There is a common misperception of conflict. It tends to be assumed that everyday reality is basically harmonious and conflict is an exception – conflict ‘breaks out’ to shatter the normality of harmony. However, we don’t need to pay much close attention to what actually happens to realize that, in fact, conflict is an everyday occurrence. Day-to-day reality is a mixture of harmony and conflict. We learn basic conflict management skills as we grow up, and so we have a good foundation on which to build so that we can take our skills to a more advanced level and become more confident and competent in dealing with those situations in which conflict starts to escalate. Continuing to see conflict as somehow abnormal leaves us ill-equipped to rise to some of the more challenging aspects of conflict.
Are you looking for a solution without really knowing what the problem is? Very often we can find ourselves in a pressurized situation where there is a strong sense that ‘something must be done’. If we are not careful that pressure can lead us to trying out solutions without really knowing what the problem is. Sometimes we will get lucky and we will be able to resolve the situation purely by chance, in the sense that our ill-defined ‘solutions’ just happen to address our ill-defined problems. However, what is much more likely is that we will make little progress by being so unfocused and may, at times, actually make the situation worse. So, it’s important that we spend some time and effort in trying to define what the problem is before we try and come up with ways of dealing with it. This is an important aspect of reflective practice.
When we need to make changes in our lives we can sometimes find it difficult to motivate ourselves. This is often because we tend to focus on what we need to do to achieve the desired change rather than on the change itself. For example, if you want to lose weight, focusing on eating less and/or exercising may seem like a bind, something you are reluctant to engage in. However, if you focus on weight loss and the benefits it would bring, you are far more likely to feel motivated to make the changes. This may seem simple, obvious even, but that doesn’t alter the fact that so many people continue to focus on means rather than the ends and thereby demotivate themselves. The same logic applies to not only motivating ourselves but also to helping others to motivate themselves.
We get so used to seeing the world from our own point of view that it is easy to forget that how other people see it can be very different. For example, what is routine and straightforward to you can be quite scary and unsettling to someone else who does not have the experience of that type of situation that you have. So, it is important at all times to remember that other people are not inside your head with you – we need to be careful not to be ‘egocentric’ by assuming that our ‘take’ on the situation is the only way to see it. The idea of perspective taking is that of putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes as far as possible. This can come from a mixture of imagining how they might be feeling and actually checking out with them what their perspective is.
If you are not successful at an interview or a promotion panel you may feel so disappointed that you just want to put it behind you. You may feel too ‘raw’ to ask for constructive feedback, but it is well worth getting past this as that feedback could be extremely helpful in giving you guidance on how to learn from the experience and improve for next time. Without that guidance you may be making the same mistake next time and the time after that, which could be very destructive of your confidence and self-esteem. Learning from feedback is an important part of continuous professional development.
Sometimes the difficulties we face in organizations can seem so deep rooted and so extensive that we can feel there is nothing that can be done about them. A pervasive sense of defeatism and hopelessness can easily set in. This is especially the case where morale is low. The result can be a vicious circle: defeatism contributes to low morale and low morale makes people feel helpless. In reality there is often much that individuals can do – especially when working collectively – to make a positive difference. Organisational cultures – whether positive or negative – are basically sets of habits, and habits can be changed. Start to explore possibilities rather than assume that there aren’t any.
Many a problem has been caused by someone putting something in writing in a way that led to misunderstanding. What you intended to convey and what is interpreted by the reader can sometimes be very different indeed. For example, what you intended to be friendly advice could be perceived as issuing instructions. These mismatches arise because communication does not take place in a vacuum. When you write something you will be doing so within a context of your own circumstances and your own frameworks of meaning. The person reading what you have written will be doing so within their own context and their own frameworks of meaning, and so there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding. What can be helpful is this: if you are writing a letter or report, imagine you are the intended recipient and have just opened and read it. That is, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. Are you sure, when you look at it from this perspective, that what you have written will convey what you wanted it to?
It can feel really good to be comfortable, to be out of danger, with no significant hassles at that particular time. So, it can be very appealing to enter what is often called the ‘comfort zone’. But, ironically, there are dangers involved in getting too comfortable, in being too keen to stay in that warm and cosy place. It can stop us learning; discourage us from being imaginative and creative and thereby block innovation; and at times it can also make us complacent. So, rather than get too used to our comfort zone, perhaps we should think of it as somewhere we return to as a safe haven after we have allowed ourselves to go beyond it and be a bit more adventurous in our dealings with the world. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you and comfort is something that can come under that heading too. If we never venture beyond our comfort zone, it becomes a cage rather than a home.
Values are, of course, a key factor when it comes to working with people. Values shape our (and other people’s) thoughts, feelings and actions. However, we have to be careful not to oversimplify the situation in relation to values; we should not allow them to become fixed and rigid and dogmatically apply them across the board when perhaps a more nuanced approach is called for. For example, there can be clashed between different sets of values that can be difficult to reconcile. Critically reflective practice means that we need to have a flexible approach to our knowledge base – and much the same can be said to apply to our value base. At one unhelpful extreme we have a lack of integrity by which I mean a significant gap between espoused values and actual actions taken. But at the other extreme we can have a dogmatic approach to values that does not do justice to the complexities involved. Critically reflective practice helps us to find the healthy balance between the two.
In many aspects of the people professions we are called upon to assess situations, weigh them up as part of making a decision as to how to deal with them. This is skilful work that can be helped by having a good working knowledge base around people (about motivation, for example). But what is not helpful is the tendency to rely on untested assumptions. At one extreme, this can amount to relying on stereotypes, crude caricatures that present a heavily distorted picture. But we can also encounter more subtle distortions, mainly based on the assumption that other people see the world the way we do. For example, something we see as simple and straightforward may be quite scary and disconcerting to someone else. It is therefore important that we make the effort to develop a more holistic picture, taking account of other people’s perspectives and checking things out where necessary rather than taking things for granted and potentially producing an inaccurate and unhelpful picture of the situation.