Conflicts of Interest
Everything you ever wanted to know about conflicts at home, at work, or in the neighborhood.
“Some people should know better”. “Somebody is making things worse by doing that”. “Someone should really mind his own business”. Some people, somebody, and someone? Who are these nobodies?
When I mediate I follow a pretty universal process that was developed a long time ago by folks unknown to me. I appreciate the trial and error it must have taken to get to a point where they felt pretty good about stamping the structure as an effective way to resolve disputes. These designers had the forethought to leave any nuances to the process to individual mediators which has allowed me to add a few negotiation requirements of my own. I found one a while ago that can significantly change the direction of any conversation—not just a mediated one. Namely, say the name.
Real conversations give you the best opportunity for resolution and if things don’t work out at least you know you were real and said what you needed to say as clearly as possible. Real names help make for real conversations. “Somebody” isn’t going to have to apologize…you need Dave to say he’s sorry. “Someone” should know better… actually, that would be Stephanie. “Some people get their feelings hurt when someone acts like that!” Would that be everyone in the universe or are you referring to yourself?
Not being willing to say you hurt me or when you do that I get angry only makes a situation worse and makes for some pretty convoluted conversations. Clearly stating that you believe Joe is the culprit, that you shouldn’t have reacted that way, or that you’re quoting Susan lets a conversation move from two people talking around a problem to two people addressing a problem.
Who here hasn’t walked away from a fight and immediately started thinking of all the things you should have said? Let’s be honest. After a heated exchange we’re mentally churning away because we want to find just the right zinger to show the other guy who’s who. Sometimes we think of a “good one” later and sometimes we think of a low blow that we smugly deliver in the middle of the argument with great gusto. So proud! So, did we win?
When you talk over someone, serve up cutting remarks with dramatic flair, and try to out shout the other person, do you win? If you’re really so interested in “winning,” why then behave in a way that doesn’t get you any closer to what you really want? It might be better to think a little more strategically about when to zip it than to spend time thinking about the next zinger to dish out. Trust me when I tell you that practicing the art of silence at just the right time could benefit you. Here are a few good places to start.
When the other person is very emotional he’s not going to hear what you’re saying, so why not listen. Any time someone is crying, screaming, turning red, or having difficulty breathing and talking at the same, just be quiet. Let him get through what it is he’s trying to say and listen for clues to what’s really bothering him. He may not even know what the real issue is and allowing him the space to sort through the emotion will help him get there faster. Plus, when emotion is high, reasoning is low.
When the other person is repeating herself she’s trying to tell you something. As a mediator who is witness to a lot of arguments, I know that this is the easiest clue to overlook but, quite honestly, it’s also the easiest clue to recognize if you’re willing to pay attention. If you’re talking, you may not hear how many times she’s said the same thing or you may become unnecessarily irritated at the repetition. Ask more questions about the thing she’s repeating when it’s your turn to talk.
When you truly need to consider what another person is saying, start the work early on. If you’re supposed to be coming up with ideas to resolve a specific situation, doing all the talking means you’re missing out on 50% of the ideas. Of course you’re not going to agree with everything he says, but what’s the harm in letting him know you’re considering his proposals. You never know what’s going to spark your next big idea so why not let the other person provide a little inspiration. Besides, coming in with only one idea and a fixed position is boring!
As arguments go, there’s a lot of stuff flying back and forth. Some of it is helpful and some of it is, well, destructive. If neither of you are willing to practice the art of silence, you won’t get to the important stuff. If it feels better to ask for an agreement that both of you will have uninterrupted time in which to share your perspective, then ask for that. It’s a pretty common practice in mediations because it works. Allowing someone to get it out—all of it out—is a strategic move. It’s not weak to listen; it’s smart.
Now, for a little warning. There’s a big difference between practicing the art of silence and being a jerk. While you listen, throw in a few nods, the occasional “uh huh”, and keep good eye contact. That’s the art of silence. If you listen with your arms crossed, refuse to make eye contact, or use dagger eyes to stare down the other person, that’s practicing the art of war. Big difference.
