bisccit - new glasses, new vision

New glasses, new vision!

I am sure you have experienced that surprised feeling when a close friend, partner or family member suddenly says or does something completely unexpected, that hurts you deeply. With a stranger you might assume that it was just a thoughtless comment or an unfortunate action, but with a loved or respected person that seems impossible. Surely they should know you better. So it MUST be their intention to hurt you, you are certain… Enormous anger and sadness wells up inside you, and you immediately lash back or you retreat into yourself, that depends on your character. Your over-emotional reaction causes a similar reaction in the other person (who honestly does not understand where your anger or sadness comes from) and before you know it you are locked in the vicious conflict cycle together. Can you break that vicious cycle, without it immediately leading to a break in a valuable friendship or collaborative relationship?

Of course you can! But you have to be open to the fact that people are not the same. An introvert and an extravert will react differently to the same situation. Even worse: The same person can show different sides of his character depending on the situation. Your friend Pete may be a calm person, but if someone talks jokingly about the advantages of being childless, his reaction may be unusually strong if he can’t have kids. Our reaction to a situation is always colored by the “glasses” we wear, which reflect what we have experienced. If you get six people to describe the same car accident, you will hear six stories. All are true, and all are completely different. The police officer will pay particular attention to the traffic errors that have been made and the doctor to the injuries that have been sustained. The person driving on the other side of the road has not been able to see what happened behind the accident and the passenger in the back seat has information that the outsiders do not know about. The bystander who has lost a loved one in a previous car accident reacts with stronger emotions than the journalist who tries to describe the accident objectively. All of us only see subjective parts of the truth, and yet we think our version of the story is the only correct version and our response is the only appropriate one. And we will fight anyone who tells us otherwise. 

A couple of examples from every day practice: 

Dennis and Tom have bought a dog together. Neither has experience with dogs. The training is not going well. Dennis, who is usually a kind and quiet man, shouts louder commands at the dog every day. Tom comforts the dog with cookies as soon as Dennis turns his back. The dog gets completely confused by all the mixed messages and starts to wreck the house. Tom and Dennis each think the other is at fault. Where at first there was harmony between them, this new situation shows them a totally different side of their partner and they don’t like it one bit. When they approach the Conflict Coach, they are on the brink of getting rid of the dog or maybe even each other. The Conflict Coach first determines that they have several common interests. They want the love and understanding back they once had, and they want a well-trained dog. Next they look at the different glasses they wear in this situation. It becomes clear that Dennis was praised by his parents if he pushed hard to reach a goal. Tom however was bullied in school and hates pushy people. While Dennis sees his perseverance in training the dog through the pink “praise-glasses” of his parents, Tom sees the same actions through the dark “bully-glasses” of his youth. Once they recognize that their goals are the same and their intentions are good, it becomes easier to work out a solution for the training that they both (and the dog!) feel more comfortable with. 

Marfa and Jess have been best friends ever since they were small kids. They have grown apart a little since they both went to different schools to study, but they are still good friends. Jess is getting married. She talks frequently to Marfa about the bridal shower she is going to have, when and where it will be, what Marfa thinks would be a nice theme, who is coming. Marfa does not receive a formal invitation, so she does not attend. She is very sad Jess does not want her there. Jess is very sad that her best friend does not show up. They both think this is probably the end of their lifelong friendship. Fortunately one of their friends puts them in touch with the Conflict Coach who helps them out. They are reminded that Jess comes from a warm family where Marfa was always welcome. Marfa’s mother however, often warned her she might one day overstay her welcome and be seen as a nuisance. Jess sees not sending a formal invitation through the pink glasses of “you are family, of course you should come” whereas Marfa sees it through the dark glasses of her mother’s warning. Once they realize this, the chill is out of the air. 

The Key Take Away: Don’t interpret someone’s (re)action as hurtful because it is different to your own. Try and figure out – if need be with a Conflict Coach – which glasses they wear, and try to see their point of view.  

bisccit - tips for difficult conversations

Difficult conversations made easy (well: easier)

All day long we interact with other people, at work, in a relationship, at home and on the road, intentionally and accidentally, deeply and superficially. Humans are social beings and we can get a lot of pleasure out of these contacts. But of course it doesn’t always go well. What do you do when something has happened that makes you feel uncomfortable or even angry or sad?

Instinctively we often opt for “Fight or Flight”: either we immediately blow up at the other person, or we withdraw and sulk in a corner.

