Pursue What Matters
Episode 190: Task 2 of Conflict Management: Seek Understanding
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
If you want to get better at managing conflict, did you know Curiosity is the key. So instead of getting critical, instead of jumping to the defense, which is such a natural tendency, we want to get curious instead and seek understanding.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:17
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So when it comes to conflict with others, it is a very human tendency to jump to the defense. So last week, we talked about the stress response. And when conflict kicks up, the stress response kicks on in very big ways. And so that was our first task when it comes to effective conflict management is to take responsibility for yourself. So we talked about the stress response, and how you can lower physiological arousal, so you can show up for these important conversations. Of course, before that, I introduced the topic of healthy conflict and the value that that has for us both at work and home. And today, we’re going to focus on that second task of conflict management, which is to seek understanding, of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in one of three areas. So leading with clarity, where are we going? And why does it matter? Leading with curiosity, which is all about building self awareness, but also curiosity about others? Where are they coming from? What are their concerns? How can I meet them where they’re at? And then of course, leading and building a community? So how do we work effectively with one another, right? This is all about skill building. And so with our tasks, we’re really focusing on skill building, but also helping you to take a curious stance both of yourself and others, rather than a critical stance when it comes to conflict. So I want to, I want to help you think about the second task, which is to seek understanding by first pointing to the role of threat assessment. So I did mention this briefly last time. But when we are in a situation that feels a little dangerous, right, which conflict situations are often that way, our bodies move very quickly to two things. So first, threat assessment, and then self protection. So first, we’re gonna learn a little bit more about threat assessment, and why it’s important to understand this. So threat assessment really helps you very quickly, in a challenging situation, determine whether it’s better to fight or to flee, right. So we think about that fight or flight response. And so the initial stress response leads to this threat assessment. So you can head on back to last week’s episode to better understand what’s happening internally, with the stress response and how to manage yourself effectively in conflict situations. But today, I want you to look at this threat assessment in greater detail, because it helps you understand why conflict conversations can be so challenging, aside from the topic being discussed, right? So there might be the content, the topic content, and it’s like, oh, I don’t want to talk about that. But there’s also right the process component of why conflict conversations can be so challenging, so I want to help you better under understand that. So when we go into these situations, and we we detect threat, we move into that threat assessment mode. And again, if we have a big stress response happening, you know, our brain is trying to make quick assessments. They’re not very nuanced. They’re often not even that helpful. But some of the questions you might be asking yourself with this threat assessment is, how strong is this competitor? Right? Can I take this person on? Do I have the wherewithal to take this fight on to have this conversation? Can I hold my own? Right? Do I need to look for the exits? Right? So maybe you assess that, that that other person is stronger than you that they have a stronger argument that they’re physically more intimidating. So maybe you need to look for the exits, you ask who has more power, right? And this happens very quickly, often before you could even recognize that it’s happening. So we have this awareness of power dynamics. So who has more power, who has more support? Right? If I bring up this concern in the room, am I going to have 10 people who are against me because they support this other person? And so that a threat that threat assessment happens very quickly, and When we assess when we assess the threats that might keep us quiet right there, regardless of the strength of our argument. So first is that threat assessment process. And then the second thing that happens is self protection. So as soon as we’ve assessed the threat, we move to self protect. So based on that threat assessment, as humans, we absolutely move to self protective mode. So some of the questions we might be asking ourselves, right, and this happens really quickly, what’s going to be best for me? How do I get out of this conversation? What argument will best help me right? Like, what’s the best angle to go up in here? And, you know, would anger help? Right? Will anger intimidate the other person? Or is it going to backfire? Right? Is it going to escalate the situation? These are some of the questions that your your stress infused brain is asking in these situations. And I think the key to, to think about with a threat assessment is the threat assessment, you’re looking at the other person, but you’re not looking at them accurately. And with self protection, you’re entirely focused on helping yourself and so that other person just falls away, which really gets in the way of seeing the situation accurately, right. And part of self protection, we have some pattern ways that we show up in relationships. And specifically, these are patterned ways that