Tell everyone you know. Washington State now has a new foreclosure mediation act that requires both parties to meet face-to-face with a mediator when a homeowner is facing foreclosure. Check out the details: http://www.commerce.wa.gov/site/1367/default.aspx
My massage therapist and his wife, who have become dear friends over the past decade, lost their beautiful, spirited, and wise 25-year old daughter, Sasia, about 10 days ago. She unexpectedly passed away in her sleep from a rare heart condition. I saw her father today because he was determined to go back to work and on my way to the appointment I was a little nervous about seeing him for the first time since hearing the terrible news. I decided I would give him a big hug as soon as I saw him. While developing the hug plan I realized that I have never really touched him before…even though as my massage therapist he touches me all the time. This morning’s appointment was no exception—but he wasn’t the only one who touched me today.
Over the weekend my friend told me about an entry found in one of Sasia’s journals. In it she proclaimed that she was going to change her life by being nice to everyone. What a concept—I should do that! When I saw my friend today I told him that I had been thinking about “the being nice thing” but that I was struggling with something. I explained that I have no problem being nice to complete strangers; in fact it’s quite natural for me to smile and strike up a conversation even with uber crabby people. I’m also pretty good at being nice to family, friends, and individuals I like. Where I falter is in knowing how to be nice to people who have done something awful or who constantly show their bad side. Being nice to those people doesn’t feel like “nice” to me; it feels like disingenuous fakery. Being nice to someone who steals, cheats, lies, and has no remorse for her actions (yes, I do know a few people like that) makes my skin crawl. How would the victims of those behaviors feel about me being “nice” to their perpetrator? Wow, I guess I don’t really know how to be nice after all. I asked my friend if he knew how Sasia handled that dilemma.
Turns out that in her wisdom she accounted for such situations. According to her dad’s interpretation of Sasia’s-Being-Nice-Rules, one begins by understanding how a person would come to exhibit such behaviors. That’s good because that approach makes sense to me. Through my own soul-searching I’ve come to learn that fractured people do hurtful things and even though I believe every action is a choice, sometimes the need to strike out is bigger than the little voice that says not to.
Then what? The second Rule includes a refusal to strike back or play any nasty games because of the empathy you have for the other person. Yes, I can and will do that. And, then, finally, it’s okay to let go of toxic relationships after you’ve applied enough of Rules No. 1 and 2. What a great set of rules.
So, once again, I’ve been touched by this family. Without knowing it Sasia reminded me that being nice is a good thing and that we all have the capacity to make the decision to do it. It should come as no surprise to any of us that a young woman with such a message was found to have a heart twice the size it should have been for her age and physical structure. No surprise at all.
Bosses don’t generally take it upon themselves to hand out generous raises without employees making a good case for increases. You may have only shot to get it right so avoiding common mistakes could mean the difference between disappointment and getting the hefty increase you believe is warranted. Steer clear of:
Rambling. Going in to have an important conversation about your paycheck should be approached with great care and forethought—not with the attitude that you’ll just wing it once you close the door. Instead, decide what you’ll say, the order in which you’ll say it, and be succinct. Bring a few notes, the documentation you’ll need to support any claims you’ll be making, and keep to an agenda.
Making threats. Blurting out that you’ll walk if you don’t get what you want often comes across as an empty threat and makes you look silly especially if both you and your boss know you’re not going anywhere. Similarly, trying any sort of blackmail tactic (like saying you’ll let his manager know what an idiot he is) is a great way not only to avoid a raise but to get booted as soon as your boss has the chance. If you feel you need to provide an ultimatum, present it respectfully and be prepared to follow through.