Both reactions are very natural and nothing to be ashamed of, but the question is whether they help us further. First, it is not at all certain that the other person knows exactly what is going on. It is possible that your reaction is misunderstood or perhaps not noticed at all! Secondly, you have not given yourself and the other person the chance to take a good look at what happened and see if there is anything left to salvage. If we do it right, an unpleasant event CAN lead to you getting to know each other a little better and therefore getting along better than before.

Let’s look at something that happens a lot on the work floor. There is always this one colleague who dominates every meeting and who never lets you (or anyone else) finish their sentences or bring a point across. Very annoying. Everybody is grumbling about it, but nobody says anything. You have decided that enough is enough: You know you could probably silence him forever with one cutting remark, but that is not what you want, because you want to improve the work atmosphere, not make it  worse. So what can you say? And when? And how? 

 Choose time and place

The worst thing you can do is blow up during the meeting itself. Yes, it might feel satisfying for a while, and maybe your co workers will secretly applaud you, but in the long run a lot of damage will be done. Your colleague will lash back, or maybe retreat but hate you forever, or feel humiliated and sad. You will come across as unprofessional, or aggressive, or whiney. Possibly others in the company will feel the need to become involved and form teams “pro” and “con”. Always discuss difficult matters in a private setting, preferably when you have had the time to cool down. 

Keep your Emotional Bank Account in the plus

The most important work in conflict management actually takes place before anything goes wrong: building a foundation of trust and appreciation. Then when something goes wrong, you are more inclined to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s just like with a joint bank account: if you both make regular deposits into it, you can also withdraw something from time to time. And even if that is more than the other person actually expected, you don’t immediately reach the bottom. Ways to maintain the joint bank account are giving compliments, experiencing and naming positive experiences and being trustworthy. This is of course only possible if you already know each other. That is why many conflicts arise between people who do not (yet) know each other well. But also in long-term relationships, the emotional bank account is often neglected or too often (unilaterally) emptied and not replenished.

 Speak about yourself

Many quarrels start with: yes, but you…! People often feel that the other person’s behavior is the only reason why everything goes wrong. “If only they hadn’t acted so strange, nothing would have happened!” But we all know the proverb: “Where two fight, two are to blame.” and “When you point the finger at the other, three are pointing at yourself.” You also have a role in whatever happens. And because you don’t know what’s going on in the other person’s head, it’s best to speak from your own experience. You can then ask for their opinion.

Do not focus your comments on the person, but on behavior

Generalizing is never helpful, and if you combine it with a nasty remark denouncing the character of the other person, you can be sure that a solution is further away than ever. Comments such as: “You just never listen” or “You know yourself that you are not a talker”, make the other person powerless, because they cannot change their character. Behavior however, CAN (to a certain extent) be changed, so it is better to talk about that. 

Describe concrete Behavior

It must of course also be clear to the other person (and yourself) what exactly caused the conflict, so describe the behavior as concretely as possible. “You never let me finish” may say something about behavior, but what is the other person supposed to do with that? The response will probably be defensive and a bit nasty: “It seems to me that you’ve been talking for an hour and a half now” and that won’t get you anywhere. A concrete description preferably contains one specific event, or a series of related events, and not all the bad things that happened in the past year. So be as specific as possible. Don’t say: “You did not keep your appointment” but describe the behavior: “Your part of the report was not ready at the agreed time.”

Describe as specific as possible the effect of that behavior on you

Do not say: “When that happened I felt treated like a small child”, but state very specifically how this behavior affects you, how you experienced it and why you think that is bad and should be done be approached differently. For instance: “I am a professional, just like yourself, and when you did not give me a chance to explain my point of view, I did not feel treated as one.” 

Be genuinely curious

Of course, just because someone does something and you experience it in a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean they did something wrong. It could also be that you have interpreted it “wrong”, or that you just have different ways of saying or doing things. Only by asking open questions (who, what where, how) can you find out what was going on at that moment. Don’t ask “why” someone did something, because that is often perceived as a reproach. If you are genuinely curious about the background to an action, you can ask what the other person was planning or trying to achieve, or what he was thinking at the time. Often the answer will surprise you and it turns out that something completely different is going on than you thought. (and which has nothing to do with you). Maybe he was trying to impress the Boss.