we use shame in relationships. So some of this research comes from Linda Hartley at the Stone Center at Wellesley. And it was adapted by Dr. Brene. Brown, and she uses it in her dare to lead research. And she she talks about these three things as being change shields. So again, they are patterned ways that we use shame in relationships. And I gotta tell you, they come on in full force in conflict situations, because when we when there’s not a threat assessed, we don’t have a need to self protect, right, we don’t have a need to use these shields, to protect ourselves. And so these shields, you will definitely see in conflict situations, or if there’s disappointment or disagreement, pay attention to how you might pull up one of these shields. And so let’s talk a little bit about these. The first shield is moving away. So this is when we withdraw, we hide, we silence ourselves, we keep secrets, we may be stonewalled, right, we just stopped talking to the other person. And so you know, you can see how, if you’re if if there’s a conversation that needs to be had, right, and it’s kind of uncomfortable, if you move away, right, if you withdraw, if you hide, if you just, you just refuse to share your perspective, it really shuts down, productive problem solving. And so moving away is the first shame shield. The second shame shield is moving toward Okay, so it’s still a shield, but we’re moving toward. And this is where we seek to appease, and please. So if you tend to be a people, pleaser, a perfectionist, you might be very likely to use this shield. And basically, is this idea of what do I need to say who do I need to be to to get you off my back or to make you happy or to not disappoint you. And so moving toward is another way that shame shows up in relationships, and specifically in difficult conversations. And then the third is shame shield is moving against. And this is where we try to gain power over others. By being aggressive. We’ll use shame to fight shame. So this is where we’ll maybe blame someone. So think about this situation is you know, if let’s say you have a proposal that you’re bringing to the team, and someone says, Hey, I have a concern about this, right? And they’re very respectful. But you are caught by Shane, right? You have that threat assessment, that self protection set off, you might be likely to get aggressive. Or you might shame them you might say that’s a really stupid idea. Clearly
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:22
you didn’t you didn’t read the whole proposal, right? You might make a joke at their expense sarcasm is is a big way that we see shame show up here. And so that’s an example of moving against and in particular, right it’s using shame to fight shame, and it’s using power right so this power over others and of course, it’s super toxic in all in all relationships. We see it at home we see it at work. And so when we think about these shame shields, these are forms of self protection, right but they They have, they have a lot of baggage, right? They, there’s a lot of collateral damage with the shame shields, and they don’t actually help us to be more effective, they don’t help us to solve problems more effectively. They just keep us hidden. And in many ways, they keep us fragile, right, because we’re hiding behind this shield. But we’re not really developing the skills that we need to, to be more effective. And so you might have one of these shame shields that sounds really familiar where it’s like, yeah, this is my go to shame shield for those of us people pleasers, right, I would say I’m a recovering people pleaser, I really don’t do that much anymore. You write that moving toward might be the shield you’re most likely to pick up. But here’s what’s true, we can all use all of these shields at different times. And often the shield that we use depends on depends on who we’re interacting with. Okay. So if if you are, let’s say you’re having a conversation with a colleague at the same level of you, right, like in terms of power, and voice, that sort of thing, you might have a tendency to move away, when conflict comes up, because it’s like, I don’t really know what to do about this, like, they have a strong opinion, I have a strong opinion. And so you just kind of move away, you avoid addressing that issue. If you have less power than another person, you’re going to be more likely to move toward right. So if your supervisor has a strong opinion, or you’re disagreeing on something, you’re going to, you’re going to be more likely to move towards and agree with your supervisor because of that power dynamic. And then moving against, we’re most likely to use this shame shield when we have more power over others. So we see it, unfortunately, a lot in parenting, in our marital relationships, because we can behave badly. And they’ll still stick around, right? Whether that’s because they don’t have any choice or because you know, like they’re hitched to us. And so we can also use this with subordinates at work. And obviously, these are really not good, not good behaviors to have, they serve to self protect us, right when we feel like we’re under threat. But again, we want to shift our understanding of conflict and not see it as a threat that see it as something that we need to address directly and respectfully, for for greater success for greater strength in our relationships. So we want to be aware of how those shamed shields might show up for you. And so now, we want to really now that we’ve set this foundation of understanding the threat assessment, and that tendency towards self protection, we really want to make the case for seeking understanding. And so that threat assessment and that self protection, those those two responses to stress, make it really hard for us to seek