Use Ice to Transform a Difficult Relationship


You know that one coworker who always seems to bring out the worst in you?

If someone’s face came to mind, you’re not alone. Many of us have a person equivalent of a pet peeve at work (or home). Someone who never seems to know where you’re coming from, who doesn’t understand what is so obvious to you, who seems to have a mission of getting in your way–somebody who is just a problem.

Perhaps you fight out loud or silently, inside your own head. Either way, it’s a fight, even if nobody can see or hear it.

When we’re locked in conflict, we typically focus on the content of the argument. We go over the issues and our justifications: “I’m so right! He’s so wrong!” Sometimes we might realize the fight is over nothing, and yet it still seems so important.

Under the surface of conflict lies much that fuels the fight. In their book Resolving Conflicts at Work, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith outline six “beneath the surface” drivers of our conflicts:

icebergissues (above the surface)



interests, needs and desires

self-perceptions and self-esteem

hidden expectations

unresolved issues from the past

For instance, when I experience conflict with a coworker (or the boss), any or all of this can add fuel to the fire. Perhaps their personality is more vocal than mine. Perhaps I felt angry or nervous before we even started talking. I have needs for appreciation and belonging that I don’t always articulate. I might even be feeling doubtful about myself and my contribution, or have hidden expectations that others will automatically think like I think and see what I see. Sometimes there’s just so much history between us that I can’t let it go of it and hear what they’re saying now without those filters made up of previous experience.

The iceberg of conflict offers us a useful path to identifying what’s really going on with ourselves when we are in conflict. It may take time and practice to be able to do this in the moment, but you can begin by reflecting on your experience and thoughts after the experience of frustration:

  • First, focus on yourself as you review the iceberg and ask yourself what’s really going on. It’s important that you come to understand your personal iceberg.
  • Second, be curious about yourself and that other person. Open-ended questions and empathic listening help as you probe the depths.
  • Third, take a risk. Probe for that deep level of honesty within yourself, realizing that greater self-honesty will allow and impel you to be more honest with others.
  • Finally, be accepting. Accept new understandings of yourself and others without shame, anger, or judgment.

These are simply stated even though they may be challenging to put into place. Take your time, but try not to let yourself off the hook. The more intentional you are about reflecting on your experience and working at changing your thinking, the more quickly you can shift directions–even under the gun. I’ve found questions like the following to be helpful (and please excuse my awkward attempt at gender-neutral pronouns):

  • What bothers them about what I did?
  • How did they feel when I did that?
  • Have I shared how I felt before, during, or after our conflict?
  • What’s really going on for them?
  • What did they really mean when they said __________?
  • What is most important to them in solving this problem?
  • What if I’ve heard them wrong?
  • What solutions might be acceptable for both of us?
  • What do they actually want me to do?
  • Have I shared with them, directly and calmly, how I want them to communicate with me?
  • What kind of relationship would he or she like for us to have?

So much can happen just by becoming curious about the other person. To even consider these questions is likely to engender openness rather than closed-mindedness and compassion rather than anger. Even a subtle shift in your thinking as you approach conversation can result in a significant change in outcome.

The next time you’re drinking a beverage over ice, take a look at that ice in your glass. Let it remind you how much lies beneath the surface in both yourself and the people with whom you live and work. What lies beneath the surface that is driving those issues that bob up above? It could be anything.

Image by Flickr user ttstam.

Ways You Can Recover from Conflict at Work (Part one)

Angry Owl

One morning, a friend called me and said she needed to talk to someone who would just listen. “I can do that, sure!” I said. “Bring it on…” No sooner did I invite her to unload on me than I received a text from a coworker saying I was late for a conference call.

This was a job where I traveled most of the time, and when I wasn’t traveling I worked from my house. I was part of a team that included members in Texas, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, and Indiana. We traveled together and worked together in person, but usually only in pairs, so our meetings always took place over the phone.

I apologized to my friend and quickly disconnected so I could call in late to the meeting with my team, unsure of what to expect. My boss started the meeting by asking me to “talk through” some work I’d done.

I’d taken some talking points prepared by another coworker–I’ll call him D.E.–and added some visuals for a PowerPoint presentation with “pop.” I had expected my boss to evaluate everything, decide what she wanted to use, and then let us know the final results. But this hadn’t happened. The presentation was just the same as when I’d sent it to her, and she was waiting for me to share the thinking behind all my choices.

This was a completely reasonable (if not generous) request, but because it was not what I’d expected, and I was already off kilter because of being late to the meeting, I felt surprised and confused I started fumbling my way through, and then D.E. started criticizing the photos.