 Don’t get stuck in the past

No matter what the reason was or how well it was explained by the other person, you did not like what happened and want to avoid the same thing happening again. Try not to dwell on what you found annoying, but say how you would like it to be different in the future. Also respect the wishes of the other person. Explore whether the (possibly different) goals you both have, can be achieved in a way that works for both of you. And keep in mind that things will probably go wrong again, despite all the good intentions. Discuss how to deal with this when it happens. 

Evaluate and adjust if necessary

If you never see, speak or need each other again, you can leave it at that and go your separate ways. But most of the time, people who try to resolve a conflict are connected in some way for the future as well. (Otherwise you won’t go to all that trouble.) Occasionally, preferably at a time when the emotional bank account is nice and full and nothing is wrong, discuss how things have gone with the difficult points lately. Do the chosen solutions work? If not, see if anything can be improved.

So, let’s go back to the situation at the top of the page, with the colleague who never lets you get a word in edgeways. Next time, try addressing it like this: 

Talk to him in a private setting. Say: “During the last meeting I noticed that you interrupted me, while I was still speaking. I found that very annoying. Not only did it prevent me from expressing my opinion, but I also felt that I was not being taken seriously. Do you remember that moment? What do you think was going on then?”  “What did you try to achieve at that time? What solution can we come up with for the future that works better for both of us?”
It may not be as satisfying as screaming: Oh, just shut up for once! But you will find that the conversation will go smoother and the chances of reaching an amicable solution will be greatly improved. ☺

bisccit - into deep water

Into deep water. (water outside the boat will carry it, the water that gets inside will sink it).    

Many people view conflicts as something unpleasant, unproductive and something to be avoided at all costs. Those who know me are aware that I have a completely different view: Conflicts are chances! Chances to understand each other better, to work together, to redefine relationships and sometimes forge new or stronger ones. True: they usually start out unpleasant. A conflict happens when we feel thwarted, when things don’t go the way we want, when we have different objectives or perceptions, when we feel threatened or when we find an unexpected obstacle in our path. And we are definitely not going to like the person we have this conflict with or worse: we used to like them and are sorely disappointed that we now seem to be on opposing sides and we both want to go in different directions.

When you are in a conflict, it feels like you were paddling along fine and all of a sudden you find yourselves in wild water. Many people start blaming each other, putting all their effort in trying to hit each other with their paddles, while the boat is being swept along out of control. The boat rocks and takes on water. Soon someone or everyone will be swept overboard or the whole boat will sink! Isn’t it better to all put a paddle in the water, i.e. the conflict, and look not so much at the other person as the cause of your problems but at the rocks and waves that are the real danger? When you help each other understand where the obstacles are on each side, you can try to find a way around them until you navigate your boat to calmer waters. 

This is why it is called MANAGING conflicts. When you both decide that you no longer want the conflict and all its emotions to throw you here and there, you are taking control of it together. Managing conflicts is hard work, but it’s an essential skill both in personal and professional settings. Here are some tips for effectively managing conflicts:

1. Focus on identifying the rocks (the issues) that are the sources of the conflict: Take them seriously. Even when the rock is not on your side or you think it is just a tiny rock, it can still flip the boat! Listen carefully to each other and respect each point of view. (you don’t have to agree).

2. Remain calm and objective and do not be swept along by the water (the emotions) : Avoid letting your needs, fears, assumptions and motives take control or make you go in circles. When both parties look at themselves objectively and critically they will see their “truth” is not the only one.

3. Communicate effectively: Talk honestly about the “rocks” and the “water” as you see them; be prepared to explain, question and listen with an open mind, accepting that you may see and experience different things in the same wild water. Honest communication is essential in managing conflicts. Ensure that both parties get equal opportunity to express their concerns and ideas. Keep asking interested questions until you both feel heard and understood. 

4. Find common ground: Look for areas of agreement. This can help to build trust and give you a reason to move towards a resolution. Believe me: when you realize you both will get wet when the boat flips over, you have found your reason to start working together, even when you hate each other. 

5. Explore solutions: Once you have identified the source(s) of the conflict and have heard from all parties involved, explore potential solutions. Brainstorm possible options, and work together creatively to come up with solutions you had not thought of before. Move away from the past and look to the future: tell each other what you need to keep paddling forward.

