All relationships need conflict and empathy to grow. Here ‘s why.

I was about six years old when I learnt best friends argue. I can’t remember the exact details, but it related to a monumental disagreement about whose hand my best friend would hold as we walked into the school assembly . It turned out she didn’t want to hold mine! Feeling disappointed and rejected, I vowed never, ever to speak to her again. Ever.

It didn’t last long. By the next day, we were tearing around the school playground together, making potions out of leaves and petals and playing hopscotch on chalked grids on the ground.  

What I didn’t know then was that all relationships encounter conflict, whether big or small. When we mix with others, there will be times when we compete, misunderstand, act on our perceptions and conditioning or react rudely or aggressively to somebody who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Conflict and Growth

Conflict can lead to growth and greater understanding if we allow ourselves to learn from it. The only way to do this is by accepting your own role in it and by putting yourself to account for your actions. This also means that you take charge of resolving it and ensuring that you limit those battles that are best left unfought.

Growth arising out of conflict is most obvious when we look at social change. I have just finished watching the excellent series, Pose on Netflix, which tells the story of Black and Latino members of the LGBTQ+ community in New York during the 1980s and 1990s. This marginalized sector of society organised protests and demonstrations against the then government’s response to the AIDs epidemic and the way that they were effectively, ignored and left to die. Whilst a lot more work needs to be done for society to accept people who identify as transgender, their opposition to the government’s response has led to beneficial change.

When you look at your relationships, you often see that arguments lead to discussions about unsatisfied needs, unacknowledged desires and feelings and the aim of this blog is give you the tools to dispel misconceptions , to allow greater understanding and to strengthen relationships through constructive communication. This really is the point of conflict resolution. To end a conflict once and for all and to bring about solutions that benefit every stakeholder.

If this option is not working and you decide it is best to end a relationship because of a conflict, then that in itself, is a realization that can deepen your understanding of yourself, your values and your boundaries.

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What About Empathy?

You can only achieve growth through conflict if you are able to empathise first and foremost with yourself. Recognising that it’s painful, stressful and that maybe you made a mistake, is something you do with kindness and understanding of your personal experience. If you lashed out at your partner because you’re having a bad day, realise that we all have those days. The next step is to extend that empathy to your partner and apologise.

Empathy is about giving space to emotions so that they are acknowledged, accepted and understood. If I empathise with a person I am in conflict with, I allow distance, I try to see things from their perspective and I refrain from destroying our relationship with angry words, insults or unnecessary aggression. Instead, I seek to build bridges with my empathy  to meet them halfway . It’s not about being a door mat. It’s about taking compassionate actions to show the other person that you are just two people suffering. This is ultimately,  what nourishes our growth.

Do I have to grow?

No. You can do whatever you want with conflict and believe me, personal development is not always easy. But just imagine for a moment what it would be like to have less conflict in your life, to feel less triggered, to allow more self-acceptance and understanding, more harmony, tolerance and wisdom. What would that be like? Would you feel relieved ? Less lonely and isolated? Imagine what that could bring to your life and to the lives of those around you.

What do you think about this? Let me know by posting a comment !

Arguing Politely: How to Get the Best Out of Your Negotiation Partner

I watched a political debate recently and felt drained by the experience. Six educated, grownups were reduced to squabbling children over an issue that has polarised the nation.  They were speaking over each other, interrupting, arrogantly enforcing their view and asking questions that had been framed in a way to reveal the other as a stupid.

This post is about using politeness, respect and empathy as the cornerstone of your negotiation skills. It’s also a reminder that negotiation is a discourse between parties with different interests and positions, the aim of which is to come to a mutually agreeable solution. If you can’t treat the other side with respect, how can you expect to achieve anything of the sort?

This principle will help you negotiate multi-million-dollar deals and it will also help you resolve disputes with a neighbour, partner, friend or child. It forms the basis of our interactions but sadly, it gets easily lost in the heat of our emotions.

What is Politeness?

