In Brene Brown's short animated video about what empathy looks like in action, the "helpful" giraffe is consistently offering the "positives" to help counteract the sadness being expressed by the fox. The fox says that "he's getting a divorce". The giraffe responds, "at least you are married.". Not helpful and not empathetic.
When I came across an article in The Guardian online titled "Don't Insist on Being Positive -- Allowing Negative Emotions Has Much to Teach Us" (by Whitney Goodman), it resonated with me. As a mediator, I've noticed that when people in conflict start to get upset, mad, even heatedly passionate, they are being real and true to what they are feeling. While we want to create a respectful place for constructive conversations that build understanding and resolution, sometimes we need to express the real negative crap we are dealing with. It can be uncomfortable for everyone, including the person expressing the negative emotions, but it is also powerful in creating a path forward that honors truly what the needs are of the individual. When somebody is in pain and feeling negative emotions, such as a loss of a marriage, an empathic response is to just be there with that person, to let them know you are there and will remain there even during this discomfort.
The article references "toxic positivity" which has us programmed to believe that optimism is always best. A parallel in the conflict management world is avoidance and accommodation style of conflict responses. Accommodators are viewed as "yes" people who agree with others. Sometimes they are overly optimistic in their thinking that they will go along to get along. Many accommodators are often disappointed and surprised when no one ever actually shows concern or interest in what their needs and solutions are. This false sense of optimism leads accommodators to resentment and sabotage when others neglect to show empathy and interest in them.
The article further talks about how negative emotions are helpful. "Sadness" can be a "problem-solving emotion". How? "Sadness improves attention to detail, increases perseverance, promotes generosity and make us more grateful for what we've got." Further,"It's the emotion that helps us connect to others."
The challenge for us is that we have not been taught to effectively manage conflict and negative emotions. It feels unfamiliar and unsafe.
I attended a Trauma Informed mediation workshop at the 2023 ACR Conference. Mediators are learning both the value and need to lean in to negative emotions, recognizing that many of these feelings come from trauma that we carry. Creating a safe and trusting relationship with a conflict resolution professional, whether a mediator, facilitator or coach, is critical and includes holding space for negative emotions. As a mediator, I am actively building my own understanding of my relationship with negative emotions and trauma. My role is to be neutral and unbiased, but I am a human and find deep value in connecting empathically and humbly with my clients.
What's your relationship with negative emotions? How do they appear and how do they prevent you from fully experiencing empathy and resolution?
Brene Brown's Empathy Video
The words matter. A common source of conflict is when actions do not correlate with said words. It’s human nature to want to trust others and believe that the words expressed will also match the actions of the individual. Once trust has been broken, the words lose value, and we start looking for meaning in the actions.
A high percentage of the workplace conflicts I mediate could have been mitigated if the employee’s supervisor had listened, been curious and paid attention to the actions. When an employee brings forth an interpersonal issue with another, the employee is probably asking for help and giving you some information. For example, Mary reported to her supervisor Frances that she is “uncomfortable working with Jo”; Mary’s words were factual to her. Frances followed up by asking Jo if there were any issues with Mary. Jo said “no”. Frances forgot about Mary’s words. A few weeks later, Mary has filed a discrimination complaint against Jo. Mary didn’t feel heard, the situation was not attended to, and she took action.
Words can create conflict when the actions do not match. When an employee expresses an issue with another, listen with an unbiased lens, be curious, and make a point to observe the actions of both employees. Being transparent with employees about the actions you are taking based on the words you have heard, builds your credibility as a conflict competent leader, and demonstrates empathy. If you don’t feel like you have the time, evaluate the cost to the organization if it escalates to an EEO complaint, the loss of productivity or the employee.
The words do matter, but the actions speak louder and demonstrate true intent.
A colleague shared an article on LinkedIn about Ryan Reynolds and what skill he credits to his successes. Say no more....you have my attention! Ryan Reynolds has accomplished much in his life and career. From how he laughs at himself and the industry in Deadpool, to marrying the beautiful Blake Lively, making gin in Portland (Aviation), or co-owning a football team in Wales, the guy is amazing and enjoyable to watch.
He credits his success on a course he took (on a whim) back in his 20's. He believes that the skills taught in this course are responsible for the success he has had in his life. The skill he learned? Conflict management. He recognized the value of trying to understand another instead of always trying to win or beat them. He has been able to develop empathy and compassion as he created space for differences.
In the documentary, Welcome to Wrexham, you can see this skill in action as he collaborates with his partners and gets to know the footballers and the passionate supporters in the small community. He takes time to listen, ask questions, show genuine interest and concern. He also demonstrates collaboration, trust and a true interest in building success with all stakeholders.
Just another reason for me to appreciate Ryan Reynolds...
For the article, link here.
An article about toxic relationships just flashed across my feed (algorithms!!). To me, the term "toxic" categorizes someone who is difficult and best avoided, but not dismissed. Someone who you find difficult but maybe not in all situations. According to the article from the Atlantic, "toxic" is used to dismiss people when they do something that offends or expresses a strong emotion towards another. It shuts down any responsibility of the "victim" in recognizing their role and how they can be a part of the solution. It can create a huge divide that can damage families, roommates, neighbors and intimate relationships. According to the article, we are seeing "toxic" in social media and in personal relationships. When someone is labeled as "toxic", they can become an outcast.
