7 Ways to be Kind During Conflict

Kindness is not something that you would associate with conflict. As I have written previously, it can be used as a strategy to stop conflict from escalating and to resolve it. Its power is in recognizing the harm that has been caused and attempting to put it right. It lets all people affected by the conflict know that you see them as human beings and because you recognize their humanity, you want to put a stop to their suffering.

The sad reality of our conflicts is that we often react in an unkind manner because we are in pain. We want to inflict that pain on others by blaming , criticizing, attacking and finding ways to explain the other person’s actions in a way that makes us unaccountable. We’ve all done it. When I see somebody flouting the social distancing rules or not wearing a mask, I often find myself thinking, “what an idiot,” or angrily staring at them which is supposed to somehow communicate my disapproval. I very rarely ask myself why I feel I have authority to cast judgment on others!

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The Characteristics of Kindness

I often think of kindness as a practice rather than a single act. It starts with an intention to alleviate suffering. This intention may move you to do something compassionate. The aim of this practice is to extend the same intention to everyone, whether or not you are in conflict. It’s just that bit harder within this context, for obvious reasons. But it is possible.

This blog post is about giving you practical tips about how you might act in a kind way towards a person you are in conflict with. It’s not about being ‘good’ or people pleasing. Acting kindly is a mature and balanced way to reduce and resolve conflict as it minimizes the stress and anxiety that hostility can create and allows clear communication. You can still be assertive and kind.  You can still be strong and kind and you can still disagree, even argue but be kind. Here are seven ways to do that.

  • Be kind to yourself first.  This is about understanding when you need a break if you feel overwhelmed in a conversation or an argument. It’s always helpful to get some distance, take a pause and re-evaluate what is happening for you at that moment.  If you can, communicate this to the other person by saying something like, “I feel too angry to talk about this and I need a break. Please let’s discuss this tomorrow.” This is also about putting strong boundaries in place and understanding when you are about to say something you may regret because your emotions are high.
  • Be curious about your own behaviour. This includes your perceptions as well as the ways that you have dehumanized the other person. Do you think that the other person is inferior in some way? Do you feel victimised? Is it possible that your actions, in some way, may have contributed and is it possible that the other person may have their own perspective?
  • If you feel that you may have done something wrong, a powerful act of kindness is one that seeks to put that right. Consider an apology or if you can’t yet say those words, acknowledge that the other person may also be suffering. In any conflict, we all do things that upset or anger the other person and an apology can help to heal hurt feelings and to mark the start of a new relationship. It also recognizes that you value the other person.
  • Tell the other person your intention to resolve the conflict without causing harm.  You can do this with constructive communication,  expressing how you feel and asking questions of the other person to understand how they see the conflict. These questions should be open, neutral and whatever the response is, sit with it and digest it. If you respond with blame or statements intended to defend yourself, you need to take a break and come back to the conversation when you are able to listen without judgment. This is a good way of responding to a person’s opinion you just can’t agree with.
  • Always speak politely and respectfully. Insults and offensive comments will destroy any attempts to resolve conflict especially when you are in conflict with somebody you care about. It goes without saying but sometimes, this is really hard to do. If you are finding this difficult, write down what you want to say. You can write what you want to yourself but if you intend to write to the other person, make it about your feelings and keep your language blame free and polite.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. It is very likely that the other person will be feeling something negative about the conflict, just as you are. It is also very likely that they want it to end. If you are able to, try to remember that we have all made mistakes and done something which we feel embarrassed about. More importantly, we are all just doing the best we can in life and sometimes, we get things wrong. When you begin to see people (and yourself!) as imperfect beings, conflicts can become less emotional.
  • Disengage if you can’t be kind. Some conflicts are more difficult to resolve than others and I am not suggesting for one second that this is easy. It’s not. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to be kind to somebody who has hurt you. If you are not there yet, my advice is to simply do nothing. Don’t respond to emails, walk away when you see them in public, go to a different part of the house for a while or if you’re in a zoom meeting, use the mute button ! This will limit damage and preserve your dignity.

Do you agree? Feel free to leave and comment and let me know!

Killing Conflict with Curiosity- Here’s why being curious can help

It is often said that curiosity killed the cat. In a way, the saying is right. Finding out the truth of a matter can be painful and disappointing but sometimes you need to experience that to realize what you are doing wrong and how to put it right.

Curiosity doesn’t have to be painful. Really, it is a desire to learn. This is exactly why it’s so powerful to be curious during conflict.

When you consider that many of our conflicts arise out of our  perception, most of us would benefit from understanding why we have those perceptions and why the other person may have their own.

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Curiosity Starts With You

As with all of our conflicts, it is important to start being curious about your own behavior and perceptions. When you start taking notice of your emotional triggers and reactions to certain behaviours,  you realise that you may have some work to do on your own views and biases. Your upbringing and the views you were exposed to as a child or your negative experiences, all shape and influence your conflicts.

If you want to understand this more, think of a work conflict and consider your family dynamics and how they may be contributing to the tension. Certain people tend to remind us of how we were expected to behave in certain circumstances within our family and how we feel about that. The fascinating pod cast by Esther Perel, “How’s Work” illustrates this very well. For example, those of us who find it hard to communicate with male figures in authority, may have had strong, dominating father figures and you are unhappily used to being submissive towards this architype. If you were protective of female members in your family, you may replicate this tendency in the work place. The point is, these perceptions and needs generated in childhood don’t necessarily reflect the reality of our environment and if we want to prevent conflict before it gets going or to calm it down once it arises, this level of awareness will help.

