A Conflict Experiment

For Conflict Resolution Day, we conducted a Conflict Experiment in the halls of the +15 downtown Calgary! Participants commented that they had a lot of fun answering our 5 questions about conflict in the workplace. Now, I wouldn’t say it was particularly scientific, b

When workplace conflict in the workplace remains unresolved where do employees turn?

Employees turn to co-workers even when their conflict remains unresolved.

ut see for yourself the answers!

Workplace Conflict resolution benefits from training.

Workers admit they could benefit from training in skills for managing conflict.

When there is conflict at work, productivity goes down when workers take days off.

Workers do use their vacation and sick days to avoid the stress of conflict at work.

There are many different styles for managing conflict.

When it comes to conflict, how we manage it is all over the map.

Time spent on conflict impacts the work atmosphere and productivity.

Time spent on conflict impacts the work atmosphere and productivity.

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Employees without choices will stay silent

The one-size-fits all template for harassment investigations no longer aligns with the growing respect of and desire for self-determination.  Employees would rather stay silent than come forward to be part of an investigation process and the fallout, as we have seen recently at the CBC and in the Houses of Parliament, can be acute.

In both of these highly publicized cases, complainants had few choices. Like many employees, they lack a safe environment and have few choices when it comes to reporting harassment. Is this typical? What resources are employers providing to their staff to help them work through their options when they are feeling victimized? How do current conflict management systems support respondents? Do they have the before, during and after support they need to go back to work if the investigation is unfounded?

Mediation can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues

Crucial Conversations. Difficult Conversations. Dreaded Conversations. Whatever we call them, there comes a time in the workplace when emotions run high and the going gets tough, and despite all the training and all the practice, conversations break down before they get to where they need to go. In the workplace, when it comes to issues around diversity, around mental health, illness and bereavement for example, emotions, fear of doing more harm, or fear of invading privacy and fear of lack of skills in dealing with the outcome may prevent the conversation from even beginning. Unfortunately, often in these situations, a crisis will ensue before a productive action step is taken.

My colleague Michelle Phaneuf and I collaborated with Morgan Craig-Broadwith of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Calgary Chapter) to demonstrate in front of a live audience a workplace mediation around a mental health issue.  In our simulated workplace environment, a Vice President has offered the opportunity to two vital workplace players to settle their differences with the help of a mediator. Performance has suffered, communication has broken down, rumours are circulating — in short the entire workplace is impacted by the behaviour of two key people.

Mount Royal University Continuing Studies videotaped the session, and we will post that when it is edited and polished.

Bratislava_window_by_C_Munroe

A mediator can help open the window and shed light on difficult issues, empowering people to reach a resolution before a crisis.

The audience asked some good questions.

When is it appropriate to call a mediator? In the workplace, it can be particularly helpful to call a mediator when poor or no communication between two people in an interdependent working relationship has an impact on others around them and work productivity.

How often is a mediation successful?  The earlier the intervention, the  more likely the success.  Mediation is most successful when the process is voluntary; when the participants have the skills and wherewithal to speak and advocate for themselves; and are well informed about their rights. Mediation can be  mandated by an employer, and still a mediator can invite people to participate.  In fact, when mandated into a room, people have an opportunity to save face with colleagues.

What role does the mediator have to hold people to account who choose not to participate? The mediator’s role is only to facilitate the process, and to ask the difficult questions, not to provide or suggest solutions. A combination of conflict coaching and mediation ensures that participants have the opportunity to explore all their options both inside and outside the mediation process.

What information from the mediation does the mediator share with their client? At a minimum, the mediator will share information about the process and the timing.  The mediator will discuss information to be shared with the participants, and together they will agree on wording and who, if anyone, will receive the information.

What is the benefit of having two mediators? Two mediators have a greater opportunity to work together to hear all concerns. It is particularly helpful to hire two facilitators when dealing with a group larger than two.

Listening Hygiene and Rituals

My job is to listen. When I am working it is probably the single most important part of my job.  People talk to me, and it is my job to hear them, and then to provide evidence that I hear them. This can be very freeing because people do not always want solutions or advice.  Active listening, often, is enough to help people gain clarity for good decisions.

Connected by Conversation

One day in June I was rushing to get out of the house to travel to Edmonton.  Tripping back and forth between car and office in a mad attempt to get organized, I was pulled up short when the phone rang. Ignore? Answer?  I chose to look more closely at the call display and noted positive sign of my offspring.  “Hello?” “Mom? I need to talk.”