Talking about personal problems. Blubbering about collection agencies or the fact that your wife just took the dog, the flat screen TV, and moved out of the country won’t win you any points. It’s not your manager’s responsibility to put your life back in order. Use outside resources to fix what’s outside work. If your work performance merits a raise, your personal finances are irrelevant.
Asking too early. If you’re still carrying the new kid on the block moniker, asking for an increase could send the wrong message—and delay any raise that your boss may have been considering for you when the time was right. Get your feet wet, have accomplishments you can point to, and let your boss know you’re in it for the long-run. Raises are often based on past performance and future potential. Make sure you’re covering both.
Assuming that time equals money. Believing you should get a raise because your warm body made it into work for an extended period of time may not cut it. Talk about how your experience was applied. What did you do that someone with less experience may not have been able to accomplish? Simply saying you’ve “been here longer” may cause your manager to glaze over.
Only talking about what benefits you. Forgetting to mention what you’re willing to do for your boss, her manager, or the company in general could be a mistake. How will you grow the business? What’s the next big idea you’ll tackle? Asking for a pay increase is a strategic negotiation and only thinking about one side isn’t strategic at all.
Failing to perform. Some employees think that if they suck up a little during the few weeks prior to a review, the boss will forget or overlook the fact that they’ve made mistakes, presented sloppy work, badmouthed others, had attendance issues, and generally did as little as they could to get by. Not so. Your plan for a raise at the next review period should begin as soon as you finish the last one. Map out what you’ll do and work the plan, keeping track of your achievements along the way.
I cowboy-upped the other day and gave some long-overdue, yet unsolicited, advice to a young relative of mine. In the end I was glad I said something because I learned that there’s an obvious point in touchy conversations where one can gauge whether to keep going and cause a problem or leave it be. Here’s what happened and why I decided to leave it be.
This particular young woman is working like crazy to start a new business. She’s venturing into an industry she knows very little about that requires a hefty amount of experience because a large part of what she’ll be doing will be acting as an informational and inspirational resource for others. She’s a bit of a free spirit and can be a little rough around the edges—particularly with her language. She’s also pretty headstrong so I was a little hesitant to point out that maybe her public persona could be cleaned up a bit. I wasn’t sure how receptive she would be to my opinions on presenting a more professional image. I have, however, been a sounding board for her in the past so having something to say on the subject wouldn’t be completely out of the scope of what’s normal in our relationship. Still, I was nervous but realized I was no longer willing to ignore uncomfortable facebook posts and group emails that needed a good scrubbing.
So, I pulled up my socks and sent her a private email that began with the acknowledgement that I knew what I was about to say was unsolicited and that the reason I was sending it was because I wanted to share some ideas that may help her with her success. I suggested that using swear words may alienate potential customers (young or not, cool or not) and her reply to the suggestion didn’t surprise me. She disagreed with my perspective and said her current clients/followers “loved” her approach. Okay. I then replied with the thought that to grow a business one has to appeal to a larger audience than their friends and that my suggestion to clean up her potty mouth may help her with that. She disagreed with that, too, and that’s when I realized that I had reached the go forward or stop in my tracks moment in the conversation.
I stopped in my tracks. I had said what I had to say, she responded, that’s that. What made it easy for me to stop? It wasn’t the risk of ruining a family relationship or alienating someone I care deeply about. Turns out it was the realization that having said what I needed to say (respectfully, of course) put the information out there. My words were in the air, in her mind, and now had the potential to sink in at some point. That was enough for me and, I hope, will be enough for her when she’s ready to accept them.
A person I know was telling me about her boss who drives her crazy. She said that he often, in very dramatic fashion, accuses his staff (and her) of making mistakes when, in fact, he’s the one misunderstanding what’s going on and is in the wrong. After giving more than a few examples of his emotional outbursts, my friend then added, “But I’ve learned to overlook a lot of his hot air because I know we’ll figure it out and he’ll be joking around with me later.”