I remember feeling patronized and irritated by a male colleague who would try to ‘protect’ me from a particularly aggressive male manager.  He would do this by speaking for me, advising me not to oppose this manager in meetings and if I did want to object to something,  he would tell me how to say it. It was so frustrating and when I spoke to him about how suffocated I felt, he realized I was not his mother and I didn’t need protecting from his father. I realized that I often mistake male protection for control and dominance which was wrong in this case because my colleague, at least in his mind, was protecting his mother, not me.

Ask The Right Questions

Asking yourself whether you could be wrong or whether you may have interpreted somebody’s actions correctly is a good exercise to get into the habit of.  You could even tell the other person what you have observed and ask for them to confirm whether your perception is correct.

As with all good conflict resolution skills, asking questions of the other person about their intentions needs to be accompanied with kindness and empathy as well as a willing openness to listen deeply to the other person. This, in itself, is so powerful. To be able to sit with the truth, even if it is uncomfortable, without blaming or defending yourself, is a super-power. These kinds of conversations are tough because they are revealing and call for us to expose our vulnerability by reaching out and setting aside our egos. They allow us to acknowledge the humanity of the other person which takes conflict out of escalation mode and brings it to a place where two people can just sit and talk without pretext or interference from the past.

The moral of the story? Curiosity didn’t kill the cat but it did force it to realise that maybe it has been wrong all of this time and that continuing to communicate in the same way will only serve to escalate conflict and if only the cat could just listen, maybe lessons could be learnt for the future and relationships could actually be improved.

As always, I’d love to know what you think! Please feel free to leave a comment.

Dealing with Conflict in an abusive relationship. The Good News and the Bad.

Here is the good news. Anybody can be trapped in an abusive relationship. It’s not about being stupid, naïve or inexperienced. More importantly, you can choose to leave it, no matter how improbable that seems to you right now.

The likelihood is, you’re being or have been abused by somebody when you were going through a difficult time of life. We are all vulnerable to different degrees at different times of our lives. That vulnerability made you particularly attractive to the abuser. Narcissists love vulnerable people because they represent potential victims to be controlled and manipulated.

We all want love and emotional connection, especially when we feel low or our self-esteem has taken a blow. The bad news is that narcissistic and abusive partners know how to exploit emotions and to pretend to be the partner you’ve always dreamed of at least until you fall under their spell. It’s after that point when conflict can become overwhelming, confusing and you may not know which way to turn.

Let’s not forget that abuse can also occur between friends, colleagues or business partners and is not exclusive to one gender or age group. The point of abuse is that it tramples over boundaries and crosses lines in ways that do not demonstrate respect, love, kindness or trust. These values are extremely important in allowing human relationships to flourish.

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What is an abusive relationship?

We’re not always aware when a relationship is abusive as physical violence is not always a feature. Here are some of the common signs that you’re in an abusive relationship:

  • Being “love-bombed”. Your partner couldn’t leave you alone at the start of your relationship. In the early days, they’d send you affectionate texts, send you gifts and generally put you on a pedestal. It used to make you feel special because you hadn’t really felt like that in a long while, or ever. To have somebody tell you how different you were to all the others and to understand your needs and desires so perfectly, made you feel that you had found “the one”. It was intense and beautiful and your relationship became serious very quickly. At this stage, you thought it was sweet and adorable and exactly what you needed.
  •  Your partner started to become controlling. Once the relationship became more established, you started to feel smothered. Your partner wanted to know why you didn’t answer when they called, probably calling you non-stop to find out where you were or who you were with. They started to tell you what to do or try and influence your decisions, especially in relation to areas of importance; your children from another marriage for example, or your immediate family. They may have started to gaslight you by telling lies, denying that they had said or done something offensive . This can make you feel like you are going insane and imagining the abuse.
  • Conflict became destructive and continuous. Your partner insults you, blames you and criticizes you when you don’t do what they want. When you show signs of independence or objection to this treatment, the response might be a tirade of offensive comments, public humiliation, physical or emotional withdrawal in the form of the silent treatment. Your partner might cry and scream or act in a physically intimidating way, they may undermine your hobbies, interests and opinions or speak offensively about people or things that are important to you. They can zone into areas of weakness with the sole intention of hurting you and this is very much reflected in their words and behaviours. At this point, you are emotionally exhausted, your self-confidence is low and you are confused.
  • Following conflict, your partner might convince you that you’re at fault because you made them angry or you failed in some other way. They could promise never to act in the way they had done if they think you might leave. For a short while, you might be convinced of it until the roller coaster starts all over again.

There are so many forms of abuse but any relationship that makes you feel worthless, threatened, intimated, exhausted and anxious not to upset your partner, is likely to be abusive .

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Dealing With Conflict In An Abusive Relationship

It’s easy for me to sit here and write a list of dos and don’ts about dealing with this context of conflict. I can imagine how disempowering it is when you feel intimidated or powerless. Feeling vulnerable and insecure can make you feel paralyzed. I caveat what I write below. Your safety is your prime concern. If you feel trapped and need help to leave your environment, follow this link for more information.

There is only one way to deal with this kind of conflict. Leave. End the relationship. Cast yourself free from them. I know this is not easy for many people but it is possible. Know that you are not at fault and a relationship with an abusive partner will only lead to more misery and feelings of worthlessness. In that place, you can’t love anyone properly, much less yourself.

Please feel free to leave 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 !

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