I’m going to tell you a secret.
I hate conflict. Hate it. Hate hate double-hate LOATHE ENTIRELY. It makes me deeply uncomfortable. It took me many years to figure this out - and even more to understand why.
I am an only child of only children who never fought. Yes, I had a great childhood and family. However, my parents always took arguments offline. They probably thought they were protecting me and I admire that. The downside is I never saw adults manage and resolve conflict. Add in the lack of siblings and I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to argue like a human in real time. No one was challenging me for my parent’s attention or forcing a negotiation for Gameboy time.
The result is I never formed a relationship to conflict management and resolution. In fact, it wasn’t until my 30s that I understood conflict comes in many forms. I may be late to the party, but at least I showed up.
I say all of this to underscore what I will share with you next.
“The dinner table is your first board room experience,” says Nancy Schreiber, a business psychologist and the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. “Family is complex. It teaches you how to argue and how to negotiate. Only children don’t reap the benefits of multi-child families where there are a lot of opinions to negotiate and navigate.”
I had to learn conflict management and resolution in real time -on my co-workers - as an adult. (GASP.) This would explain all of those not-great moments in my career - the very ones I would proudly take a mulligan for given the opportunity.
The U.S. is seeing the largest numbers of only children since the Great Depression. We are the birth order on the steepest ascent, which means any sibling currently in management will very likely oversee more only children in coming years. And many more only children will rise to management of and among those with siblings.
As part of my mission to foster a more emotionally intelligent workforce, especially among early- and mid-careerists, I want to share what I’ve learned about conflict management and how it changed the way I mitigate tension inside and outside of work.
It all comes down to perfecting the art of the “courageous conversation.”
What is a “courageous conversation?”
Schreiber describes a “courageous conversation” as having high stakes, being emotionally charged about issues that matter, and involving the perspectives of more than one person. They are not peer reviews or 360 evaluations. They’re more of a triage tactic to improve an issue before it becomes catastrophic.
In her experience, and in mine, courageous conversations are the essence of conflict management - and are the most effective way to avoid conflict escalation. No workplace will be conflict free, but it is possible to create a non-judgmental, emotionally intelligent environment that allows for hard conversations in a respectful way.
These are the four elements of a courageous conversation.
1. They must come from a place of compassion.
No one will have a courageous conversation if they don’t care about keeping that person around.
The very notion of a courageous conversation suggests you care enough to endure some discomfort in order to experience an improvement.
Not to suggest that the person in question should feel #blessed, but making the request from a compassionate place - and then having the conversation itself with compassion - infers there is a dynamic and a role worth preserving.
2. They require permission.
“It is impossible to have a courageous conversation if the other person does not buy into it,” says Schreiber.
If you spring the “we need to talk” moment on someone, you’ve already failed. The element of surprise puts the other person on the defense, and it doesn’t allow for mutual participation.
If they don’t engage, take a beat and try again at another time, and position it differently. If they fail to ever engage, perhaps that person is not a good fit for your workplace - or they should be in a contained position requiring little collaboration.
Schreiber offered the following example of how to ask for a courageous conversation:
"I care deeply about your success and well-being. I’ve noticed some things that might be holding you back from maximizing your time here. If you would be open to it, I’d like to share my observations with you and work with you to find solutions. I realize some of it might be hard to hear, so I’ll do my best to be honest, yet respectful. Are you open to exploring this conversation with me?"
3. They require foresight
Plan ahead by engineering the set-up and the flow of conversation.
While you have a specific agenda and expected outcomes, the other person hasn’t had time to prepare. Give them some space to steel their nerves and show up for you and the conversation. Once they've agreed to the conversation, make a plan to meet 15 minutes later - or at another agreed upon time - in an offsite, neutral location, if possible.
Schreiber also recommends planning physical positioning and body language. Create a neutral and even playing field as much as possible. Sit across from each other, squared off and eye to eye. This avoids feelings of “looming aggression” if one person is sitting higher than the other and physically talking down.
Do your best to sit with your hands in a neutral position, in your lap - or maybe on a coffee mug - so you don’t unintentionally cross your arms across your body and close yourself off. Non-verbal cues - when they show up poorly - could easily derail an entire courageous conversation.
An organic approach creates a safer space for engagement and ownership of the outcomes. Engineer the conversation using these steps:
- Soften the blow by leading with an example of a courageous conversation a past boss had with you.
- Know what points you need to make - and the results you need to collaborate toward - in such a way that you’ve internalized them. Don’t use them as a check list.
- Speak kindly, but firmly.
- Give examples.
- Ask questions to encourage their participation.
- Invite solutions.
- Instill a sense of pride and ownership for what’s to come by reiterating how much courage it takes to show up for the conversation.
- Agree on changes in behavior or next steps.
- Ask how you can continue to support them.
- Check in with them to see how they are feeling, and thank them for their time and participation.
- Finally, calendar a follow-up meeting.
Which brings me to my last point.
4. They are not a one-time conversation.
Courageous conversations do not happen in a vacuum, and they require more than one meeting to guarantee changes.
“These conversations demand intentional follow-through,” says Schreiber. “It is not an activity, it’s a process. And the first one is always the hardest. As the initiator, if you can accept that to be true, it helps you better position them to the person in question and keep the lines of communication open.”
Emotionally intelligent workplaces see lower turnover and better conflict management through strategic, courageous conversations - not confrontations. They're like social heirlooms, passed from effective bosses through direct reports who then use them when they reach management. What will be your legacy?
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