I hear that a lot—about bosses, about spouses, about family, about friends. I think sometimes people don’t know how they’re coming across to others and that the recipients of hair-trigger responses aren’t always comfortable asking someone to simmer down while the pot’s boiling over. In the moment certainly isn’t the best time to point out poor reactions but bringing it up later can feel just as uncomfortable for some because they’re fearful of yet another exaggerated reaction. I’ve written my fair share of articles and blogs about how to bring up tough subjects so for today I think I’ll bypass that approach and instead concentrate on the hothead.
Here goes. We get that things make you mad and irritate you. Self-censoring may not be your strong suit and yet we’d like to request that you wait just a second or two between any inner thoughts you’re experiencing and the reactions you show us. If you could wait and use that time to put those thoughts through some sort of interpretation sieve that would be great. For example, if a friend’s political facebook post raises the roof on your blood pressure, wait just a second before you type in a nasty comeback. Ask yourself how you might make your point without throwing everyone else into a tizzy or causing someone to run for the hills.
Give some thought to your willingness to accept whatever consequence comes your way because of your knee-jerk reactions. If you’re okay with alienating people, then continue to react poorly and try to make up for it later. But, if waiting just a second and repositioning your irritation ends up preserving a relationship or keeps you from spending time explaining yourself, might I suggest waiting just a second before speaking is a good thing to try. Need some examples? How about these:
You notice the day before it’s due that the report you’ve been working on for months doesn’t include key information a coworker was responsible for. You think, “Seriously? Why can’t anything ever go easy around here?!?” You say, “I see that the information I asked for isn’t in here, do you know where it is?”
Your friend complains for the umpteenth time about her lousy boyfriend. You think, “For the love of everything that’s holy, will you break up with that loser once and for all?!?!” You say, “I’ve noticed that you share a lot of negative things about Joe and I’m wondering how long this will go on between the two of you.”
Mom comes over and starts criticizing your kids, house, husband, etc. You think, “Get off my back! You never have anything nice to say to me and you’re life isn’t that great either, you know!!” You say, “Mom, let’s talk about to share your opinions with me in a way that doesn’t make me so defensive.”
Waiting just a second and rethinking how you’ll rephrase an emotional response isn’t easy. I know this from experience. I also know that doing so gets me more of what I want and makes for less mess to clean up later. As the old Life cereal commercials used to say, “Try it…you’ll like it!”
There’s been a lot of Oprah talk over the past few weeks as her daytime talk show wraps up after 25 years on the air. Like a lot of people I’ve been watching on and off the entire time and find myself reflecting on how my life is different/better/inspired because of Oprah and her guests. In a loosely chronicled order, let me see if I can recap some of the show’s lessons.
1) Fashion can be fun. Remember the big hair, earrings the size of dinner plates, and shoulder pads that rivaled NFL uniforms? If Oprah was wearing it, I wore it. Her shows about women being stuck in a decade moved me to cut my long hair, keep my eyeglasses up to date, and toss out anything that resembled mom jeans.
2) Being a mother is the hardest job in the world. Miss Winfrey had been on the air for about a year when my daughter was born—very timely message when I needed it most. I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t find the job quite as difficult as some of her guests did. However, the overall message made me think beyond the day’s dirty diapers and work toward the goal of raising a compassionate human being with something to offer the world. Check.
3) Our home should rise up to meet us. I went against the no TV in the bedroom rule and occasionally allowed fake plants in the house, but for the most part Oprah (and Nate) gave me the confidence to create rooms that meant something to me and I didn’t worry about my house not being photographed for Architectural Digest.
4) I am rich. No matter the amount of money I have I am a rich woman. The show gave me the opportunity to compare my live to others around the world and taught me that generosity comes in many forms. Writing a check isn’t always the solution. (Note: I use this lesson when resolving conflict both in my personal and professional life.)
5) When people show you who they are, believe them. This is a big one. Without that piece of information from Maya Angelou I know for certain my life would have been different. I’ll leave it at that.