My face and ears flushed hot. How dare he criticize me in front of everyone, including the boss? I was being ambushed! I reacted violently, talking over him louder and louder. When he insisted that he “knew where I was coming from,” I shouted back, “I don’t think you do!”–and then I shut up because I was boiling over. Did I really have to put up with that kind of treatment?

Conflict at work can be frequent but baffling. When this is the case, the impulse to start job searching is more than understandable. (I’ll get back to D.E. in a moment.)

Recently I have heard stories of conflict from several of my clients, and they are so easy to understand. When we feel threatened, anger is an emotion that makes sense and is perfectly legitimate. We feel anger whenever we feel that someone is standing between us and our ability to achieve a goal, any time we feel we’ve been treated unfairly.

If you find yourself in conflict with a colleague, it may not be necessary for you to put yourself at risk through a confrontation or to risk your salary by walking out on the job. Often you can make things better just by working on your own side of the conflict. By changing your contribution you will change the dynamic that has developed between you. Not all conflicts are the same, so I’ll offer a few different things to consider in the next post. One thing they all have in common? It’s all about you–how you think and what you do.

The following three suggestions are best used for conflicts as they happen – the fights or dust-ups that come up along the way. If possible, use all three.

1. Acknowledge your own insecurity and imperfection

It’s not unusual for our anger and defensiveness in conflict to be fueled in part by insecurity. D.E. criticized my work at a time when I wasn’t feeling at all confident in the work I had produced, and my defensiveness was only making things worse. We can say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I feel it’s important to try this.” Humor can also help. I might have been more successful if I could’ve cracked, “I think D.E. is giving me too much credit here. Could somebody point out some flaws?”

If the moment for the above passes before you have a chance to do this, you can still do the next two, which I recommend doing together.

2. Clarify your needs

When we are in the moment of conflict it can be hard to think things through with a clear head. I usually have to let that moment pass, but then I think through what I am feeling and what I need. A great tool for this is the NonViolent Communication (NVC) process by Marshall Rosenberg.

    1. State observations
    2. Name feelings
    3. Describe needs
    4. Make any requests.

Fortunately the Center for Nonviolent Communication provides lots of resources online, including lists of feelings and lists of needs. But I would highly recommend that you begin by reading Marshall Rosenberg’s book. Just the act of clarifying my interests and needs helps me to calm down, even when I’m just doing it by myself.

3. Intentionally bridge the gap

This can be the most difficult and yet most critical step. If we start avoiding the other person–which is natural–then our relationship with that person becomes frozen in time. The conflict becomes bigger than it was to begin with. It defines the relationship, and it never goes away.

When we intentionally develop closeness with that other person, we give the relationship space to become something else–something more or better. And we give ourselves the gift of freedom from the conflict.

Here’s how I used those last two steps together following the conference call:

I waited until my brain cooled off and then wrote up a couple of NVC sentences that I wanted to offer to D.E. I called him up and told him about the emotional soup I’d brought to the call and how surprised I had been by how things unfolded. He was congenial and apologetic, and owned up to expressing himself more strongly than he necessarily felt. In this cool-headed state I was better able to share with him what it was that he had said that had triggered me, and he understood.

We worked well together for the rest of our time as colleagues, but because of our differences we did have a few more dust-ups. Every time I had to cool down, write out what I needed to say, and then call him up to re-establish contact. It worked.

If you’re willing to work on yourself, this may be a way forward without having to quit your job. I’ll offer another in my next post. And, if the relationship has already gone a bridge too far, that’s a whole other story. We’ll get there in yet another future post.

Too much to do!!


Will you do this for me?

When can you get that done?

I know this is last-minute, but…

Oh good, you’re here. Guess what just blew up?

If you are like most managers and leaders, these phrases characterize your days. Many of us feel a slight tightening in the throat when we hear them, because we know we’ve already taken on too much.

Will I do that for you? Ugh. I don’t have time! And you’ll talk me into it anyway.

When can I get it done? How’s never for you? But I can try for next week… or today. Sure.

What blew up this time?

If this describes you, look at the steps below for help. They describe a three-pronged approach:

  1. Change your systems so you aren’t putting out fires all the time,
  2. Focus on what’s important, and
  3. Organize.

Simple, but not easy. Let’s take a look at each one.

Which of these describes you most?

I spend all my time putting out fires

If you have this experience at all, start here.  Begin by identifying what steps need to be taken to prevent these fires from starting up in the first place.

Here’s an example to illustrate: When I was managing a cafe, I had multiple problems from the first day I took over: Staff members were failing to show up to work, machines breaking down, we got complaints about the food and even bad coffee. One at a time I identified the firestarters and addressed them. Engage the employees at the level of their passion. Implement maintenance schedules for machines, etc. Every “fix” was more than just a fix for the moment, but a fix for the system:

Trace the fire back to its source and address that with a systemic change..