In a negotiation context, politeness has a few elements to it:

  • Greeting somebody with respect and introducing yourself courteously;
  • Using language which is appropriate to the setting e.g. saying thank you, please, using clean and professional language;
  • Using tact and carefully phrasing your agreement or disagreement in such way that the other does not feel offended;
  • Acknowledging the other person and allowing their opinions and views without interrupting them, undermining them or humiliating them;
  • Being humble and winning or losing gracefully;
  • Using empathy and respecting boundaries such as confidentiality;
  • Understanding and adopting body language which is non-threatening or aggressive.

Why is this important?

I often correspond with lawyers who are poorly trained in communication. They believe mistakenly, that dominating, aggressive language will make the other party yield. It usually doesn’t work. Any negotiator who attempts this looks immature, unprofessional and insulting. This lessens the chance of cooperation and can be disastrous if the other party walks away. Even dressing up an offer as “final” can appear arrogant if the timing of it is wrong (usually, a first offer!)

Politeness is good for your image, your reputation and it can pave the way to a future relationship. This is extremely important if you may need this person after the negotiation or you both work within the same industry. You never know when you might need a favour!

Polite negotiators also appear more professional and are more persuasive. In his brilliant book, The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini cites being “nice” as a highly effective tool in influencing somebody to do something. Salespeople employ this technique regularly. They might stop you in the street with a smile, a friendly greeting or a compliment. I certainly have been sucked in by a cheery salesperson and strangely, find it hard to say no, even knowing that this is a technique. I am sure you have too!

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If you are reading this, you probably know the basics of politeness. However, in conflictual situations, your emotions might take over. This is normal and natural but here are a few techniques to help you whilst negotiating.

  • Preparation is key. Know your arguments, anticipate responses and figure out what you will and won’t disclose to the other party.
  • What, in the negotiation or your arguments are your weak points? Think about this before and work out what you will say if the other party brings them up. Don’t be afraid to say something like, “I appreciate your curiosity but I don’t have that information available to me at the moment.”
  • Always remember the basics of politeness: no insults, no prejudice, no interruptions, please/ thank you and appropriately friendly body language. Try not to raise your voice or use aggressive, obnoxious or arrogant language. You should also be aware of your tone.
  • If you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated (or in any other way, emotionally overwhelmed), take a break. I am often aware of my opponent’s emotional reaction and if I see that it’s getting in the way of constructive communication, I’ll ask for a break or I’ll request to pause discussions so that we can summarise or take stock of the discussion so far.
  • Be assertive. That’s totally different to being aggressive and will ensure that you express your needs and interests constructively, without being walked over by the other side.
  • Mind your questions. The intention is to gain greater understanding and to try to grasp what is important to the other party in terms of a resolution. It’s not a cross-examination or a way of poking at the wounds of the other person.

You can never be sure what will happen during any argument, negotiation or mediation but you can think about how you will deal with difficult points. Being respectful about the other party’s view will ensure that you create the best conditions to negotiate in and you minimise conflict.

This doesn’t just apply to negotiation, it applies to the discussions you have with your partner, friends or relatives and hopefully, our politicians might learn something from this blog post too.

The Power of Non-Violent Protest and How It Topples Tyrants

Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament has provoked an unprecedented push back from politicians and the public. This move has been justified by Boris Johnson’s cabinet, as a normal political move that we see every year in the Autumn before the Queen’s speech. He has also justified it by saying that he wants to focus on funding the NHS and other domestic issues but has made no comment about its extraordinary length of time.

Parliament will be suspended for five weeks and will re-open on 14th October. This leaves very little time for MPs to debate how we leave the EU on 31st October.  Critics of this move have cited Dominic Raab’s comments in June, that suspending Parliament would be one way to leave the EU without an agreement. Boris Johnson had also refused to rule this out as an option.

It’s certainly convenient timing. Even during World War II, both Houses of Parliament continued to assemble in Church House despite Westminster having been bombed.

This blog post isn’t about the pros and cons of how we leave the EU. It’s about how we can oppose politicians that abuse our freedoms and rights. It’s about the real meaning of democracy, who really is in power and how we can exercise our freedom to object, without violence. Peaceful conflict in society often leads to change and this blog explains how.

One of my favourite Ted Talks!

What is Non-Violent Protest?

