JW Way Fundamental #18: Speak constructively. “Address issues in a candid, direct, kind and respectful manner with those involved or affected. Be courageous enough to say what you believe should be said. Ask questions, share ideas, raise issues, and be open to responses. Make constructive suggestions in a way that helps make progress. When possible, speak in person rather than hiding behind email or voicemail. “
A parent of a teenager recently reached out to me about challenges that he was having with his daughter. While he thought he was clear, there had been ongoing miscommunications between them and now they were barely speaking. He was looking for a way to re-open dialog between them as he wants his daughter to mature to become a successful woman. As we talked, I thought of a concept from Steven Covey’s hugely successful book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in which one of the chapters is titled Begin with the End in Mind. The concept is just as it sounds – where do you want to end? If we stay focused on the outcome, then some of the tumult and conflict that occurs does not stop or derail us.
We all face conflict in our personal and professional lives. How we navigate that conflict determines the quality of our relationships. There may be a single moment of conflict that defines a relationship, either positively or negatively. With that much at stake, it is important to be purposeful. Work conflicts can cause people to forget where they want to end up. Ignoring the collateral relational damage, they just forge forward with their agenda. There is limited learning and there can be a large price to be paid to always be right.
Our work teams are comprised of various personalities. Some people want to be right, some want to lead, some want to follow, some are perfectionists, some are lone wolves and some are people pleasers. Some of those personality types may avoid conflict. However, little unresolved skirmishes with others build and eventually will create small rifts in their relationships. If it continues, eventually their relationship is torn and may not be repairable. The conflict avoider’s unwillingness to address the conflict causes them to procrastinate and wait to address the issue. It looms larger and becomes more unmanageable to address. Fear and anxiety will stop people from having the conversation. Which too causes the relationship to fray. Conversely, a hastily sent email or a comment made out of anger without reflection or thought of consequences to the relationship is also damaging. Timing is important. Both delays and immediate responses can undermine relationship integrity.
Once there is the courage to have the conversation, there are several strategies – for both parties – to move the conversation forward. Empathy and caring are critical. Place yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider your reaction if you were receiving this message. Be honest, yet empathic and kind. It is important to understand how the other person perceives conflict as past experiences will influence how easily conflict is to navigate for them. Direct communication is different based on the person.
Openness and authenticity are vital, particularly if it is a message that the other person doesn’t want to hear. Viewing feedback as a learning opportunity – not criticism – will create an opening for that feedback and opportunity for learning. This can be very difficult. Listen fully to the other party prior to responding and if time is needed to process the feedback, request it. There is a fine line between being assertive and aggressive. This is one area that can quickly disrupt a relationship as people can easily transition to being aggressive particularly if they are feeling threatened. Being assertive is not being a pushover or being rolled over by someone else’s opinion. One form of being aggressive is unloading on the other person and then leaving. Aggressiveness rarely achieves positive outcomes. At all times, providing optimal feedback requires caring, kindness, and a focus on growth and learning. It is never about serving just one person’s ego.
As are many things, this is not about reaching a goal in one conversation. Rather it is the journey towards that goal. The focus is on always making progress towards the end goal, even if it is small progress. It may not be done instantly, rather made through incremental progress. So back to our teenager. Both the dad’s and the daughter’s desired “end” are to have her be successful. Their vision of what that looks like differed for each of them. Keeping their focus on the end will help them transverse and maintain a healthy dynamic relationship.
About the Author: Brenda Edwards is the Executive Director of Jaburg Wilk where she is responsible for operations of the firm. She is a frequent author on management topics.