Managing conflicts is not about winning or losing, but rather about finding a solution that is fair and workable for all parties involved. You do not want to get stuck in the wild water and sink OR be the only one who reaches safety if it means the other one drowns. (Bad for your karma) Only when you steer together can you keep the boat afloat and move forward, at least until you have reached calmer waters. Once you are safely on dry land you can decide to shake hands and part ways amicably. Or maybe even continue on your trip together, as a stronger team than before!  

bisccit - the emotional bankaccount

The Emotional Bank Account

People often do not think about Conflict Management (Mediation) until it is too late. Only when the angry e-mails fly back and forth and threats of violence, divorce or dismissal are made, do people come up with the idea of trying to resolve the conflict or bring in a mediator. That is a pity, of course, because it is best to address conflicts as early as possible. It is even better to understand how conflicts arise and see if you can avoid them. Prevention is simply better than cure!

There is a technique that is very useful: The Emotional Bank Account. (EB) The “balance” of their mutual EB determines how two people deal with a conflict. How does it work? Just like with a regular bank account, in a relationship you can only make a withdrawal if you have previously deposited something. This applies to any relationship: not only with a partner, but also in a friendship, with your family or at work! A positive balance takes time and effort to build up. Unfortunately, people who have been working together or living together for years often maintain their EB so badly that the balance is 0 or even negative. If they get into a fight, a conflict will quickly spiral out of control due to a lack of “reserves”.

Building a positive balance in your EB is very easy. Be attentive. Give compliments. Immerse yourself in what the other person finds important. Listen sincerely. Show your appreciation. Show respect. Dare to be vulnerable. Share your dreams. Try to understand and be understood. Do not judge too easily. These are small, everyday gestures, not huge gifts or money. Just decent human behavior, really.

Just think about it. What kind of boss are you more likely to argue with? With a boss who has never said anything constructive to you and whose first comment about your work is immediately a critical one (balance 0, moving into the red) or with the boss who has regularly made a positive or interested comment and now says something critical? (balance +, room for a withdrawal). In the first case you only get angry, whether the criticism is justified or not. In the second case you are quite willing to think about the criticism, because your EB balance with this person is positive. Another example: who do you think you can call on in an emergency: the neighbor you have only a nodding acquaintance with or the neighbor you complimented only yesterday about his beautiful garden?

So make sure that all your EBs are in the plus. It must be sincere! False compliments or purposely flattering someone so you can call in the favor later won’t work. The EB is an extremely sensitive instrument, and only real communicative “gold” is recorded. And if you have made a withdrawal, you will have to top up the balance as soon as possible. Research has shown that it takes 20 positive deposits to offset 1 negative withdrawal! Fortunately, it costs nothing to maintain your EB, just a little humanity and attention. If the EB is regularly refilled, from both sides, then you are usually on the safe side when things get difficult. So invest heavily in your EBs, with your employees, your boss, your family, your ex and your partner, especially if nothing is wrong yet. If you do end up in a difficult discussion with them, a well-filled EB can make the difference between war or peace. And if you can’t work it out together, call the Conflict Coach!

bisccit - searching for connection

Conflict coaching: Searching for connection

If people or companies have a conflict and cannot resolve it together, there is another option besides a lawsuit: to start a new conversation, under the guidance of an independent third party, the Conflict Coach. But what does a Conflict Coach do that the parties cannot do themselves? 

Communication gets difficult when you’re angry: people interrupt each other, use unfair verbal tricks and get emotional. Often the conversation gets completely out of hand. A Conflict Coach steers the conversation in the right direction. The Conflict Coach makes sure that everyone has an equal say. The Conflict Coach keeps an eye on the rules of the game, so that people talk to each other in a respectful manner. The Conflict Coach pays attention to the emotions, but ensures that parties do not get lost in them and stay on course. In this way, the Conflict Coach monitors the process, and guides the parties towards finding a solution themselves. And they CAN, once they are helped back to communicating effectively with each other, instead of arguing.

But a Conflict Coach does much more. People who are in conflict usually get stuck in a certain position. From that point on, they just keep repeating that position: sometimes menacing, sometimes conciliatory, loud or crying, but it always comes down to the same thing: what they think is true, and what the other party thinks is wrong. “Win or lose” seems the only possible outcome. 

Conflict Coaches are trained to make people look at their situation differently. By broadening their perspective and even helping them to look at the matter from the other person’s point of view (you don’t have to agree) chances are opened for a win/win solution that satisfies both parties. For example: if two people want one orange, there seem to be only two solutions: either one gets everything, or both get half. Nobody is really satisfied. But when they investigate WHY each of them wants that orange, it turns out that one person needs only the pulp for juice and the other only the peel for a pie. Both can go home 100% satisfied!