While there are toxic relationships and toxic individuals, placing a label of "toxic" can potentially escalate a situation. And when we label others ("smarter", "dumber", "late", "fat", "skinny", etc.), we create a bias about how we see the other and how we project to others. Instead of using "toxic", be descriptive; describe the behavior that is creating conflict for you. "I get annoyed when you interrupt a conversation to talk about yourself because I never get to finish collecting the information that I needed. I would appreciate it if you would wait until I'm done having the conversation before you interject."
Be careful about labels and be aware of when we are using terms, such as "toxic" and the bias you are expressing. Check in with yourself to make sure that you aren't avoiding addressing an issue and escalating a conflict simply based on your own thoughts and behavior.
This blog is about reflections and frankly, I'm fatigued. Well, maybe stressed is more descriptive. 2020 was a difficult year, a frightening year, one of loss and uncertainty. At the end of 2020, we thought we could just write off the year and start fresh with 2021. I don't know about you, but 2021 has pretty much sucked. Yes, we have a vaccine. Yes, we know what to do to stop the spread of an aggressive virus. Yes, we know we need to be kinder, more inclusive and more aware. And yet we are still debating merits of mask wearing and vaccines. "My body, my choice" is a popular phrase. (Of course if you are a pregnant woman in Texas, you are an exception to this phrase.) Armchair "scientists" seem to know more than the actual scientists. Politicians have become experts on disease prevention. And the efforts to address systemic racism tend to be alienating the very majority that truly has the power to make the changes and address the underlying symptoms that are the very foundation of this country. It's just sad and I could go on and on, but why further fatigue and stress out myself and you.
Communities are divided. Families are divided. And guess what?? Holidays are just around the corner! Let's just keep piling on the stress factors!!
So how do we navigate this holiday season with our family and friends? The conventional wisdom is to avoid difficult conversations in the interest of keeping the peace. To support the growing movement of creating change, I'm going to suggest that avoidance is no longer an option. Silence tends to perpetuate individualistic thinking, racism, and exclusive behaviors. Yet, how scary is it to speak up when a family member or friend says or does something that is a sucker punch to your own values? What do you do? First, you have to decide what is right for you. Maybe it is curtailing the amount of time you spend with offensive family members. Maybe it is creating your own traditions without certain family members. Or maybe it is time to speak up in a respectful yet authentic manner. If you are interested in expressing yourself (and perhaps modeling positive behavior), using "I" language is a non-threatening way to express the impact of someone else's words or actions that are offensive and create conflict for you. And if you don't verbally express this, you can instead "think" in terms of "I" language. For example, instead of saying (or thinking), "You are a racist.", try: "I feel angry at you when you call a person of color lazy because it makes you sound ignorant (or "that's not my experience") and would appreciate it if you would keep those comments to yourself". I offer the option of "thinking" in addition to verbally expressing because maybe it is not safe or you and the other party are not ready for a verbal exchange. However, this prepares your own reflexive response that shifts from attacking to impact language.
Avoiding doesn't build bridges and we really could use more building and less blowing up of bridges these days. We make assumptions about others without realizing how much we actually have in common. Taking time to have meaningful dialog and creating space for differences are first steps. Listening for understanding and empathizing with each other helps us to get along and be better together. Yes, it takes effort, a lot of effort. And yes, I know we are already fatigued but this is the type of "workout" that gives us energy, that strengthens relationships and stops us from being divided.
A colleague of mine recently posted about the use of the term "pivot". It's been popular (some may say, overused) during 2020 and into 2021. Pivot is defined as a noun, adjective and verb. As a noun, "a shaft or pin on which something turns". In the spirit of basketball playoffs starting this week, "a basketball player keeps one foot on the ground as he/she screens or pivots to make a basket." As an adjective, that same basketball player "uses the action of pivoting to execute the play." And as a verb, "to provide with, mount on, or attach by a pivot". Our basketball player "successfully pivots by keeping his/her foot grounded on the floor".
For organizations, finding that pivot to keep doors open and employees working has been a challenge. Creativity, risks, support from customers and shareholders have all been elements of a successful pivot. I was working in the US Virgin Islands when the pandemic started. The local distiller, recognizing the impact of the loss of tourism to the islands and a new need, pivoted to selling hand sanitizer. We saw this pivot across the country. Keeping commerce flowing from our homes instead of commuting to the office or adjusting shifts to reduce the number of employees working at the same time, are also examples of pivots organizations made.
Pivoting requires an element of change. Depending on how resilient and prepared your organization is, another pivot may be looked at with dread. As we move forward to more in-person socializing, working, and activities, many people are feeling unsure, scared and nervous. If you have ever tried to create a new habit, you know that it takes about 30 days. Pivoting back to a more socially engaged society after 14 months of creating new habits that are based on not physically being around people is going to take patience, understanding and a strong communication plan to support this next pivot. Everyone connected to your organization -- managers, shareholders, customers, vendors and employers -- are all in a different space regarding their ability to re-enter life after a pandemic.
An effective tool to overcoming concerns and creating space for inclusion is to conduct listening sessions or small focus groups. These can be done initially be taking an anonymous poll to get a pulse on concerns and questions, and then following up with a live session conducted by a competent facilitator to discuss the poll results and engage everyone in a problem-solving and information sharing session. At the end of the day, leaders are faced with meeting the goals of the organization, which includes getting people back to work. Transparency in organizational goals and options as well as open communication will help employees and managers make informed decisions.
If you have a gap in being able to provide this service, call us. That is why we are here. We will work with you to set up and conduct the poll and sessions. We will work to build trust in the process and provide leadership with constructive feedback that will better inform your next pivot.