Posted on

Coaching for Conflict with Self-Awareness and Self-Management

The more I have learned about the emotionally intelligent leadership competencies, the more I am struck by how little most other conflict management trainings and literature focus on self-awareness and self-management.  Some models focus on social awareness, incorporating listening for other perspectives, but most focus almost exclusively on relationship management “moves” – i.e. how we interact productively with others in conflict.

In my experience, any approach not grounded in the self is not likely to succeed. The best conflict “moves” in the world won’t help me engage effectively in our conflict if I arrive feeling that I’m right, you intentionally hurt me, and that what I really want is “justice.”

Before we focus on strategies to manage conflict, we must raise critical self-awareness and build self-management so that we are able to bring our best selves to any relationships in our lives – personal or professional.  In my coaching of people in conflict, this rigorous self work begins with exploring the baggage and stories that might be getting in our own way.  Then it moves to self-management, exploring how we can manage our baggage and stories so that we can effectively communicate with others in conflict.

What baggage might be getting in your way?

As a leadership coach, my first goal is to help people see how their emotional reactions to conflict have triggered their “baggage’’, or the thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviors that limit their ability to effectively engage others.  This happens through asking a series of questions that include some combination of the following:

  • Tell me exactly when in this conflict you were first aware of having a strong negative emotion?
  • Tell me what emotions you were feeling? (follow up with probing questions and only accept answers that are actually emotions)
  • Exactly what happened that triggered these emotions?
  • When you were feeling these emotions, what thoughts were going through your head?
  • And so what did you do?
  • How do you think your actions served you, and how do you think they might have gotten in the way of resolving your conflict?
  • If you had to name what you really wanted to happen—your real goal—what would you say?

What stories might be getting in your way?

Once people are able to see their baggage more clearly, they are ready to consider how their stories—about other people involved and about what actually happened—may also need to be reconsidered.   My next goal, then, is to help them become aware of their negative stories, focusing mostly on the person or people on the other side of the conflict.  This work happens through the following questions:

  • When you were/are feeling the strong emotions you have named, what story are you telling yourself about the person/people on the other side of the conflict?
  • What evidence do you have that supports your story?
  • How does your story about this person or people serve you, and how does it get in your way of engaging effectively in this conflict?
  • What other stories might be true about this person/people and their emotions, values and behaviors?

How can you manage your baggage and stories?

Getting to awareness about our baggage and stories tends to be pretty enlightening for most people in conflict because we are least likely to be aware when we are feeling wronged by others.   Awareness alone, however, does not mean we are prepared to effectively engage with others in a conflict.  We also need to deliberately manage our baggage and stories in the moment.

To manage the baggage, I focus people on self-management strategies they can use at the moment they feel emotionally triggered.  Coaching for emotional self-management follows this line of questioning:

  • How can you manage the emotional triggers that are getting in your way right now?
  • What do you need to do for your true goal to be working through this conflict, and what can you do in the moment to hold onto this goal?

Helping people manage their stories is usually the highest impact self-management coaching for people in conflict.  We explore what they need to believe about the other person/group in the conflict to effectively engage them.  I help them build the emotional “muscle” of replacing negative stories with “noble” ones by engaging them in the following exercise:

  • Make a list of the real challenges this person is facing, and the emotions that feel related to this conflict. What can you genuinely empathize with?
  • Write a list of at least five aspects of the other’s noble story that you respect or value. These may include: values they hold; positive shared experiences; behaviors and actions that positively reflect on their character; their real strengths and past successes; the noble intentions that drive their actions

Without fail, after making this list people notice an immediate positive shift in their emotions connected to the other person/people with whom they are in conflict.  I charge them with reading their list before their next engagement and noticing how it impacts how they show up differently to the interaction.   People usually report that they are suddenly able to engage without the negative emotions they have been bringing up to this point, and they are able to listen with real curiosity to other people’s experiences and interpretations of the conflict. This, in turn, prevents escalation, and may even prevent future conflicts from coming up.

Conclusion

When we add rigorous self work to our conflict management coaching, we make it exponentially more likely that our people will effectively access the relationship management strategies they learn in most programs and literature in the field.   When we help people become aware of their emotions and the baggage and stories they trigger, they realize the extent to which they are working from assumptions without evidence.   They become motivated to manage their baggage and revise their stories about others involved in their conflict.

When you self manage effectively, two things happen.  First,  you show up able to listen with curiosity to other perspectives.  Second, you show up reflecting other people’s noble stories back to them.   When we reflect people’s noble stories—their best selves—to them, that’s typically how they will show up. If our goal is truly to resolve conflict, then shouldn’t we be inviting our best selves to the conversation?

Recommended Reading:
Conflict Management: A Primer

In Conflict Management: A Primer, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and colleagues introduce Emotional Intelligence and explore the many facets of approaching conflict management with skill and positivity.

In a relatively short read, the authors illustrate how to frame conflict as an opportunity rather than a burden, how to maintain bonds despite differing perspectives, and how to blend mindfulness and thoughtful analysis into professional relationships that work.

