Conflict can be constructive

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in working with people.

Conflict can range from mild disagreement to violent confrontation, and, especially in its stronger forms, can be extremely destructive. However, it would be a significant mistake not to recognize that, in the right circumstances and if handled skilfully and confidently, conflict can actually be constructive. This is because carefully controlled conflict can spur innovation, free people up from tramline thinking, generate considerable learning, provide opportunities for people who have previously been at loggerheads with one another to respect one another, allow us to see situations from new perspectives and so on. Conflict can be understood to be like fire. If it is controlled and handled carefully, it can be very productive and helpful, but if allowed to go unchecked, can be enormously destructive, raging out of control and drawing in a wide range of people who get harmed in the process. Developing the skills of handling conflict effectively is therefore a very important basis for best practice in working with people.

Find the right pace

When it comes to working with people and their problems get the pace right is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, but do it we must. That is because if we are going to slowly we may miss opportunities to move forward – for example, ‘missing the boat’ when someone is in crisis and motivated to make important changes. If we move too swiftly, we may create (or exacerbate) insecurity and anxiety and thereby hamper progress in terms of whatever need we are trying to meet or problem we are trying to solve. So, how do we judge what is the best pace? There is no hard and fast rule but mainly it comes from looking closely at the situation, gauging reactions to our input and picking up the clues about how comfortable or otherwise the person(s) involved appear to be. Difficult though this may be, it gets easier with experience provided that we stay tuned in to the need to consider pace as an important feature of our work.

 

Customer Care: Getting it right

We don’t get a second chance when it comes to first impressions, and yet sadly many organizations pay relatively little attention to how people are greeted when they have their first contact with the organization concerned. If we want to make a positive difference, then it is important that we get off to a good start by giving a positive, welcoming message, letting people know that they are valued and respected. Much of ‘customer care’ is basic communication skills, but there can sometimes be additional challenges involved (for example, where someone is irate or threatening). Of course, however difficult such situations may be, we need to remain focused and respectful – even if we feel very uncomfortable. This will help to make sure that, after the person concerned has calmed down, they will appreciate how well they were treated. If, on the contrary, we allow the tensions involved to prevent us from being helpful and supportive, we can be creating significant difficulties for ourselves (and/or our colleagues) further down the road if the message we are giving out is that resolving our own discomfort is more important than providing genuine customer care.

There’s no need to shout

Stereotyping can be seen as a very real danger when you consider how often we are fed inaccurate, distorted and oversimplified stereotypes by the media. There is therefore a very strong need to be ‘stereotype aware’ and try to makes sure as far as possible that we do not allow ourselves to be influenced by them. One such stereotype that I have come across time and time again is the assumption that certain people are likely to be hard of hearing and that it is therefore necessary to shout. Older people are a prime target for this type of stereotyping, but disabled people are not immune to it either. While the incidence of hearing loss is indeed greater in the older population than in the general population, this is far removed from assuming that all older (or disabled) people have a degree of hearing loss. It is easy enough to adjust our volume if we need to, and so there is no need to shout as a general rule, as that just reinforces stereotypes and can be intimidating. But, such is the prevalence of stereotypical thinking that very many people resort to raising their voice without even realising that they are doing so.

Dadirri listening

Listening, of course, is more than just hearing. It is about paying attention to someone in a way that creates a genuine human connection. Sometimes that connection is enough to enable the person concerned to feel stronger, more confident and better supported in dealing with their difficulties. Listening is an important first step in terms of exploring potential solutions, but at times listening is enough on its own to find the strength to move forward positively. ‘Dadirri’ is a concept drawn from Australian aboriginal culture which refers to the type of listening that creates that all-important bond, listening that gives a strong and genuine message that we are concerned and that we are here to help without judgement. It could be described as listening with our heart rather than just with our ears. When you have been on the receiving end of such listening you will know about it, as you will feel the positive, empowering effects of it. Learning how to develop dadirri listening is therefore an important step forward for us to take.

 

You don’t know how I feel

Many people confuse sympathy (sharing the same feelings as someone else) and empathy (being able to recognize someone else’s feelings and being able to respond appropriately, but without necessarily having those feelings ourselves), while others settle for apathy, in a state of semi-burnout. But clearly empathy is what we need to aim for: being able to be supportive of others who are wrestling with emotional issues, but without facing the same emotional challenges ourselves. However, what is very clear is that this is not simply a matter of saying: ‘I know how you feel’. This is a very unhelpful and potentially quite counterproductive way to respond, partly because: (i) we do not know how someone else feels (for example, if I am helping someone who has just lost their father, the fact that I have lost my father does not mean that I know how they feel, as our respective experiences of losing a father may have evoked very different feelings); and (ii) making such a comment means we are focusing on our own feelings rather than those of the person we are trying to help.

 

Tolerate silence

In working with people emotions are never very far away. Being able to tune in to other people’s emotions, to be aware of our own and get the balance of head and heart right is often referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’. A key part of this is being able to tolerate silences. When someone is distressed or otherwise in the grip of strong emotions, they may fall silent, and that silence can feel very uncomfortable for us. We can be very tempted to jump in and ask a question or just fill the gap in some way. Understandable though this may be, it can be quite problematic because we are, in effect, giving the person concerned the message that dealing with our own discomfort is more important than giving them the emotional space they need. If we are able to resist the temptation of filling the silence we give the much more positive and supportive message that we are there for them, that they are not facing their difficulties unsupported. And what an important message that can be.

Silence does not equal consent

This is a mistake I made many times early in my career: making a suggestion or proposal, having no one object to it and then assuming that the lack of explicit objection constituted agreement to what I had put forward. I then had the unpleasant experience of watching my plans fall apart as people did not cooperate with them or play their part in moving things forward – or even, on some occasions, actively sabotaged what I was trying to do. It only slowly became apparent to me that they were never really ‘on board’ in terms of what I had proposed but, for whatever reason, had chosen not to voice their disagreement. So, there is a very important lesson in this: we cannot assume that silence equals consent. A lack of explicit disagreement is not the same as agreement. So, if we are relying on others to bring our plans to fruition, we need to make the effort to ensure that they are genuinely in agreement and make it clear that if they are not, they should say so.

 

 

 

Who is being awkward?

It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves in situations where we are wondering: ‘Why is so and so being so awkward?’. In such circumstances we tend to focus on their behaviour or attitude, but this can be misleading. That is because the chances are that, while we are thinking they are being awkward, they are probably thinking we are being awkward. So, what can often happen is that a situation that is rooted in a conflict between two parties is not recognized as such by either of them, each putting the difficulties down to the other’s ‘awkward’ behaviour. While some people are often uncooperative for their own reasons, in the majority of cases believing that someone is being awkward should alert us to a conflict situation which should be addressed as such – that is, we need to look at the situation in terms of the interactions between us (and any conflicts of interest, perspective, goals or values that might be underpinning them) and not simply in terms of the other person’s behaviour.

 

Head and heart work at different speeds

From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are find it difficult to comprehend what has happened – times of loss, crisis or sudden change, for example. It is as if our head knows, but our heart hasn’t caught up, and so ‘it doesn’t seem real’ can be a thought that runs through our mind. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about in itself. However, we need to be wary of two potential problems. One is that, when we find ourselves in such a situation, we may make decisions that we later regret because we have been destabilized by the change that has occurred. For example, some people can respond quite rashly in situations where they are confused about what is happening. Second, if we are trying to help somebody who is in a ‘heart hasn’t caught up with head’ situation, we have to bear in mind that they may not be taking on board what we are saying to them because of the sense of emotional shock they are experiencing. We therefore have to choose our moments carefully in working with someone in such circumstances.