First response (internal): Not now.  I have a long drive in front of me, and I am sure already that I will be late for that dinner, and I know I have forgotten something, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is…

The Second and more appropriate response required relying on my listening hygiene.

I have been testing a new theory recently. I have noticed a parallel between good sleep hygiene and what I will call listening hygiene.  For me sleep hygiene is about managing or executing on a daily basis a few key things at bed time:

  • external stimulation
  • internal stimulation
  • ritual

Listening hygiene is similar.  Listening Hygiene is developing and practicing routines and rituals which you can count on for self-managing internal and external stimulation, and for preparing yourself to listen.

Upon hearing my daughter’s voice, I slowly sat down in a chair and placed a free palm on my desk, carefully regulating my breathing as I did so. “What’s up?” As I focussed on my palm channeling thoughts into my desk, my voice became calm and moderated, and I began to set aside my proverbial shopping list. It is akin to counting to 10 when you are angry, exercising your brain’s cerebral cortex and allowing yourself to channel rational thoughts rather than emotional ones.

Effective listening hygiene, like sleep hygiene, requires self-awareness and practice. When you are listening effectively, it is all you are doing; it requires suspension of your agenda and total trust that the speaker is doing the best they can with what they know.

You need a routine and a ritual you can rely on even in times of stress.  As I heard my daughter say that she does not plan to return to school in September, it was only practice and awareness that saved me from jumping to judgement and unwarranted conclusions.  Good listening hygiene will work for you when you most need it, and your relationships will benefit.

 

When does it pay to be indirect?

Consider this list of words: prevaricate, pussyfoot, quibble, shirk, sneak. They resonate with negative connotations. They also all describe what you might call idiomatically “beating about the bush”, another phrase with a negative connotation.  We are acculturated in the western world to believe that the more assertive and direct we are the more effective and business-like we are. We are often rewarded for directness, sometimes indirectly by way of compliance.

When does it pay to be indirect?

We are culturally loaded. Our communication and conflict styles are influenced by our world view, or factors such as:

  • The environment (public/private and intimacy or familiarity)
  • The topic and our commitment to it
  • Our culture (upbringing, religion, sex, age, language, job, community, family environment)
  • Our speaking code
  • Our listening code

Our world view also wires how we speak and listen to each other, and dictates or influences our assumptions.  In our western world view we value the individual, and we value directness.

Indirect communication has a higher value in cultures which also place a higher value on community than the individual. As our communities become more diverse it is becoming increasingly important to question our assumptions and reactions to certain communication styles.

Your EQ will help you respond more effectively.  Consider yourself, the other, and the situation.  Emotional intelligence and self-awareness opens our eyes to how our cultural loading influences how we hear and respond. We can learn to adjust, though at times that adjustment will feel quite counterintuitive. For example it is difficult to practice an indirect gaze when speaking or listening, when we are used to a direct one. Change starts with questioning our assumptions about another’s speaking and listening habits.

Let’s talk about face-saving. In a culture which values direct communication, face-saving may be perceived as negative behaviour. What is it? When we recognize it is happening, how do we respond appropriately and effectively? For a start, let’s recognize that it is not necessarily a negative behaviour.

Face-saving may reveal itself in many different forms. Here is some typical behaviour, what might be behind it, and some tactics which will help to improve communication:

What you notice: quiet, withdrawn behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve privacy and reputation, and secure approval from you or from others.
What to do:

  • Offer your ideas.  “I am wondering if you have ever considered…”
  • Define the topic in neutral, business like terms, and maintain focus in the conversation on the topic.
  • Use positive language.

What you notice: defensive, protective behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to protect others in their community and their and the community’s reputation.
What to do:

  • Be inclusive of others.
  • Provide space and time to allow check-ins with other stakeholders.
  • Be patient.

What you notice: openly agreeable behaviour, compliance.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve peace, and maintain community.
What to do:

  • Build relationships. Take the time to get to know each other in relationship over meals, coffee.
  • Reinforce the value of open communication and transparency.
  • Gently confront discrepancies and apparent discontinuities. “I am confused. Can you help me understand…”

For further reading, check out this article by John Ng on mediation http://www.mediate.com/articles/the_four_faces_of_face.cfm#_ftn14, and articles/interviews by Stella Ting-Toomey http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/stingtoomey/index.htm.