For more in-depth understanding of emotional and social intelligence in leadership, see the full primer collection or the Crucial Competence video series.

Posted on

Focus: Your Greatest Ally in Managing Conflict

Focus is an important skill for leaders.  Yet, it is extremely difficult to remain focused at times when emotions are high. For example, who hasn’t experienced feeling disregarded, discounted, dismissed, or just plain dissed by a boss or co-worker?  Even if no words are exchanged, emotions like anger and hurt flare up.  Whether the threat comes from a real or imagined interaction hardly matters. The primitive part of the brain developed specifically for survival reacts. Known as the amygdala, this almond-shape set of neurons plays a key role in the processing of emotions, especially fear responses.

Threats of any kind including feeling disregarded or discounted cause us to quickly lose focus. Yet, focus is our biggest ally when it comes to responding wisely to conflict. You may think of focus as directing your attention to one thing while filtering out other things. However, research shows that focus is more complex than that. In fact, we focus in different ways for different purposes. Each of these types of focus is critical when it comes to conflict management.

Different Types of Focus

The various types of focus fall into three broad categories. The first two—focusing on self and focusing on others—help you develop emotional intelligence. The third, focusing on the wider world, can improve your ability to devise strategy, innovate, and manage organizations. These ways of paying attention are vital to navigating individual and team interactions. Happily, you can become a more focused leader with the right kinds of practices[1].

Being able to train your attention inward on yourself is the first type of focus, and it’s at the heart of self-awareness.  In fact, it is considered a foundational practice for development of emotional intelligence. Inner focus helps you understand the weather patterns of your own mind, and choose how to respond in any given moment – especially amidst turbulence.

Focusing on others, the second type, correlates with empathy. The ability to consider another person’s point of view is a critical skill in all relationships. It is central to our ability to connect with others.

Global or systems thinking is the third type of focus. It is especially important in the development of social awareness. This requires deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from default mental habits in order to focus more broadly and with fresh eyes.

Focus in Action

Consider the story of a colleague. Jack presented his project to a group of senior executives and, when one of them dismissed his data as “all wrong,” he was flooded with anxiety.  His heart was racing, and his mind was playing out worse case scenarios… even imagining being kicked off the project.  Yet, he had enough practice in mindfully tuning into his thoughts, feelings and physical reactions, that he noticed the anxiety quickly. Crazy as it sounds, simply noticing his own anxiety lessened it.  He intentionally chose not to let fear of failure take over. Painful as it was, he leaned into his anxiety and stayed focused on the person challenging him. He asked for more information and agreed to revisit his data.

This wouldn’t have been the case just a year prior.  Indeed, Jack was prone to outbursts, especially when he felt someone was questioning his work.  His default was an expletive laden response.  His objective: overwhelm and overpower naysayers with verbal aggression.

An executive coach was brought in to work with his team because there was a lot of conflict. She was an aikido master, and a psychologist. The team completed Emotional and Social Competency 360’s and as you might imagine, Jack was described by peers as angry, unpleasant, and difficult to work with.  He didn’t deny it.  The coach’s question was simple: “How is that working for you?”  He concluded, not all that well.

With that realization, he set out a plan to deal with his anger. No easy task given he had a lifetime of practice in flying off the handle.  He would now be learning three new habits grounded in focus.

  1. Inner Focus: mindful awareness. He used a smart phone app for daily guided breath and body practices to strengthen concentration and awareness.
  2. Other Focus: He learned about interpersonal focus practices. This required intentionally listening with curiosity. He worked on taking in the perspective of others.
  3. Focus on the wider world or more open awareness. He learned there often wasn’t one right answer, especially given the complexity of his organization. He realized he didn’t need to always have the right answer, either. This freed him up to focus more broadly and as a result he became more creative and could think outside the box.

It took weeks of daily exercises along with personal reflection to build his ability to focus. However, he described seeing results within the first few weeks of initiating the plan.

Basically, he began to feel in control – like he had better options. He recognized he didn’t have to be at the mercy of his emotions.  Being able to direct his attention where he wanted it and keep it there despite difficult conversations or stressful projects was empowering. Even discovering that humans are wired for survival and that we need to override basic reactions to false threats was hugely eye opening for Jack – it became less personal and more about using all the tools he had at his disposal.

By making focus an ally, leaders can more gracefully navigate turmoil. No matter what the source of the turmoil, whether it is internal, like two competing priorities, or external such as a disagreement with a client or co-worker, it pays to be able to choose where to put your focus.  With practice, you can direct your attention for your own and others benefit.

Recommended Reading:
Conflict Management: A Primer

In Conflict Management: A Primer, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and colleagues introduce Emotional Intelligence and explore the many facets of approaching conflict management with skill and positivity.

In a relatively short read, the authors illustrate how to frame conflict as an opportunity rather than a burden, how to maintain bonds despite differing perspectives, and how to blend mindfulness and thoughtful analysis into professional relationships that work.

 

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Goleman, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, 2013; Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge, Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education, 2013.