Gene Sharp’s theory of power and protest revolves around consent. Our political leaders are able to rule because we have consented through elections, for them to have this power. Consent is also expressed when we obey their laws.

Non-violent action is the withdrawal of our consent. It sends a clear message to our government that we will not obey those laws, practices or initiatives that threaten our rights.

It’s a simple concept and one which must take into consideration how conditioned we are to obey people in authority. We learn to respect and obey those in power as children and several experiments have demonstrated that even when we believe laws and orders are immoral, when given by somebody in authority, we usually obey them. This has nothing to do with our background or education.  Power and obedience are crucially linked.

Examples of Non-Violent Protest

There are countless examples of people disobeying laws in non-violent ways. Here are just a few of the most inspiring.

Rosa Parks, an African American civil rights activist, was arrested after she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Alabama during segregation. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 381 days. African Americans refused to use the buses and the boycott ended with a Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregated buses. Those who had coordinated the boycott, formed The Montgomery Improvement Association under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.

In Guatemala, a group of seven friends organised a protest in 2015 against President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. In response to a UN report documenting political corruption and links to organised crimes, a protest was arranged on Facebook and drew support from tens of thousands of people across the country. The invitation to attend the protest was spread using the twitter hashtag #RenunciaYa. This non-violent protest led to the imprisonment of Baldetti and Molina and the fall of the government.

Estonia achieved independence from Soviet rule by uniting through nationalist singing. In 1988, a song festival led to open calls for independence. Gatherings of Estonians usually involved singing folk and nationalist songs, in defiance of a Soviet ban. Petitions were signed declaring the illegality of Soviet rule and the commitment to non-violence was strong enough to withstand violent provocation by Soviet troops.

Apartheid was dismantled using non-violent protest and civil disobedience. Although violence had featured in the early years of opposition, Nelson Mandela realised that this reinforced stereotypical ideas of the violent, savage African. More importantly, it could not win against the South African authorities. To oppose this and to win international support, they needed to gain the moral high ground. Non-violent protests, strikes and civil disobedience were often quashed by the might of the South African army and security forces. However, the international exposure of the brutal repression of non-violent protest led to economic sanctions and international disapproval of the regime, and eventually its downfall in 1993.

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Most recently, Boris’ Government spent £57,000 on boxes used to serve fried chicken, which were printed with anti-violent messages aimed at solving the problem of knife crime in London. Campaigners viewed this as a racist and class based attempt to wade into an issue that Boris had done little to understand. Organisations protesting this initiative, publicly displayed the boxes with positive stories of people who had left behind their violent lifestyles. Others delivered the boxes back to the Home Office with responses from Londoners and suggestions about how to resolve the problem. The Home Office has since invited organisers in for talks about possible solutions.

The Led By Donkeys campaign has been active in exposing contradictions by Brexit supporting campaigners and MPs. Their tactics include playing television clips of Conservative MPs in their own constituencies, contradicting themselves over Brexit and the prorogation of Parliament. They have also hired billboards in cities all over England, comparing the tweets of MPs, members of the Leave Campaign and ministers prior to and after the Brexit referendum.

These are only a few examples of success but there are countless others.

For it to succeed, non-violent protest must be structured, organised and focused. It needs to be strategic and employ tactics as if it were a war.  It doesn’t have to take the form of public marches (although, there is power in this). The great thing about it is that everyone can get involved in one way or another.

  If you are feeling powerless in the face of a suspended Parliament, here are a few things you can do:

  • Write to you local MP to tell them to oppose Boris’ suspension of Parliament under the guise of constitutionality (find out who your MP is here).
  • Write to the Conservative Party to encourage Tory MPs to oppose Brexit without a deal and prorogation.
  • Tweet your opposition.
  • Join a Facebook group to find out about local protests events.
  • Sign a petition to revoke the prorogation.
  • Start a blog, comment on this post to show your support and share ideas online about non-violent protest.
  • Get creative! Dance, sing, paint your protest!
  • Tweet me your ideas for non-violent protest @conflictexpert .

We are the power, not our politicians. They are there because we have elected them. Hopefully, these ideas will help you feel more empowered and able to express yourself peacefully and constructively.

