Your child comes home after school with a black eye, sobbing and laments that, “The school bully was picking on me all week, and we got into a fight.” Some highly testosteroned parent might run to the attic and unpack the family boxing gloves for some quick instruction and general toughening-up sessions. Imagine what your spouse or children see when you come home after a tough family board meeting, where nothing is mutually agreed upon and where conflict and talking over one another is the norm.
Moral leaders instruct us to “turn the other cheek” while assertiveness training experts encourage us “to stand up and be strong.” Most of us realize it’s never black or white, but that a middle ground exists. Although in the “heat of the moment” it is usually easier to fight or flee, the goal is to develop communications skills that allow us to discover a mutual gain resolution. Communication skills among family members during board meetings range from “begging for a fight: lose-lose” to “mutual satisfaction: win-win.” Those families that maintain life-long positive communication develop their communication skills by rigidly adhering to the following “Nine Habits.”
ACKNOWLEDGE AND RESPECT DIFFERENCES
Many family members react to a difference of opinion as if it were a challenge, evidence of betrayal, or an effort to impose control. If you find yourself reacting in this manner, you are probably eliminating opportunities to resolve the conflict.
Different opinions and different styles of reacting are natural. Try to experience different opinions from the other person’s point of view. Think about your reaction and your partner’s difference as an opportunity to be curious and to learn.
AVOID SPEAKING WITH AN ATTIDUE OF ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
Your perception is your reality and you must respect it as such and insist that others treat your perception with respect. However, you are not entitled to impose your reality onto others.
Speaking dogmatically and blaming others thwarts effective communication. Get curious about your reactions, and help others to understand them.
What is the nature or source of your emotional reaction? Are you assuming and attributing motivation to the other individual? Did the other individual commit a minor faux pas about which you are extremely sensitive, or were they intentionally malicious?
If you can adopt an attitude of curiosity rather than one of judgment and accusation, you will encourage others to do the same. Exploring perceptions and experiences (getting curious) stops the vicious cycle of escalating attacks and counterattacks.
EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS WITH CLEAR “I” STATEMENTS
Feelings such as hurt, anger and fright must be expressed and acknowledged before mutual problem solving can begin. However, the use of accusatory “you” statements creates a defensive reaction in others.
The use of an “I” statement is the practical application of “owning one’s own feelings” and tends to eliminate harsh criticism or judgmental statements in retaliation.
Avoid the use of the pronoun “you.” “You” statements invite defensive reactions. A statement such as “I feel that you are . . .” is judgmental and not as self-revealing as an “I” statement.
ADOPT A NON-DEFENSIVE LISTENING STYLE
Successful conflict resolution assumes the willingness of all parties to listen with empathy to the other party’s vulnerable expressions. Defensive reactions usually destroy the opportunity for resolution. Sensitive listening encourages the speaker to express themselves in a non-accusatory manner.
Do not speak until you are sure you have actively listened with the goal of understanding the other person’s position and feeling.
Explaining a cause or offering a justification is not the issue. Rather, the other person’s emotional reaction is your immediate focus. This is especially true in a family-held business where emotional concerns frequently color what should be an objective business consideration.
STAY FOCUSED ON THE CURRENT ISSUE
Dredging up past evidence of mistreatment or misconduct interferes with finding a solution for the present problem.
Old feelings are important to resolve, but are best addressed if preceded by a disclaimer. The individual with an old, unresolved issue may need to say, “I am probably reacting strongly to this ____, because I am still upset about an old issue we need to resolve.”
USE COOLING OFF PERIODS CONSTRUCTIVELY
Many people spend too much time justifying their own position and generating an attitude of righteousness when they are alone.
Use time alone to move toward a solution instead of digging in deeper with your own views. Look for the “win-win” solution. Try to understand what pushes your hot button and put any false beliefs or assumptions into perspective.
Avoid destructively planning how to get even, how to win, or how to perpetuate conflict. If you understand your own reactivity, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and rethink the issue from their perspective.
ATTEMPT TO IDENTIFY SHARED INTERESTS OR COMMON GROUND
Put differences in perspective by focusing on issues that all parties agree upon. The fact that both parties have hurt feelings or that both want to protect their children, want to save their business, etc. will create a positive starting point for building constructive relationships.
ENGAGE IN MUTUAL PROBLEM SOLVING
Processing feelings without searching for a solution is ultimately not successful. Always begin by acknowledging your own emotional reactions and the feelings of the other person involved. Then, try using a problem solving model such as: When (situation-no judgment), I feel ___. It would help me to (change in feeling), if you could ___. (I.E., When decisions are made without my involvement, I feel discounted. It would help me to feel more involved if you could use e-mail to advise me that decisions are about to be made.)
SIGNAL RESOLUTION OF THE CONFLICT
In order to learn that conflict is not dangerous, but can actually lead to greater closeness, it is essential to signal that conflict will not remain a permanent barrier in the relationship. This signal might be a hug, a hand shake, or words such as “I am glad we worked this out.”
If however, resolution is not fully achieved, the parties might agree to disagree or might say, “Let’s put this aside for now and come back to it later.”
We are all emotional beings and therefore, at times, following these guidelines is almost impossible. Just like the child coming home with a black eye, when under stress or pressure, we may lose our wisdom and revert to counter-productive communication by viloating one or more of The Nine Habits of Highly Successful Communicators.
Mark Voeller, Ph.D. is President of Dialogue 2000 which specializes in management consulting, conflict resolution, and team-building. He partners with Jim Hutcheson and the consultants from REGENERATION Partners using his background in organizational and family systems