6) If something’s not working for you, do something else. Thanks, Dr. Phil, for the infamous, “So how’s that workin’ for ya?” comment repeated over and over again. I got it: I get it and, yes, I use it when resolving conflicts.
7) Speak up. Over the years Oprah’s messages have given me the courage to shut down a racist joke being told in front of me, respectfully state my point of view that’s different than the one being discussed, and to call it like it is. Putting the real issue on the table makes room for real solutions and the only way to get to the real issue is to speak up.
8) Be my best self. It’s a good idea to get inspiration from others but don’t be a clone. Change, evolve, become the best version of yourself as you possibly can. Learn, grow, accept. Love it.
So, thanks, Oprah and guests, for always making sure you were two steps ahead of me. You guided me through some rocky times, gave me a laugh or two, took the focus from myself to others, and validated me. The messages you delivered made me a better mother, friend, sister, and mediator. Oprah Winfrey, you also taught me that I wasn’t alone in my struggles and that 50 is the new 40. Some lessons are a little more timelier than others.
“You? A mediator? If I remember correctly, weren’t you kind of a troublemaker?”
This question came from a buddy of mine I hadn’t seen in a while. We had worked together a long time ago and recently met for coffee to go over old times and catch up with one another. His memory of our working years together may have been slightly different than mine, but his recollection of me most likely had some truth to it. I will say, though, that if he meant I was a troublemaker as in drama queen who can’t stand a quiet moment and has to stir up dust wherever she goes; then, no, I wasn’t a troublemaker. If he meant troublemaker as in not being afraid to talk about the elephant in the room; then, yes, that was probably me. And, thank goodness! Because, you see, a lot of my experience as a troublemaker then has made me a better mediator today.
Stay with me now. In order to be fearless enough to point out the elephant in the room one must first be able to see the elephant—the entire elephant, not just the side one chooses to identify. Similarly, to resolve problems effectively one has to have the willingness to see all sides of an issue. You have to be comfortable with looking at everything surrounding an issue like understanding motivation and accepting your part in a conflict. And, that ability doesn’t always come easy or is seen as a good thing by those around you.
Once upon a time I thought that my coworkers were better at analyzing group dynamics and identifying individual motivation than I was because my assessment of what was happening with our team often didn’t match their diagnoses. If majority rules; I was wrong a lot. It wasn’t until I had more experience under my belt and then worked hard at a new career as a mediator that I realized I actually did know what I was talking about. I had skills! Thankfully, I’m now much better at identifying and communicating my observations.
So, if being called a troublemaker means that I’m not willing to stand by and pretend that I don’t see the person in the cubicle across from me fibbing to the boss or that it feels strange to me to ignore the fact that an AWOL coworker was shopping while the rest of us set-up the entire booth at the sales conference, well then I guess I’m a troublemaker. As a well-rounded troublemaker I also made sure to acknowledge those who worked hard, those who had innovative ideas, and those who really did have the company’s best interest at heart. I suppose that’s why, after all these years, my buddy still considers me a friend.
If you’re like me you’ve had a career that spans more than a few years and you’ve probably come across more than a few different boss types. And, if you’re like me, you may have learned the hard way what not to do when dealing with them. Managers can be an interesting bunch: Some of them will drive you crazy, some are complicated enigmas, and a few will motivate you to grow far beyond the limits you’ve set for yourself.
During workplace mediations, I’m often asked for my insight on dealing effectively with management styles. Most people doing the asking would probably be satisfied if I replied that their boss is an idiot and the employee should feel free to ignore him, but I think a more humane approach is better. Here’s what you can do.
Before you bristle at the thought of showing your boss any kind of compassion, know that there are smart, strategic reasons for applying a little humility with higher-ups. Here are three good ones.
1) They stand between you and a paycheck (or a good reference if you’re headed out of dodge!).
2) It’s better to have a difficult personality on your side rather than working against you.
3) You never know when you’ll see them again!
