having the ability to help others get clear too is key in creating the change we want to see in the world.
2. Name your intention.
We tend to think that just because we’ve got these great intentions, the impact of those intentions is going to carry across. But intentions are only helpful to others if they can feel them or hear them.
Going back to our ED, after our coaching call, the first move they made was to call up the volunteer. “I received your email,” they began. “There’s so much in there. I want to have a meeting with you about it. But I just want to let you know I need some time to collect my thoughts. When would work for you?”
For the ED, naming their intention served as an acknowledgment that they should have responded earlier, but that because this was such an important issue, it was essential to carve out some time to think. Intention-naming heads off unintended impacts (like the volunteer fabricating a whole story inside that vacuum of silence).
Naming intentions also helps us identify what’s bothering us, within our own mind. Being able to figure out what is at the root of a difficult situation for us makes all the difference. Being aware of what is driving our actions and having the ability to help others get clear too is key in creating the change we want to see in the world.
3. Disarm your own bomb.
When we butt heads, our minds default to: “I’m right.” If we stay in “I’m right and you’re wrong,” then necessarily the blame is all yours … and I didn’t do anything. But then we end up painting ourselves as a victim.
In that victim stance, we’ve got no power to do anything, including the power to change the situation. If, instead, we can ask ourselves a series of questions, take honest stock of how we may have contributed to the situation and get our minds figuring out a strategy that protects what’s important, then we are part of the solution. Sometimes it is about just avoiding conflict and moving on, but making that choice, after having surveyed the territory and dealing with the tripping hazards, saves you from walking on eggshells in the future.
4. Call a friend.
While it’s great to sit with ourselves and ask the questions, asking a friend or coach to be a sounding board and help us see past our blind spots can be really helpful. Make the time for that pre-conversation, and really let that person know what’s needed from them.
It’s so easy to keep putting those tricky conversations off. But we’ll feel so much more capable of handling conflict if we put in the effort to get some perspective. Explore the alternatives, too: What is the best possible outcome if I ignore this? What’s the worst possible outcome if I do nothing?
In the case of our ED, doing nothing was not an option, and likely would have compounded the problem. People talk — especially when they’re feeling wronged. There is a grapevine effect at play: If it’s not coming to you, it’s going somewhere else. Believe that.
5. Write it out.
If finding an objective friend for this exercise is not an option, try journaling about it. For myself, I find that if I write it out, I at least find out what’s going on in my own head. This is not journaling to write a beautiful piece! It’s targeted journaling around the central question: What is my problem?
Even if my writing is disjointed, I find that if I write a couple pages stream-of-consciousness style, I usually start to find the nugget.
6. Let the story unfold.
People typically stress out more than they need to over conflict because they think handling a problem is a one-shot deal: You get one chance to fix this thing, and if you don’t, you’ve blown it. But that’s not true. We don’t have to wrap it all in a bow in the first session. You might just open it up with a suggestion like, “Let’s take a specific amount of time to just talk about what’s going on for us, and then figure out from there what steps we might want to take.”
Those steps don’t all have to happen at once. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to wipe up the mess with one swipe of the cloth, but that’s not always realistic, especially with complex situations. Realizing that real change takes time and checking in on progress lets you pivot and stay flexible. Scheduling a time to follow up can make all the difference to resolving a conflict in more than just words.
Back to the story of our executive director.
Knowing they had time to take it slow helped them re-read the volunteer’s email with fresh eyes. Once the ED had deconstructed the issue, they were able to figure out what part of it they wanted to work on, and draw a roadmap for how to do it. In the meeting that followed, they were able to acknowledge what the volunteer was saying, pinpoint the things that the ED could do something about, and identify the things that they couldn’t do anything about. The ED also acknowledged what was important to the volunteer, and acknowledged that the volunteer herself, as well as her relationship with the organization, was important.
Everyone experiences the world uniquely. Conflict is a given! It is a signal that something is not working and needs change or clarity. By learning what to listen for, we get better at figuring out how to protect what matters most, and how to choose a strategy that has the best chance of making things better.
This is the stuff that’s worth learning. Because there is usually a hidden Opportunity in Conflict™.
Anne-Marie Daniel is a founding partner of Roy Group and the Practice Lead for Conflict Resolution.
Register now for the upcoming session of Opportunity in Conflict™ for a deeper dive into how to decode our experiences and help others to do the same.