If you have any other ideas, feel free to leave a comment!

How To Be Honest With Somebody Without It Leading to Conflict

Honest communication is a double- edged sword. On the one hand, it can clarify murky matters, encourage trust and provide more intimacy and credibility to any kind of relationship. On the other hand, it can really upset somebody if you tell them bluntly what you think about them or something they have done.

It’s hard to find the right balance between expressing yourself authentically and doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt the other person.

Honesty in the context of conflict resolution is about clarity. Conflict is worsened when we don’t understand the reasons for a certain behaviour. We tend to create our own perceptions of why somebody is not talking to us, why they didn’t fulfil our expectations and why we are not to blame for it. It also comes from a place of vulnerability which by default, requires honesty.

This blog explains how you can be more honest in your relationships so that you can avoid misunderstandings.

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Honesty in Conflict

When I talk about being honest in conflict, here is what I mean:

  • Telling somebody how you feel (in any context);
  • Letting somebody know what you want or don’t want;
  • Establishing boundaries and expressing which types of behaviour you find acceptable
  • Discussing your perceptions about a person’s behaviour;
  • Divulging information that might help you both find a solution to resolve your conflict.

If you are being honest with yourself in conflict, this can also take the form of your motivations. Asking yourself questions such as “what do I want to achieve from this?” will help you decide what action to take.  You should also take an honest look at your conflict considerations.

How to Lessen the Blow of Honesty

I used to find it hard to express my needs and emotions to men in senior positions. That made it hard to progress in my career or have genuinely intimate, romantic relationships. It’s difficult to be honest about these things when you have learnt that it can be dangerous or it’s not acceptable for a woman to express herself in this way. I always felt that I would be perceived as too demanding or aggressive. It made me feel angry that I had to suppress this part of myself and subordinate my needs below a man’s. That was based on my own, learned behaviours and perceptions.

To make this easier, I’ve learnt that honesty is best received when cushioned with empathy for yourself and others.

Empathy is what acknowledges that words can hurt, no matter what your intentions are in expressing them. We’ve all received feedback that hurts, despite the person intending to help you improve your performance. We’ve also all been rejected and so we all know how much it can sting, long after the event.

When delivering an honest message, I often cushion it with empathy and what helps is to imagine that I am sending it to somebody I care about (even if I don’t). You won’t ever be able to control their reaction to you but you can do your best to communicate it in a way that minimises the risk of conflict.

Underlying all of this is your intention. Using empathy to express yourself will never include insults, even thinly veiled. It will never allow you to disrespect, undermine, condescend or use arrogance. All it does is connect us as human beings, to our emotions. This is my most powerful conflict resolution tool.

A sincere apology is a great example of this.

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Here are some phrases that might help you:

  1. Can I be honest with you about something?
  2. I feel hesitant to say this to you because I don’t want to hurt you;
  3. I am finding it hard to find the words to be honest with you about how I am feeling;
  4. It’s important for me to be honest with you about this and I don’t intend in any way to disrespect you. My intention is ….;
  5. I am being honest with you about this because I respect you and I don’t want you to misunderstand how much I value our relationship;
  6. I understand that you feel […] about what I just said. I really need you to know how I see things and I want to make sure we work out how best to resolve this.

When I give honest feedback, I don’t like to use positive examples of performance or silver linings unless I genuinely mean them. Some messages need to be delivered and that’s all there is to it. When we put an artificially positive spin on it, it’s a way of avoiding the discomfort of telling hard truths and it can be confusing.

Instead, a sincere attempt to communicate from a place of truth that clears the air, builds better relationships, and encourages openness will reduce the chances of conflict. To get to that place, you need to be comfortable with your own truth. That’s a whole different blog post (coming soon!)

As always, please feel free to comment !

What being “professional” means to different cultures and why this creates conflict

As I write this, I am still feeling the frustration of dealing with an Italian car hire company. What has irritated me is what I perceive to be a lack of attention, care or interest in my complaint that the car provided was not road worthy.  In England or the US, we’d expect a response based on principles of good “customer service” which is exactly the opposite of what I was faced with when I encountered a problem with my hire car.

