Want to avoid conflict & misunderstandings? Keep talking.

Conflict coaching

As a coach working with people in all sorts of fields from CEOs and senior managers to entrepreneurs, I am present in a wide range of conversations covering many specialised topics.  There are many, many commonalities which I guess is no surprise as we are all human facing similar challenges.

One common theme is communication. Or lack of it.  Time and time again, I see people suffering in silence, making assumptions about others and how they’re thinking  which lead to misunderstandings and resentment – and conflict even, which is something most of us want to avoid.

Why do we not set up that chat? Why do we hold back our thoughts, not vocalise our observations? Why do we let things go unsaid, assume we know what’s going on for others (or not want to know), why is it easier for many to ignore what’s in front of them and bury their head in other work?

Stop avoiding them

There are so many reasons. Avoidance is one. Yes, it’s often easier to avoid a difficult conversation than face up to it. We avoid speaking to someone even if we know they might be unhappy because the conversation might be emotional, or they might come up with feedback that we don’t want to hear.  Or they might create work for us as things might need to change. Staying with the status quo is frequently preferable to facing up to the changes that are needed.

I guess if there is avoidance, at least that indicates that they have noticed there’s something going on, so there’s awareness of others.  That’s easier to work with than when there is little or no awareness.  Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, we switch off to what’s going on for others.  We might be stressed, we might be fearful, we might not know how to tune in.   Working with a coach can really help here, to find ways of addressing the stress or need to avoid, of building the necessary communication skills where an open conversation can be had to clear the air, let the other person know you’re aware and care.  

Just hear what they’re saying

Sometimes that is all that is needed.  No solution, no quick fix.  Just an open question that allows them to get it off their chest and feel that there’s someone listening.  Just like in coaching sessions, simply speaking the words and vocalising the thoughts can help you make sense of what’s going on. You feel validated that someone is listening and holding the space.

You can work it out together 

If there’s a specific worry or problem, and your colleague or team member seems unhappy, dissatisfied, then sitting down and asking about it can be transformative.  Working out what the best outcome is for them, you and the business or organisation and agreeing how you’re both going to work on changing things, can change both parties’ outlook and reframe the situation from a them versus us to a we (which is a sure precursor to situations of conflict). Again, no need to dive in and fix, just open up the conversations, set aside assumptions and work out a plan.

Let go of assumptions

This happens all the time.  We have a narrative about others in our mind. We assume they think the same as us, or assume they’re like someone else we know, who perhaps we don’t like or respect.  If they are displaying signs of dissatisfaction or being unhappy, we are likely to not want to hear what they’ve got to say as we’ve been there before and it wasn’t a good experience.  Perhaps you fear they’ll be emotional or angry. So you avoid.  And what goes on for them? They see another person (manager / colleague / friend ) not being available, not being interested in their world.  This can make them think “what’s the point?” And make a little bit less effort.  Or they might think, “I can play them at this game” and stop being bothered to communicate much with you. Or worse, if they’re particularly stressed or dissatisfied, they can start feeling resentful, creating negative narratives around you and in some extreme cases, telling others how unhelpful, uncaring etc you are.

Wow, all this just because some assumptions have been left to build up.

Defensive tendencies?

Do you find it difficult to accept feedback? Do you react as if it’s a personal criticism? Does it make you feel super uncomfortable and bring on the need to explain your way out of it, to persuade the other person that it wasn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong, they need to stop it? Don’t worry if this is you – it’s really common and most of us struggle with feedback.  

But…. If the thought of it brings on all this negative stuff and makes you defensive, then a. You will avoid at all costs and therefore not ask the other person what’s going on , and b. If you react like this, other people are less likely to share their thoughts, won’t give you their feedback or suggestions and will keep quiet or go to someone else.  This can work out ok, but it can also be detrimental.  If they can’t share with you, things can get worse, they will start resenting you or their work and stop communicating with you or just leave.  