I’m going in too many different directions and never have any focus.

It’s so human to try to keep all the plates spinning. We play whack-a-mole with our responsibilities, and it’s exhausting. The more we engage in this behavior, the more it grows. In fact, the people around us know that “If you want to get something done, you go to a busy person.” And when you are in the midst of the maelstrom, you will never be able to identify where your energy needs to go. Instead, you have to:

take a step back–get out of the busyness and chaos so you can see the whole picture. This might mean a vacation, but more likely it will require a serious retreat where you have time and structure to take a broad view and see the landscape.

identify your priorities–determine what, out of everything you have been doing, you truly care about and want to put your energy toward. What matters most to you?

close doors. While it is very human to want to keep options open, that is a motivation that is killing your productivity. Closing doors isn’t about burning bridges but saying ‘no.’ When you close doors, you eliminate from your life and work anything that will distract you from achieving your core purpose.

Too much is falling through the cracks.

Many people believe ‘getting organized” is the first step. They might buy a new filing system or hire someone to help them sort their closet or desk or calendar. Instead, I believe organization needs to be tackled after your firefighting days have decreased and you have a sense for your priorities and purpose.

Where do you need to begin?

  1. Changing your systems so you can do something other than firefighting?
  2. Identify your priorities so you can focus?
  3. Organizing your life and work so you won’t miss so much?

These are not easy answers or ‘quick steps.’ To actually do this work requires focus, attention, and work–all of which are difficult to apply when you’re feeling under the gun all of the time!

If you feel that you have too much to do, if you are a leader looking for support and partnership for thinking through and implementing these strategies, it makes a big difference to work with a partner who can keep you on target and moving forward. A coach is one of the best sources for this kind of support. Let me know if you would like to discuss some options.

Because of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show

Jon Stewart

Because of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show (and also Colbert), I’ve held belief that there is SOMETHING that each of us is uniquely capable of doing for the world that, if we could only see what it is and find a way to make it happen, would make us each successful beyond our dreams.

Jon was a good comedian and an actor who did fine. But he kept trying new things until he was described as incredible and amazing and important.

I believe that is in each of us. But we have to keep trying new things. Every day we sigh and accept ‘good’ and ‘fine’ is a day we are postponing our own experience of incredible and amazing.

Michael Jordan was not so great at baseball or golf.

What would you try if you knew you could not fail? What’s in your ideal job description, “if only?” What’s one thing you could do today to move yourself closer to the reality of that dream?

The Easter Cross, the crash of nails, and the mirrors.

Iron nails, posted to Flickr by user ncculture

The most powerful Easter experience I ever had was in a liberal/progressive, “welcoming and affirming” American Baptist Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania.  It would have been in the spring of 1994 or 1995, I think.

In a service before Easter, probably Palm Sunday (somehow), the pastor had delivered a sermon which included with it an activity that called on the entire congregation in attendance to participate.

Throughout the activity, we listened and sang about the nature of sin as separation from goodness, separation from each other, brokenness in relationship with others and with ourselves, all the judgments and anger and sullen self-centered obsessions that get in the way of our being able to love and accept each other.

And as we sang and listened, we processed through the sanctuary, getting in line to pick up our nails.

These nails symbolized our own sin–not surfacy things like drinking or lust or swearing but those things that fundamentally keep us from being in right relationship with each other, with God, with ourselves.

So we each picked up a handful of nails and walked up to a cross that was about two and a half to three feet tall, standing on a table in the center of the sanctuary.  The cross had strips of powerful magnets embedded in both beams, so the wrought-iron nails stuck easily to the magnets.

It was a large church, so when we were all finished, the cross was really covered in nails.  That was pretty symbolic.

On Eastern Sunday, the minister preached a sermon not so very different from most mainline Christian pastors and priests might preach.  Jesus took our sins upon himself, and because he did, we are not bound to them. We can–any time we choose–let them go and return to right relationship with each other.

To symbolize this act of removal and letting go, the minister in his robe and stole strode over to the cross covered with our nails and started wiping the nails off with great sweeps of his hand.

The nails crashed to the table, the iron clattering against glass and wood in a rolling thunderclap that resounded through the sanctuary. Stroke after stroke, the nails fell, smashing into each other, piling up on the table and scattering to the floor.  Each swipe and crash and clatter startled me, sending shivers around my skin like an electric charge.

It was the most visceral experience I’ve ever had of what it meant to have a clean slate. A fresh chance. My mistakes and fears and scorn all removed, piled up, and scattered.

I think of that cross, those nails, that thundering echo every Easter Sunday.

I do, of course, still have mistakes and fears and more scorn, still more, despite learning to respect others.