I have to remind myself that each culture and indeed person, has a different view of what being “professional” is. It’s this clash of perception that causes conflict. This blog post is about helping you to identify and accept that certain concepts are viewed differently in cultures different to ours. It’s not right or wrong, it just is and once you accept that, you can manage this without it leading to conflict.

What is professional behaviour and why is it important?

The idea of “customer service” is entrenched in North American culture and has filtered down to other Anglophone countries. As somebody born and raised in the British culture, I know what to expect when I request a service . Usually, as a paying customer, my politeness is met with the same method of relating which can involve a friendly but respectful distance. To quote Joel Schumacher’s epic film, Falling Down, “have you ever heard the phrase, the customer is always right?” This encapsulates the idea and to most of you reading this, you will be familiar with what it entails.

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This is also reflected in how a professional person resolves problems. Constructive communication is used to express empathy, concern , regret and a commitment to rectify any issues in an appropriate manner. The attitude of the service provider is proactive and no matter what the reaction of the client is, the aim is to de-escalate any aggression. Why? Put simply,  so you will continue to be a customer.

An unprofessional attitude is one which leaves any problems to the customer to sort out, or expresses disinterest in their distress or anger. I was recently shouted out aggressively by a restaurant owner because I had enquired about the whereabouts of my salad which I had been waiting for over an hour. He said he had fifty other clients to serve and I should be ashamed of thinking I deserved special treatment . A lack of respect, politeness or appropriate formality also indicate a lack of professionalism whether in the office, in a restaurant or anywhere else.

This is important because adopting a classic, professional approach in your business will minimise and avoid conflictual situations. Negotiations are more productive when the parties are polite and respectful to one another, mainly because this recognises the other person as a valuable human being worthy of respect. Going back to my car hire story, although the company representative was polite, she was dismissive and unwilling to provide solutions, telling me it was my choice whether I  drove the car or not and she didn’t have a substitute car for the following two days. I felt unacknowledged and unimportant and as I have written before, much of conflict is an attempt to assert our self-esteem and in doing so, we may use a variety of personal tactics to create an illusion of control to protect our egos. Although I felt very angry about this, I focused on my breath and took a step back, pointing out instead the leverage I had to persuade the company to give me a refund.

It’s not all one way

We are only humans and sometimes we don’t respond patiently and calmly, especially when emotions are triggered. Having written all of this, the customer can be wrong. If you are faced with a particularly rude client, the best way to de-escalate is to offer sincere acknowledgement of their emotions using phrases that express empathy, listen to what they say carefully and only when they have finished, add your comments. Descending into destructive forms of communication removes any semblance of professionalism so it’s best avoided. Empathy and compassion transcend cultures, a fact I am reminded of every single time I have experienced kindness from people from all over the world.

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Ultimately, misperceptions fuel conflict. Had I pointed out to the car hire company that by English standards, their customer service was terrible, this would not have registered and why should it? It is Italy, after all. What this tells me is, however, that my perceptions and standards are not replicated by everyone and it’s futile to take it personally.

This realisation is important for anyone working in an international environment. Your colleague may not be “rude” or “bad mannered” . These too are social standards applied differently depending on your background or culture. In Italy for example, it’s considered rude not to say good morning to the whole office when you arrive. That’s not the case in England and may even be seen as a bit strange and invasive. Having worked with several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s also perfectly acceptable in a professional context to show anger or aggression openly and sometimes, destructively, whilst in England it’s extremely frowned upon in the office. In Japan, the more junior you are, the more acceptable it is to fall asleep in a meeting, much to my surprise during a presentation I was giving to a Japanese client. That certainly made me question by public speaking skills until I made some enquiries!

The key, as always is to remember that your standards of customer service and your expectations in a professional relationship are not always mirrored by the other person because of a variety of factors, one of which is the culture and environment they operate in. I’ve made some very general comments and of course, stereotypes can be dangerously misleading. That’s exactly why the best advice is to keep an open mind, ask polite questions that help you understand the other person’s point of view and listen actively to the answers before taking anything personally. Good luck!

As always, please feel free to leave a comment!

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