What can you do about being defensive? Work on reframing.  What would be a more useful way of seeing their opinion or suggestions? What might a confident, self assured you do in the same situation? What if you saw feedback as a great opportunity to make things even better?

Have a go at seeing things as a process, something everyone goes through to create great teams, successful businesses, and having that conversation is one part of it.  Be curious about what might happen next.  Let go of wanting to control things, of wanting everything to be perfect and done your way.  Taking on board some new ideas that might come from the conversation could be really helpful! 

Having that conversation, asking what’s going on for them, will make them feel heard, feel like their contribution is valuable, that their ideas are welcome.  And this builds a huge amount of good will and trust.

What if things aren’t going well with them?

You might already have had some negative feedback.  Perhaps they’re really angry or unhappy.  You may not naturally want to keep talking to them.  It might be easier to ignore or pretend that nothing has happened.  Again, this is where resentment can build and lead to unnecessary conflict. 

Take a step back, a deep breath, remind yourself this is part of the journey.  Be the adult in the room and keep checking in to ensure that communication is maintained.  This doesn’t mean you have to agree or step down.  It just means you’re not saying “i no longer want to interact as you’ve disagreed”. I know it’s not easy, but keep the conversation going signals to them that you still respect them and still value their company or presence.

A manager I worked with recently had noticed the attitude of a team member had deteriorated.  They had stopped contributing at meetings and seemed to be avoiding their manager.  We discussed whether arranging a quick catch up would be an idea. My client was reticent as they didn’t like confrontation and felt it would be like ‘opening a whole can of worms’.  We considered the options – leave things as they are and hope they go away (a possibility, but more often than not builds resentment), ask someone else what’s up (possible, but a slightly avoidant tactic, and could end up in the person in question hearing about it and getting fed up or frustrated), sit down and talk.

By reframing the situation and realising that knowing what was up would be better than letting things continue, they decided to sit down with them and talk. When they did, they found that the team member was annoyed that they hadn’t been asked to do a presentation and felt overlooked and ignored.  The reason for not asking them was that the manager had assumed they would not want to.  They listened to each other and the manager asked them if they’d like to be considered next time.  The answer was yes. Without this conversation, the situation could have continued and the misunderstanding potentially grown.

And remember your body language

Remembering to smile (where appropriate), can really make things better.  Sitting with them with no distractions or obstacles in the way can be a powerful way of telling them you’re fully present. Eye contact, nodding, showing you’re really listening.  It all helps.  If we’re feeling attacked or defensive, we will often give it away with the way we sit, or avoid eye contact. Be aware of this.

If in doubt, listen

Listening is one of the most powerful tools of communication

Ironically, if we’re feeling unsure, nervous, defensive, we can babble on, filling the silence, wanting to get our point across first.  Try listening to their response and thoughts – really listening and turning down any objections you have.  Resist the temptation to ‘put them right’ and explain how they’re wrong.  Just hearing someone out sets the tone, so that the other person may be more likely to listen to your side having given their own.  You have set the example, they’ve been heard, hopefully they’ll see it as your turn to speak.  This doesn’t always happen, but it does really help. It can transform relationships.  

I need to do a podcast on listening I think! It’s one of my favourite subjects.  Take some time to observe others in conversation and note how much each person really listens and takes in what’s being said.  Do they get what’s the other person is meaning? Or are they simply waiting for a gap in the conversation so that they can say their bit?

Go on, arrange that meeting or chat

So back to talking.  When I say talking I mean conversation, and that has to include listening and hearing what’s being said.  Converse in adult mode, where you have no agenda, no judgment, give the other person space to speak.  There may be some mistakes on the way, but that’s ok, just see it as an opportunity to learn and get better.

Keeping the conversation going can build trust, show respect, set the example and make relationships easier.  It can transform relationships in and out of work.

Hope you found this useful –  if you have any comments or would like to work with me, get in touch.