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Help Me Understand!

Birds     Quick question: how much of the interpersonal conflict you experience in the average day is based entirely (or almost entirely) on misunderstanding? If you answered “about 99%” then join the club.

It seems to me, thinking about a typical day, that I seldom get into real conflict over what I would call issues of substance. Oh, sure, now and then we’ll find ourselves in an honest, substantive argument about “real issues”…but the kind of conflict that drives us nuts, especially between co-workers, friends, even spouses, is the kind that is generated and perpetuated by one misunderstanding after another. He says something she misunderstands, which prompts her to say something he misunderstands, which causes him to react, which causes her to react, which quickly escalates into (a) a full-blown screaming match, or (b) the chilly fog of the silent treatment.

Nowhere is this more evident than in marriage, that closest of interpersonal relationships. My wife and I teach a marriage course, and without going into too much detail, one of the fundamental starting points for couples to understand is that men and women hear things differently. If I say something to my wife that she perceives as somehow unloving, she will react, sometimes with angry words, glaring eyes and confrontational gestures and body language. She’s reacting because I’ve hurt her feelings and she’s trying to connect with me in order to resolve things; but instead of realizing that, I get offended because her response seems controlling and disrespectful to me. I feel like she’s mothering me, scolding me, and trying to control me. That’s not her intention at all! But in the heat of the moment, do I stop and consider the source of her hurt and her anger? Nope — I get defensive and react to her reaction, and the cycle starts to escalate. My (unintentionally) unloving behavior triggers her (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, which causes me to behave (unintentionally) even more unlovingly, which triggers an even more (unintentionally) disrespectful reaction, and so on in a spiral of angry conflict.

In his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand — then to be understood.” Nowhere does this apply more urgently than during conflict. In order to break the cycle of misunderstanding, I need to stop reacting and start thinking, “Where is this anger coming from? How much of it is due to my insensitivity? Can I defuse the anger by owning up to my share of the responsibility?” Asking these questions is the first step toward breaking the cycle of misunderstanding.

My opinion based on years in the workplace is that some of these male-female differences apply outside of marriage as well as inside. Men, in my experience the women with whom you interact will tend to value face-to-face communication, and they will often want to talk through arguments in detail and bring things full circle. Women, sometimes the men you work with will go silent on you, not because they are trying to be difficult but because they may be angry and need time to collect their thoughts and cool down. Give them some space! Men may also be the ones to say “Drop it! Forget it!” during conflict, because, for them, the issue is resolved. It’s over — let’s move on! This can be highly frustrating if you’re the one who wants to talk it out, until you realize that he doesn’t need to talk it out. When he says, “Forget it,” he means it!

This is a topic that we could discuss endlessly, of course, but the point is clear: if you’re in the middle of a conflict, will you be the one to break the cycle? Remember the old-fashioned signs at the railroad crossings, the ones that used to say “Stop! Look! Listen!”  That’s a great recipe for defusing conflict. If you can learn to stop reacting, start looking and begin really listening, you can figure out the root cause of the misunderstanding and steer the relationship back onto firm ground.

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Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Extroverts, Introverts and Conflict

Workplace conflict     A friend of mine who owns his own business recently described a situation which perfectly illustrated how extroverts and introverts tend to handle conflict.

He was in the process of trying to counsel a salesperson whose style was creating a lot of conflict in the organization. This sales rep, only recently hired, had all the right credentials and was apparently bringing in lots of new business — but the style of this individual, hard-charging and abrasive, was causing major cultural problems. The boss explained how bad things had gotten. “When you come into a meeting,” he told the offending employee, “all the extroverts put up their dukes, and all the introverts head for the door!”

This idea that extroverts tend to wade into conflict while introverts are strongly conflict-avoidant is nothing new. But the idea bears some further scrutiny. In my work experience, just as (I suspect) in yours, I’ve had bosses who appeared to relish conflict, not only enduring group tension but (knowingly or otherwise) seeming to encourage it. Sales meetings with these bosses were a kind of Rorschach Test, bringing out the deep emotional baggage in the entire team. Some employees (the extroverts) almost literally rose to the occasion, the adrenaline pumping, while others (the introverts) looked like they wished they could crawl under the table, or disappear — anything to get out of the room!

At the other end of the spectrum, I recall a few conflict-avoidant managers, so prone to sidestep and evade that it drove the team crazy — introverts and extroverts alike. I probably fell into that avoidant trap too many times in my career. To all my former colleagues — sorry about that. When a conflict would arise, even when the solution was painfully obvious, the boss was nowhere to be found, and the problem would inevitably fester.

As I reflect back on those experiences, I think there’s a lesson for any of us who manage a team. If you’re a sales manager, a director of development, or the boss of any sort of group of colleagues where good, solid, productive relationships are paramount, be very aware of how you personally handle conflict. Be equally cognizant of how different members of your team handle it. If you’re the extroverted type who thinks plenty of conflict is healthy, beware of the effect all that workplace angst is having on your introverted colleagues who may think your red meat brand of conflict management borders on the hostile. Are they heading for the hills instead of engaging in the work of strengthening the team? At the same time, by encouraging conflict, you might be teaching your extroverted teammates an unhealthy lesson, showing them how to feed conflict and not how to resolve it productively and effectively.

Conflict-avoidant managers, you may be under the assumption that your team is free of angst, but I’ll bet my next commission check that it’s just not so. Peace, as the old saying goes, is more than the absence of conflict — much more. Peace implies emotional health and wholeness (which is the connotation of the Hebrew word “shalom”). Avoiding conflict in hopes that it will go away is like putting a Band-Aid on a splinter: it hides the problem without solving it.

Let’s help the extroverts on the team put down their dukes, and the introverts stop their mental exit. Let’s resolve conflict in appropriate ways so the team can function like a good team should. And, boss, if you have an employee who refuses to get on board, maybe you need to have the same chat my friend had with his salesperson. Good sales numbers are all well and good, but in a healthy organization, the culture matters. Once you lose that strong, healthy organizational culture, you’ll have a really hard time getting it back.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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