understanding, right, because we’re actually in a mode of kind of shutting people out. And so that’s one of the ways to understand why these can be challenging skills, even when we believe in and having the conversation. And so we do really want to work on the second task, which is to seek understanding. And we want to do that in three ways. So first is we want to understand the other person. So listen to their concerns. So whether this is a colleague, whether this is a client, whether this is a loved one, resist the urge to defend your position. So this is where you slow yourself down, you lower your physiological arousal, resist the urge to tell the other person where they are wrong. That might be your first inclination, it would not be the right inclination, because it will shut down the conversation, it will shut down any sort of productivity from that point on. So again, that urge is to self protect, right to defend our position and to get those shields up there. But we really want to resist that urge, because we need to understand the other person. So do your best to understand every facet of the concern. Help me understand Tell me more, really, we’re thinking about getting curious. So we don’t need to hide behind those shields. We actually want to be open we want to understand, because understanding will help all of us, even if we don’t agree at the end of that. So let the other person talk. This is really helpful. If you barge in there and and just make your case, you’re signaling that you’re not open to understanding. So let them talk Don’t interrupt them. The primary agenda is understanding the other person’s concerns accurately. Right. So that’s your first priority there after making sure that you’re managing yourself well And don’t you know, I would say don’t assume the concerns are valid, you don’t really know. This is why you get curious. This is why you listen, because you might hear the other person out. And at the end of that you’re like, yeah, like I, I don’t, I still don’t think that’s valid, but at least I understand where the other person is coming from. And so remember, again, from one of the other podcasts is we’re aiming for conflict transformation, not conflict resolution. So the goal is not the end of listening to someone that we totally agree with them or that we abandon our our points, but it’s really to understand where they’re coming from. And see, okay, is, is there common ground? Is there a way that we can, we can address the concerns productively as we move forward. And then the second component of seeking understanding is to clarify concerns. So once you’ve under once you’ve taken the time to really understand the other person’s perspective, we want to review the identify concerns. So maybe you’d say I want to make sure that I hear your concerns correctly. Right. So you’re clarifying. You’re restating, asking, have we understood your key concerns, let’s really pin those down and make sure that we’re clear on that. That communicates respect, that communicates trust, it’s a desire to really get it, right to get that understanding. So then we also want to focus on understanding the other person’s solutions, right? So they’re coming, they have a problem, they have a concern, do they have any solutions in mind? Maybe they say, I think if you could just do it this way, we’ll all be better off. And maybe you would agree with them? Who knows? Maybe not? Maybe he would share some information that they don’t have. But do they have solutions in mind? So maybe you would ask what can we do to address your key concerns? Have you thought about what would help with this situation. So you’re, again, you’re inviting collaboration, you’re inviting their perspective, you’re inviting understanding. And then with that, as part of clarifying concerns, we want to add structure to the identified concerns. So this helps everyone to move from the chaos of the stress response to that lower physiological arousal. It helps us to organize our thinking structure, the conversation, it helps the other person to know that you have a plan, and that they are part of it, that you want this to be collaborative, that you’re paying attention to the concerns. So some of the ways you might add structure to identify concerns include just categorizing the concern, so are these quality concerns, right? So quality of services or products? Are these communication concerns? There’s a lack of communication, there are too many assumptions being made, which makes communication more challenging. Is this a timing and deadline? Concern? Right, we’re behind schedule, there’s a lack of clarity on timeline, there are moving deadlines without explanation. So anything that you can do to help add structure to the identified concerns, maybe you, you bucket those, you organize those, it can just clarify that thinking even more, and so that can be really helpful. And so now let’s head to our third component of seeking understanding, which is to emphasize, we don’t want to underestimate the importance of empathy. So more than anything, you need to be genuine, right? Don’t
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:29