Finding the underlying interests, the WHY, is one of the most important tasks of the Conflict Coach. Often parties are so fixated on their point of view (I am entitled to that orange and you are not), that they cannot figure out the WHY themselves. To share this technique with anyone who wants to resolve a conflict, I found an easy way to remember it. What should you do when people misunderstand each other and don’t get any further? Search for connection. How do you do that in this modern day and age? With WIFI! 

WIFI stands for Wish, Interest, Fear and Intention. In other words: behind everything people shout in their frustration, there is a hidden wish, interest, fear and/or intention. Once you find it, the solution is in sight! Behind the statement “I want 100,000 guilders in severance pay!” may be the wish to be compensated for ill-treatment, the fear of being unemployed, or the intention to start a business. Knowing that, a sincere apology, a good reference, outplacement guidance, business coaching or sponsoring can become part of the solution, instead of just payment. Behind the statement: “You never have time for me and the kids!” you may find a wish for more time together, or for a fairer division of tasks; maybe the fear of falling behind careerwise, or the intention to work again or pick up an education. 

The best way to resolve a conflict is therefore not to respond to the reproach, but to keep asking genuinely interested questions until you find the WIFI behind the reproach. It is a bit like searching for the spot where your WIFI gives you the best connection. It takes some effort, but only when you have reached this spot, will you both know exactly what is going on and see where there is room to negotiate solutions. Otherwise you are just screaming in the void. 

Give WIFI a try the next time you run into a conflict. And if you cannot come to an agreement together, the Conflict Coach may be able to help you get reconnected.

bisccit - a different approach

Disrespectful, or just a different approach?

Reina thinks her new colleague, Bart, is a rude man. Fortunately, they have little to do with each other. Until…. the annual school camp. Reina has been doing this with great pleasure for years. Bart also registers for the organization. The principal decides, without consultation, that Bart and Reina should work together. It’s time for new ideas. Reina is furious. Bart bombards her with e-mails about his plans. Reina doesn’t respond. It soon becomes clear that Reina and Bart cannot agree on anything. In desperation, the director proposes the Conflict Coach, because if things continue like this, there will soon be no school camp at all! Bart and Reina reluctantly agree to give it a try.

The Conflict Coach notices that the two teachers really don’t like each other and asks if they can think of a common interest to solve this issue. Reina and Bart decide that they would both be very sorry if their quarrel would prevent the students from going to school camp. In the interest of the students, they want to do their best to resolve the issue.

It is agreed that Reina and Bart will not interrupt, curse or yell at each other during the sessions. In spite of this agreement, Bart and Reina start to explain emotionally, with raised voices, what the other is doing wrong. The situation threatens to escalate, as usual. By listening carefully, summarizing and “translating” the emotions into more neutral words, the Conflict Coach brings the peace back. Previously, Reina and Bart would not let each other finish or Reina would just walk away. Now that they finally manage to talk to each other again, it becomes clear what their differences are. Reina feels overwhelmed by the extraverted Bart and has closed herself off. She also felt passed over by the director, who seemed to say she was old-fashioned. Bart now understands why his emails are not being answered and says that he wanted to participate in the school camp because she made it such a success. Reina feels respected and the first step towards a solution is made. They agree to email less and to talk to each other in person more often. Next comes the school camp.

Reina and Bart actually think the same thing: “Only I know how to organize a good school camp and you don’t understand anything”. The Conflict Coach has Reina and Bart sum up what each of them means when they say what “a good school camp” is. Once it is all written down they come to the conclusion that they actually agree on many points! However there is one issue that divides them still. Bart wants to serve alcohol and Reina is absolutely against this. Reina calls Bart irresponsible, Bart calls Reina prudish and old fashioned and the argument flares up again…. . Specific questioning by the Conflict Coach makes it clear WHY Reina is so against alcohol. A student once had an accident after drinking at camp and she never wants to experience this again. Bart is shocked by this news and says he obviously doesn’t want that either. But on the other hand he wants to prepare the students for the real world, let them try out some things in a safe environment. Reina agrees that this is important. Now that it is clear that they want the same, but have different perspectives, Reina and Bart can come up with solutions together. Reina and Bart start to brainstorm and negotiate. They agree on a number of security measures. Good information is given in advance about alcohol and drugs. During the camp, limited beer and wine will be available in the evening, as well as festive cocktails without alcohol. Students are not allowed to bring alcohol to the camp themselves. Bart and Reina will never be close friends, but they can now work together better and the camp turns out to be a huge success.