But I am grateful for the shining lights of faith, whatever that faith may be, whether Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or whatever, that have come into my life to let me know that I can set those mistakes and fears and scorn aside. I can risk loving even people who seem unreasonable. I can risk loving even people who seem wrong.

I can risk loving them because they help me to see the parts of myself that I still judge, that I still look down upon and reject.  I am learning that people who set us off are like mirrors, helping us to see what it is we haven’t yet learned to accept about the condition of being human.

I’ve learned that, as long as there are pieces of myself and pieces of you that I reject, there’s something inauthentic about how I am in the world. Mistakes and fears and even those things that might invite scorn are not who we are. We might even be passionate about them, but they do not define us.

Our humanness defines us. And while we each are unique–you are the only one of you that will ever be–our humanness ties us together.  We will have that in common, even if we have fundamentally different beliefs about what all of this means.

I can set aside my mistakes, my fears, and even my scorn to risk loving my own unreasonable, occasionally wrong self.  We are all in this together.

So I invite you to think of the last person you thought was crazy or unreasonable or neurotic or whatever, and just whisper, “Maybe I can accept them, because that is not all that they are, and I am also sometimes crazy (or unreasonable or neurotic or whatever). Maybe (another deep breath here) I can accept myself. We’re all in this together.”

For further reading: Pema Chodron on how and why to Be Grateful to Everyone.

Solutions emerging from a fishbowl

Business meeting photo courtesy of Highways Agency (on Flickr)

I operate on a few principles that get results:

  1. For new solutions, ideas, and strategies to emerge, we need to find a mid-point between order and chaos1.
  2. Asking questions with true curiosity helps us uncover more of the details, more of the system, more of our assumptions, and more possibilities2.
  3. We need to observe our reality before we can effectively change3.

A work group’s leadership asked me to help them address some challenges that had arisen in the ranks. They had faced change in their environments, and these leaders asked me to help them build community, ownership, and resilience.

I designed a retreat that would help the group members share stories, remember and practice tools they had for dealing with change, and build their own action plans. An activity I created4 to help them shift from remembering to practicing positive behaviors utilized these principles of emergence, disciplined questioning, and observation: a “fishbowl” exercise.

In the fishbowl, five volunteers from the group were asked to discuss an issue while the rest of the group silently observed.

I’d asked a member of the leadership team to volunteer for the fishbowl and prepared him for this role ahead of time. He was to present the topic for conversation and ask the other members of the group for help in addressing the problem.

The entire fishbowl group had been charged with exploring the topic, framing the problem in a way that they could actually solve, and begin preparing action steps. They also were given two ground rules: One, to make statements only in response to questions as often as they could, and Two, allow the facilitator (me) to intervene.

Observers had a charge as well: to look for positive evidence of certain positive behaviors–tools for dealing with change that the group had already learned.

After explaining to everyone in the room each set of roles and expectations so that all could visualize the whole, I asked the fishbowl group to begin. They discussed their topic for fifteen minutes without my intervention, and then I asked them to pause in their conversation to check the progress:

  1. “Fishbowl group, what is working so far?”
  2. “Observers, what positive behaviors (tools) in action have you seen so far?”
  3. “Fishbowl group, what could you do to be even more effective?”

When we finished with this five-minute round of questions, the fishbowl participants finished their discussion.

The results were fantastic.

  • The roles and charges for each group had created enough order to hold the chaos of a conversation I could not have predicted.
  • The charge to ask questions had uncovered a plethora of assumptions most in the room had never realized were held.
  • The opportunity to reflect on progress and identify effective steps forward helped them identify for themselves an important path out of confusion, and
  • the presence of observers with the charge to watch for positive behaviors helped the fishbowl participants engage at a more effective level.

You can take advantage of these strategies right away by asking one person in each meeting to watch out for positive behaviors, using any set of tools they are familiar with (such as Covey’s 7 Habits). Ask everyone in the meeting to respect the observer’s role, defer to him/her when the process-check time comes up, and listen with curiosity. Ask the observer to stop the meeting 20-30 minutes in (if it’s an hour-long meeting) to prompt a process check with the three questions outlined above–offering observations in response to question #2.

After a few meetings, and participants have grown accustomed to the presence of the observer/facilitator, you may decide to give the observer/facilitator greater power by asking him/her to stop the group with the same questions and offer positive feedback whenever it seems stuck in an ineffective rut.

What do you think of this idea? Does it sound like something you could try?

1 This principle came to me from the Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations. Read more and register here for training in Ohio.
2 A great resource for this is Michael Marquart’s book on Action Learning.
3 I also recommend Doug Silbee’s page on habits and self-observation.
4 I gratefully acknowledge the input, perspective, and deep questions of Rick Livingston, whose feedback helped refine the design of this activity into something with far less order and better opportunities for emergence.