blow smoke, don’t, don’t appease, don’t say what you think the other person wants to hear. You need to be genuine, you need to really understand the concerns. And don’t pretend that you agree or pretend that you don’t have concerns your own. People don’t want to be pander to or placated. They want acknowledgement. So that’s really important, right like to show up seeking that understanding, acknowledged their concerns, it doesn’t mean you agree with the concerns, but you see that where they’re coming from, they’re pretty upset about it. So they want to know that their concerns are heard and understood. So if you cannot do that, genuinely get someone else on the line, or someone else in the room. So empathy requires you to step into the shoes of the other person. But what’s really important with empathy is you still retain your perspective, right? So you don’t give up your ground. But you’re saying I can take a step over here and seek understanding from your perspective. And then I can also bring in my perspective, right, because they are probably going to be different perspectives. And that’s not a problem. But being able to seek understanding first helps us to make that more collaborative than combative. So, again, we want to empathize with the individual from their perspective before moving to your perspective, so that sounds very frustrating, I hear you, once they’ve had a chance, right? If you do that you will watch, people will kind of burn themselves out because they’ve said what they need to say, right. And so they kind of lose steam, which is good, because they’ve said what they need to say, when we keep interrupting or defend our point, they’re just, you’re just adding fuel to their fire, and you’re just going to have a messy situation on your hands. But if you can really lead with empathy, then pretty soon, right, they’ve said what they need to say. And that’s good, because then you can share your perspective, or you can move into that problem solving mode. You also want to convey confidence that the individual will get their concerns addressed. So hey, I know this feels really challenging right now. But I trust that together, we’ll get this figured out. So ask them for what they need. It’s not necessarily a mystery. And if you will ask, often, they will tell you what they need. Now, sometimes they’ll ask you for what they need, and you really cannot make that need. And that’s okay, have an honest conversation about that. Tell them why, why that’s not possible, give them alternatives as much as possible. So again, you may not be able to meet the need, but you should at least know what their desired outcome is. And then, you know, present as many options as possible. So giving options empowers us, but I would say make those options structured, not necessarily exhausted. So we don’t want endless options, because that that becomes stressful, but can you give them at least, you know, one to three, or sorry, at least two to three options to consider. That is empowering, it helps them to start thinking linearly, helps them to start thinking more objectively and get out of the just the emotionality of the conflict into that problem solving mode. So of course, we want to attend to them to the emotions before moving to problem solving. And I would say this is a big mistake that I see that teams make they, you know, they might not get defensive, which is really good. But they’re also kind of sidestepping the emotions, because the emotions make them uncomfortable, right, emotions make many of us uncomfortable, especially if it’s a conflict situation. And so they just try and tiptoe past the emotions, and move into problem solving. But here’s what you need to know. Unless we feel heard, we’re not going to let go of that emotion. Okay, so it will come back around, it will bite you. And so don’t don’t try to sidestep that emotion actually acknowledge it right to say, I’m sorry, we were not clear. And we’re clear with you. I can see this is really upsetting for you, I’m very sorry about that I care about the other individuals concerns, as much as you care about your concerns, care about their timelines, make their problem your problem, it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your perspective. But that shift in understanding can help you to be more collaborative, it can help you to be more respectful, it can help you to really be more creative with your problem solving. And so you might say, hey, we made some assumptions that were not helpful, I want to take responsibility for that. And so there are the components of this task to help you right. So today, we talked about the second task of conflict management, which is to seek understanding. So we started by talking about what happens in these situations. First, with that threat assessment that happens very quickly. And then moving into self protection. We talked about the three shame shields that get in the way of us seeking understanding. And then we really talked about the second task of conflict management, which is to seek understanding, and I gave you three skills to help you with that task. So first is to understand the other, we have some statements that can help you help me understand, don’t interrupt, we talked about clarifying concerns to make sure that we’re solving the right problem, right, that we’re that we’re clear on what the concerns actually are. And then third, to empathize, we need to show up in those conversations, being genuine, we need to actually really care about their concerns, and attend to their emotions so that we really can meet them where they’re at. And so I hope you will continue to join me as I address the next task in coming weeks, and that you really feel like you have both more confidence and competence when it comes to tackling big issues. So in the in the meantime, you can head on over to my website to check out the show notes for the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/190-confilctmanagementtask2 So again www.drmelissasmith.com/190-confilctmanagementtask2. Of course I’ve got a lot more resources on Instagram at @dr.melissasmith. I’d love to connect with you there. I’d love it. If you don’t mind giving the podcast a review. Let me know what you like what you want to hear more. And in the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work in love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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