Start by seeing things from their perspective and consider the real motivation behind their behavior. Once you get past flip thinking like, “He does that because he wants me to be miserable,” you’ll begin to have an understanding of what drives him or her. That piece of information will be the key to unlocking how to handle things.
For instance, if your boss is a micromanager, she may be concerned with her reputation or care deeply about the final product. Knowing that, you can deal with her by steering her in the right direction. Consider what she does well and then say, “Where you really add value is with xyz.” Get her focused on areas that have the potential to help you. Create check-in points at the beginning of a project. If she’s not crazy about doing that, ask if she’s willing to give it a shot just this once and if she’s still uneasy, ask what would make her feel comfortable with fewer check-ins. Finally, ask for her overall vision or goal and pledge to make decisions based on that goal. Let her know that you believe an important part of your job is to make her look good and she may be more trusting.
What should you know if your manager is an egomaniac? It’s very likely that he’s insecure, looking for respect, or bringing a whole lot of little red wagon issues from his past into the office. So, how might you deal with him? Easy: appeal to his ego! Remember not to take his need for attention personally or think that any attention going to him is attention not going to you. Instead, find a way to share in the attention he works so hard to garner. Say things like, “I’d like your opinion on…” and “I think you could really help me with this.” If he thinks he can get a little credit from what you do, he’ll do a lot for you. Obviously, don’t forget to give him credit for things along the way.
If your boss is someone you consider to be ineffective or clueless, it might be because she’s facing too much responsibility too soon, has been put in a position she doesn’t have the skills for, (or actually lacks the information she needs). She might value her reputation as much as a micromanager and therefore is afraid to acknowledge her shortcomings. Deal with her by having a little compassion and show her how to help you. Have a few, “What are your thoughts on, abc”-type conversations so you can subtly coach her in areas you feel she needs development. When you know the answers to something ask, “What would you like me to do about this… x or y?” Giving her the answer is a great way to demonstrate how she might approach similar situations in the future and gets you to the finish line quicker. Take her through the pros and cons of each choice so she can see how you’re attacking the decision-making process and she can hear about your experience with similar problems at the same time. Blurting out what she doesn’t know and how experienced you are will probably backfire so put on a mentor hat and respectfully help her along. Oh, and there must be something she does well so make sure you point that out to her every once in a while.
What can I say about workaholics? You know the type—he goes out of his way to talk about all the hours he’s put in, brags about missing the birth of his child because he was closing a big deal, or sends you text messages at 3 o’clock in the morning. The motivation for a workaholic can be anything from insecurities to an addictive personality. If you’re dealing with a workaholic start by limiting conversation about your family and friends, cut to the chase whenever you need to talk to him, be ready with information, and don’t put off tomorrow what you can get done today. You might also think about adjusting your work schedule to fit his or find time to get work done when he’s not around (like early mornings or after the kids are in bed) so you don’t have to keep him waiting for information. With that said, helping him prioritize will help lighten your assignment load. If he’s given you six things to accomplish in the next week, take ten minutes with him to ask his advice on what he sees as the most pressing. It’s not unusual for workaholics to say everything is equally important so let him know you’re asking because you want to make sure you’re focused on whatever is going to make the best impression on his behalf. Approach everything from a business perspective. Rather than saying you’re getting burned out by the extra hours and your personal life is suffering, say something like, “I’m concerned that workload is affecting quality and has the potential to erode the team’s reputation, so I’d like to brainstorm how we could manage the tasks better.” Be sure to have at least three solutions to propose because workaholics usually don’t react well to blank stares.
If you work for someone with any of these management styles or a boss who’s overly-dramatic, someone who misunderstands the real issues, a guy who looks the other way, or a dismissive supervisor, applying a simple formula may make your life easier. Namely, figure out what the value or motivation is behind his behavior and then craft or mold your behavior to get what you want by giving him what he wants. Remember to always attack the problems, not the person.