Posted on

Engaging the Whole Person at Work

 

When we see ourselves and our co-workers only as tools to get the job done it is difficult to connect with one another as human beings. Connection is essential to building high performing and high functioning teams, not to mention to creating job fulfillment.

There is a story Max DePree shared in his book Leadership is An Art (1987), told by his father about visiting with the wife of the Millwright for the Herman Miller factory after her husband died. It was in the 1920’s and Max’s dad went to pay his respects to the Millwright’s wife. During his visit the Millwright’s wife asked his father if he’d mind if she read some poetry. He thought it would be appropriate and sat back to listen. As she read, the beauty of the poem resonated with him. He’d never heard this poetry before and asked who the poet was. She said it was her husband, the Millwright. The man who had been integral to the Herman Miller manufacturing processes, who provided the power for the machinery in his factory, dismantled machines and moved them around was a poet. This came as a surprise; he’d known the man but didn’t know he had this talent outside of work. It motivated him to see that leaders must, “endorse a concept of person”.

As I read this in the early ”˜90’s I realized that this lesson is bigger than the “concept of person” in a tops down view. It is about connection, learning about the people who work with you and sharing yourself with them. When you connect with the people who work with you, you discover other interests, talents, loves, and they in turn learn something about you.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make if you know the Millwright is a poet, the Accountant is a photographer, the HR Manager’s child is seriously ill or the Customer Service Specialist has just lost her mother?

Business is structured as a well-defined hierarchy that defines us by our titles and the roles we play within business, and our interactions are determined by these roles. The playing field is tilted in favor of the leadership, but should it be? By coming to understand more about ourselves and the people we work with, we can see that occasional missteps at work often result from a much larger context; a problem at home, the death of a beloved pet or some other distraction. They aren’t necessarily about lack of competence or skill, sloppiness or a bad attitude.

Without making excuses we understand that we all have days that are a challenge. “Endorsing the concept of person” builds team and team makes it possible to confront unexpected challenges in the day-to-day life of business, whether it’s shaky sales, disruption of production, strained cash flow, the loss of a well-liked co-worker or the acquisition of a new customer with compassion and understanding. We have jobs and roles within a company, but when we can connect not only through job and role but as fellow humans, we create an authentic engagement that fosters an environment in which human creativity and satisfaction grow and thrive. We form a sense of equality in an otherwise hierarchical unequal environment. The consistency with which we can cultivate these fleeting opportunities, over time builds a level of trust essential to a high functioning team. The challenge is that many believe that when a leader opens up they will be seen as weak or vulnerable. The opposite is true.

Here’s how this played out in my leadership experience

I worked with a smart and capable Engineering Manager who had a reputation as a tremendous problem solver, but he had started to become impatient with process and prone to angry tirades. He seemed to be seething inside. Many of his attacks were directed at individuals. My boss at the time wanted me to “get rid of him.” His behavior was undermining his position with the company and his credibility; people were starting to avoid him. What he lacked was Emotional Self-Control.

Instead of turning my feelings off and seeing him as the “problem” and firing him I sat down with him to talk about anger. Not only his, but mine. I shared some of my frustrations and how important it was to see them and be with them, but not project them out onto others. As we discussed the situation he began to explain what was behind his anger. He kept pointing at the things other people were doing, and I’d share more about my own anger and how my frustration was often rooted in not really understanding how to move the needle and effect change.

Finally I looked at him and said, “You know the anger has to stop. It doesn’t matter what provokes you, you can’t act out and mistreat other people on the team, no matter how frustrated you are. There are positive and constructive ways to address the issues that are frustrating you. You need to find them or ask for help. Do you understand?” He replied that he understood. We talked about the possibility of anger management counseling. He didn’t think he needed it. I told him that I valued him as a co-worker and friend but that if he had another angry outburst, I’d have to let him go, no second chances. As we continued to talk, I asked, “Do you want to stay here?” He said, “Yes. I like it here, I want to stay.” I followed with,  “Do you think you can do this?’ His response,  “Yes, I know I can.”

The problem was now entirely within his control. I knew some of the difficulties he was dealing with outside of the workplace, and understood that having control would likely result in a better outcome. Through our connection and sharing, he knew that I’d had similar challenges in my work life, and others had as well. It wasn’t having the feelings that were the problem it was what he did with them. At this point, he began to problem-solve for himself. He identified his triggers and ways he could address them.  He looked at me and said, “Thanks, I think I need to apologize to a few folks.” He kept his job, and worked better with others from that point on.

By being authentic and curious about his issues, sharing my own, and not taking the easy route of simply replacing him, we built a connection together that made it possible to discuss the issue not just as a boss and employee, but as two human beings. By “endorsing the concept of person”, we created a moment of equality and authentic connection that helped him move from being a victim to understanding the impact his behavior was having on the organization and the need for him to take responsibility. This is leading with emotional intelligence.

Recommended Reading:

Emotional Self-Control: A Primer

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now:

Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability,  Achievement Orientation, and Positive Outlook.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series!