Resolving Emotional Conflicts

Emotional conflicts. Wouldn’t life be easier without them?

Yes, probably.

But it would also be less real. After all, we are people, not machines.

Time and again we at Common Outlook remind clients (and ourselves) that any organization is nothing more than a collection of people dealing with each other. If we remembered this simple fact more often, we would save ourselves a lot of trouble.

People have good days and bad days, do good things and bad things, do smart things and foolish things, and most importantly, “we the people” have feelings. Whether we like it or not, as human beings, our feelings drive our actions, so we ignore them at our peril.

“Fine then”, you say.  We have to deal with (annoying and inconvenient) feelings. Now what?

This is where it gets juicy.

The first thing you need to do if you have any hope of managing your feelings (and the feelings of the other party), is to acknowledge they exist.  This probably sounds ridiculously simplistic, but it’s true. If you’re not clear what you are feeling, you will have difficulty managing & resolving it. The same is true for the other party. When you decide to talk to them about the situation, an important step is to acknowledge what you believe their feelings are. This could be as simple as saying something like, “I got the impression you were really annoyed by what I said to you last week.”  This opens the door for them to say, “Yes, I was’ or “No, I wasn’t so much annoyed as I was disappointed…”

Note: This kind of conversation can ONLY work if you are being authentic and if you actually care about improving the situation or relationship you have with the other person. If you don’t care, don’t bother engaging the dialogue; you’re just going to make the situation worse.

But in order for a conversation like this go somewhere useful, you need to have a sense of where the feelings are coming from in the first place. And you need to have some ability to manage them / process them in a useful, healthy way.

Our feelings about a person are based on the story we tell ourselves about them, and about their intentions in that particular situation. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that, as there is a feedback loop between our feelings and the person.  That is, if we already have strong negative feelings about that person based on past experiences, we are already negatively disposed toward them and will carry a cloudy story about them around with us. This “cloud” taints any subsequent interaction – until we challenge the story.

So let’s start there. If we hold a negative story about someone (which develops into a belief over time), what can we do about it? A lot, as it turns out.

The first thing we have to remember is that our story about that person (also known as our perception of them) is based on a set of experiences and observations. These experiences and observations are the “data” we use to form a story about them. The flaw: almost certainly this data is incomplete; that is, it does not fully represent all of who they are or what they have done. You might only be seeing actions appear suspect, but almost certainly they don’t do things like that all the time.

Second, we forget that our interpretation of the actions we see is only one interpretation – not the interpretation.  It is “our truth”, not “THE truth”.  It is likely that other people are looking at the same actions in a completely different light.

Third, a classic flaw in our thinking is the following: if someone does something that has a negative impact on us, we often assume they intended to have that impact. And we don’t treat our assumption as an assumption; we treat it like the truth. But all too often, the intention behind someone’s actions are very different than the impact of those actions (this goes for our actions too, don’t forget).  Remember the old saying: The road to [hades] is paved with good intentions.

Let me use a simple example to illustrate how the three patterns described above can come together to create trouble.

Imagine you are new to a department. You find yourself in a meeting where a passionate debate is taking place about something. One of the people in the meeting asks you a pointed question. You are taken about by the question but are about to answer; after all, it does pertain to your area of responsibility. Before you can answer, however, a colleague in your department jumps in and answers it for you.  You are surprised by this (as are other people in the meeting), but the meeting carries on. As you reflect on the encounter, you find yourself getting angry. “What was this guy trying to do?” you ask yourself? Sideline me? Undermine me? Make me look bad? Play a power game? Show me and the others how much he knows?  This guy must be a power monger. He probably does this all the time. I hate people like that.

These are all assumptions. Negative assumptions. But before you know it, you’re relating to those assumptions as the truth about the situation and about that person’s intent. Moreover, you’ve started building a negative story about this person’s character not just their actions in this particular situation.  It’s a slippery slope.

If you continue to believe the person intended to have that impact, all of your subsequent encounters with him will be tainted by that belief. Now imagine you decide to confront him about it. Almost certainly your conversation will begin with an accusation – setting you up for a fight. Even if you don’t accuse him outright, your tone, manner, and body language will transmit the accusation loud and clear. Your conversation is doomed to failure, and the relationship will take a turn for the worse.

But what if you challenged your assumption?

What if – against the instinctual pattern – you challenge yourself and ask yourself the question, “Did he really intend to sideline me / undermine me / make me look bad?  Was it really a power play? Do I have enough information to really make that conclusion? No, I don’t. I still didn’t like what he did and I’d rather he let me answer the question myself next time (and I’ll tell him that), but I’m going to start by assuming he probably didn’t intend harm. Remember, most of us are trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got in any given situation, given all that’s going on in our lives, given all that we’re dealing with, given that we have good days and bad days, good times and bad times, etc.

THAT frame of reference would lead to a very different conversation. And likely a much more productive outcome.

If this person WAS up to no good, that will become self-evident in the conversation; and if they weren’t, you’ll see that too.

The real challenge, then, in resolving emotional conflicts is finding the willingness to negotiate with yourself first in order to lay the groundwork to truly take a more productive stance in the conversation.

For further reading related to this article, consult:
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Stone, Patton, and Heen, Peguin New York (2000, 2010)


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