Conflict Resolution – How Can I Change The Past Story?
My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the Director of Intact Academy. In the Intact Academy, we teach coaches and consultants to be innovative business coaches. In Agile Business Innovation, I help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. Check out our websites, we’ve got some interesting stuff up there.
We’re talking about conflicts and conflict resolution. I have talked about some of the main pointers to do and I talked about the ladder of conflict resolution. Now I’m talking about some of the things that I’ve learned over time that are important to me in conflict resolution. Two of the things I want to talk about is learning from difficult behaviors and to engage in problem resolution creatively.
Learning from difficult behaviors is important. As I said, last time, my opponents have taught me more than my friends. I bow to my opponents, and there have been a few in my life, thank you very much, I’ve learned a lot from you. Thinking from the earliest times to now, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about my way of dealing with problems. It’s strengthened my resolution to focus on what’s important in my life. That’s been an invaluable lesson. One of the things I’ve learned from this opposition, let’s call it that, is learning from difficult behaviors. There are three things I want to say about that.
If you define the problem as the person or the personality, you can never resolve a conflict. I remember vividly coming into a team coaching situation where everyone was fighting. I said, “What’s going on here?”. They said, “it’s our personalities. They’re so big. We have such big personalities that we can’t work together!”. I’m thinking, “Look, guys,”, because in this case it was four guys, “if you define it as a personality problem, your only solution is to fire yourself. What are you going to do? You can’t change someone else? You can change yourself but it’s going to take years. You’ve got a fantastic product. Why fight about personality, when you have a job to do together? Your shared purpose is to create innovation in the world so that we can, in this case, resolve the mobility problems of transportation.”. They had a fantastic idea about that, and they were wasting their time talking about personality. If we stayed in personality paradigms, it was unresolvable.
It’s interesting to talk about what unresolved conflict as a person you bring to the table, that influences the here and now way of working together. I had a great conversation with one of my colleagues yesterday talking about a project we did together. “What came up for you? What came up for me? Tell me, what did you see? What can we agree to do differently together in the future? What kind of stop word can we use to say that it is happening again?”. That strengthened our cooperation. Yesterday, in a conversation with my team, they were willing to talk about other things than personality. What appeared to be the problem was that they hadn’t defined their roles. As they hadn’t defined their roles, they kept clashing at a deeper level. We separated out the roles and it was much better.
The second thing about learning from difficult behaviors is, if you define the problem as the behavior, you must see how you are strengthening that behavior. I have a young puppy and I’ve learned a lot from puppy training about how to deal with conflict. One of the things the puppy trainer said to me is, every time you pay attention to a puppy when they do something bad, you’re going to reward it. You are the greatest thing in the puppy’s life. You are the one who walks them, who feeds them, cuddles them etc. Every time the puppy does something bad, distract or ignore. Often when we deal with conflicts in our relationships, or in our teams, we reward bad behavior. A manager is most probably spending more time with a person who behaves badly than with a person who behaves well. I would suggest that you stop spending so much time on the bad behavior. Focus on the people who are doing well. Create momentum for changing your teams. Create momentum for changing your relationship. Don’t keep focusing on the trash. Focus on the fact that someone does something that shows you they love you. If you focus on that, perhaps you will have less time to focus on the trash. How are you rewarding that bad behavior yourself? If you’re in a relationship, you can complain about how the other person is always fighting, but you are the one who is rewarding it. Think about that. How am I rewarding? Catch people doing things right. It’s a much more rewarding way to spend your time and your lifetime.
The other thing I want to say about learning from difficult behaviors is that every difficult behavior represents a question we haven’t asked yet. I think people repeat patterns from their past. Every time you enter a new relationship or a new team, you’re between hope and fear. You think, “this time, it’s going to be different.”, but you’re afraid it’s going to end up the same way. When we’re under stress, we replay things from the past, because that’s what we’ve learned. We learned it earliest. It’s the deepest, embedded learning we have. You learned it in a normal nonverbal state. It means that it’s usually unprocessed. When people are under stress, they access that limbic system of survival and they will repeat patterns from their past, often conflicts from their past that are unresolved.
When I see difficult behavior, I often think, what story are you luring me into? Am I willing to play a part in this or not? Usually, the answer is not. It’s important to understand the stories people are repeating, and what is the smallest thing you can do to change that story by being someone different than they expect. I had a client who kept coming too late and I have a rule about coming too late. You come too late; you don’t get to participate. This time, I thought, this is a symptom, not the problem. I wondered what it meant. I took that person separately, and I said, “what’s going on here? In everything else, you’re punctual except in the space where you could have a possibility to change. As a matter of fact, you’re always 10 minutes late. If you’re always 10 minutes too late, you could probably always be on time. What’s going on?”. They told me a story of their past in which they grew up with an absent mother, and a very dominant father. The only way they could find freedom was by managing their time, by secretly always being a little bit too late. They still had a feeling of agency, that they had something to say in their lives.
Obviously, as a child, you are dependent, it’s very difficult to find agency. Any little space where children find agency, I celebrate, it’s fantastic. I’m extremely happy about that. Instead of punishing the bad behavior, I said, “fantastic, please come later!”. I thought, how can I reward something that is actually healthy behavior? Behavior in which people can find their potency. I then explained to the group that the general rule is we must be on time, except for this person, they can come and go as they please. Lo and behold, from that day onward, they came on time, and started doing the real work. The work was around; How do I over adapt? How can I find freedom in any situation I am in? How can I belong and be free at the same time?
My wish for you is, anytime you feel you are in conflict, look at the behavior and if you think it’s difficult, think about not defining the person. Check if you’re rewarding the behavior and look at what the meaning of this is. What is the smallest thing you can do to change the story of their past in this conflict?