The current political climate has exposed a higher level of conflict all around us. Heated arguments are not only happening in families; they’re also happening at work and among friends. When these conflicts arise, people choose the outright “go to war” method or the “bury my head in the sand” approach, both of which are destructive. All of this has gotten me thinking about better ways we can show up to these conflicts, and really all conflicts, so that we don’t let them weaken our relationships.
I love the Merriam Webster definition of conflict:
Competitive or opposing action of incompatibles: antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons) <a conflict of principles> b: mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands
So much of life is about mitigating the struggle that comes from opposing views. (And what are opposing views other than the results of our different experiences?) Think about how often in any given day you are negotiating, competing or dealing with the fact that you hold a different view from someone else. If you aren’t in direct conflict, then as a leader you are most likely mediating one. Conflict isn’t a bad thing if it’s negotiated well. But how do we make sure we handle conflict in a way that brings positive outcomes? The key is pretty simple, actually. It’s all in how you show up.
I’ve been thinking and writing about the idea of presence a lot lately, specifically the idea that being intentional about showing up in an authentic way to connect with others will strengthen our relationships and make an impact. Presence really matters when we’re in conflict. Coming to a conflict (whether you are a party within one or a mediator) armed with a strategy for intentional presence and continual engagement will turn the experience into a strengthening exercise for you and your team.
When Conflict Strikes
Think back to one of the countless times you showed up to mediate a conflict between two parties. It could be very easy in the moment to align with one party or be biased against both parties. (How many times have you shown up to a conversation thinking, “This is ridiculous; I can’t even believe we’re having this conversation”?) But when you’re present in a neutral way you can create meaningful compromise. Here’s what presence looks like in a mediator role:
You’re more open to innovation around solutions, outcomes or challenges.
You’re not holding tight to any preconceived notion.
You can more easily appreciate everyone’s position in a conflict.
You can relate to yourself in the midst of a similar situation or be empathetic.
Try thinking of your goal as simply: to be a peacemaker. Laying your obvious weapons and arguments down puts you in a position of deep strength. But sometimes we don’t think like that. Sometimes we think we need our arguments and rebuttals prepared. Laying them aside frees you up to be present, listen, and think critically about peacemaking.
A short story about presence and conflict…
Sometimes a conflict, even a political one, isn’t an argument or even a match between opposing views. There are degrees to conflict. It can be as simple as two parties with different perspectives, where distrust is present and that leads to poor communication and suspicion. In today’s contentious political climate, these sorts of situations can arise frequently. People may feel judged or suspicious of those whose motives they don’t understand.
Much like this country, my industry is a melting pot (I am President of a facility services company). Working alongside people of different backgrounds, cultures and languages is part of my team’s every day. Recently, a leader in another company came to me to ask advice on how to engage with his spanish-speaking team members around recent legislation regarding immigration. He told me that he started asking his co-workers how they felt about the proposed immigration ban, and they reacted suspiciously. He wanted me to help him come up with better ways to open up the dialogue and communicate without causing suspicion or distrust.
I told him that chances are he doesn’t engage this kind of conversation enough. That’s why the first time immigration was brought up, there wasn’t any trust built to make the conversation more comfortable. I suggested he continue the conversation, but try it over lunch rather than in the office while he is sitting behind his desk. I coached him with some openers that would indicate to his teammates that he wasn’t condemning them and didn’t have preconceived opinions, like “I don’t know what the right answers are” or “I am curious because I don’t personally have experience with this topic.” The idea is to set the tone for the conversation as one without judgment where it’s about simply exploring the topic together. Most of all, I urged my colleague to be mindful, intentional and present as he engaged the topic with his team.
Practical Tips to Be Present in Conflict
Before I go into any conflict, I always pause. I ask myself, “What’s the goal in this conversation?” It’s usually a very short list that almost always transcends the dialogue. Typically, it’s not about the specific outcome (think: I want Allison to understand Bob’s perspective or I want the customer to agree to the new negotiations). I focus on the goal that transcends the actual dialog or specific outcome and focus on a place where everyone in the conflict will end up. For example, the goal may be that the team realizes they can trust each other.
Here are some of the practical tips I’ve developed over time to prepare me to be present in conflicts while considering the larger goal without getting mired in the details or my own biases.
Find your key performance time. When are you at your best? If a tough conversation has to be had, plan your meeting around that time. For most of us, that’s not 5 pm on a Friday. When you choose your optimal time, you can be present physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually.
Choose a neutral meeting place. Usually I will meet with parties in a conflict in a place that allows us all to be more relaxed. I won’t ever have a conversation around conflict when I’m sitting behind my desk. Coffee shops can help to set everyone at ease and relax the conversation, but a neutral meeting room works well too.
Set realistic expectations. It’s not realistic to expect a conflict to be resolved in one meeting. I always present our discussions as a process that will require a number of meetings. A lot of times, we create an emergency about something that doesn’t really require urgency and those constraints contribute to the tension around the conflict. It can often takes years to build up a conflict, but yet we expect the result to happen quickly. A series of meetings and a fluid process will take the pressure off.
Dream big. Being realistic about timing and expectations doesn’t mean you can’t dream about big outcomes. Ask yourself and those involved in the conflict, “What’s the best case scenario of our discussion?” Start the meeting by getting people to dream about what their ideal outcome would be. So we start not from our differences but from our hopes. Often times it’s surprising to see that our big dreams for the outcome of a conflict are quite similar.
What kinds of conflicts have you encountered today? How did they go? Now, what kind of conflicts do you anticipate you’ll participate in tomorrow? Look at your calendar; I’m sure there will be one or two interactions that could be categorized as a “struggle resulting from incompatibleor opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.” I challenge you to take a deep breath, examine that conflict and come up with a plan for being truly, intentionally present within it.