Normally, at our annual all-staff meeting, we keep things positive and upbeat. We share good news, celebrate achievements, announce pay hikes; we remind everyone how important what we do is; we rouse the troops and spur ourselves on to greater heights. We consciously avoid anything too deep or heavy.
But this year, we had not one, but two serious sessions. On the first day, we talked about Conflict Resolution. And on the second: Domestic Violence. Conflict Resolution felt important but safe. Domestic Violence felt difficult and so risky, in fact, that we kept trying to convince ourselves we shouldn’t bring it up at all. Yet as it turns out, the two are so interlinked they practically cry out to be handled together: apply the principles of conflict resolution well and domestic violence disappears.
Our Conflict Resolution Policy – which we introduced at the all-staff meeting – is actually revolutionary. If we all followed it – in our marriages, with our kids, with our friends, in our neighborhoods – we would soon be candidates for sainthood. It’s that comprehensive, that amazing. That simple. Because resolving conflict isn’t complicated. With genuine respect and a mutual commitment to sort a problem out, most things can be resolved. It’s hard work, but it’s not complicated.
It starts like this: Acknowledge the problem.
How many of us prefer the ostrich approach to difficulties in a relationship? Head firmly in the sand, we pretend that nothing is wrong, while actually we’re seething.
SEETHING. What a word. What a concept. Inside, boiling resentment and injured pride; outside, so cool it feels like an ice storm (that’s called a Cold War). Our policy says: No Cold Wars. If you’ve got a problem, name it.
Then remember: Dialogue is not debate.
The point of resolving a conflict is to resolve the conflict. It’s not to fight your corner, win over the enemy or convince the other person that you were right all along. So take off your boxing gloves. Forget the debating club. This here is something different. We really want to sort out the problem, not win the war.
Remember (remember!) that the other person comes to the discussion with the exact same (the exact same!) certainties and feelings as you do. You expect and deserve the benefit of any doubt. They do too.
An Open Mind. Assume that you have something to learn from this experience. No conflict is ever one-sided. There are always two, if not three, ways of looking at an idea. Come to the discussion with a mind open to hearing what the other person has to say. Really open!
And finally: Be fair and remember your sense of humor. As seriously as we take all our disagreements and fallings-out, in the big scheme of things, they are actually pretty small. They are minor players. We really don’t need to get so riled up. Smile. Laugh. In the end, we are all just people. We all go to bed every night. We all put our pants (or salwars) on one leg at a time. Relax.
Ooops! One more thing! NO GOSSIP.
Gossip is like poison if sorting out a problem is your objective. The moment a disagreement between two people becomes the subject of tea-time discussion and lunch-time debate, with whispers, insinuations and assumptions thrown in for good measure, conflict resolution gets tossed out the window. We all love gossip. It’s human nature. But when it involves a disagreement between co-workers, it’s counter-productive, dangerous and a menace. Ban it. So that’s the philosophy. That’s the ground on which we stand when we approach a conflict. But we need to remind ourselves of the rules all the time. And we need nuts and bolts to make it work.
So here they are:
You are encouraged and expected to solve problems on your own, creatively and respectfully. Should a conflict arise, first try talking openly, honestly, and respectfully about the issue in private with the person whom you have a disagreement with.
Avoid “You” statements.
Didi, look at what you’re doing! How many times have I told you not to pull kids by the wrist? Can’t you remember anything? You’ll never learn. I give up.
Try this instead:
I felt upset and concerned When I saw you pulling a child along by the wrist this morning Because we’ve all agreed that we will hold children by the hand and walk with them as friends. I would like you to remember that this is how we do things here – it’s part of our philosophy and it makes children feel happier and more secure.
Here’s another example:
You always criticise me in front of everyone! You make me feel like a fool in front of the children and the other staff. Why can’t you speak to me later when no one else is around?
Try it this way instead:
I feel upset and hurt When I am criticised and scolded in public. Because I’m doing my best and I’m trying to learn. I would like you to speak with me privately if I’ve done something you think is incorrect – that way I can understand how you want me to do it differently.
It’s not easy and it doesn’t always work:
If you can’t resolve the problem on your own after really trying hard, you can ask your immediate supervisor for help. The supervisor will then advise you on how to manage the conflict and may address the problem with the other person involved also present. If the conflict is with your supervisor, please speak with another member of Senior Staff.
It goes on and on and on . . .
And it’s not surprising, given that we are all human and we all make mistakes and we all have conflicts with each other at one time or another.
But there are ways to deal with conflict which leave us all wiser and richer and better able to handle the next one (and there will be a next one).
Because these are our choices: We acknowledge that conflict exists and we deal with it creatively, respectfully, lovingly, designing strategies and solutions that work for all those involved OR . . . We resist its existence and deny its challenge and refuse to change or grow in any way.
The first approach leads to peace, calm and a realistic view of ourselves as one small part of a whole gang of other people just like ourselves – struggling, trying our best, making our way in a difficult world. The second approach leads to arrogance, heels dug-in and a lifetime of bared teeth and raised hackles.
Always being right is exhausting! I am on the side of compromise and mutual understanding. I believe in listening. I think it can change the world.