"I'll talk to your father." The mother amiably says to her distressed child.
This is a scene we have all encountered, be it personally or while watching sitcoms. The child is upset by something their father did or didn't say or do. And rather than speak directly to the offending parent, they seek not only comfort but an intermediary.
Unfortunately, such a child often grows up to become a conflict-avoidant adult.
They're the co-worker who complains with the hopes someone else will talk to their annoying colleague for them (I see this same dynamic occur between children on the playground too). They don't know how to navigate conflict because they never had to, not even in their most intimate relationships at home. So they try to outsource it to a third party.
But it's not a realistic way to reconcile our differences. When others try to smooth things over for us, we avoid addressing the deeper issues at play. There might be a truce but it's only temporary. In time, another misunderstanding will occur and now a pattern's being formed that requires an intermediary.
Within organizational settings, the go-between is often a manager (or the owner). Getting continually sucked into the middle of conflict is not only uncomfortable, but it often wastes their time. The manager is doing their employee's job by continually investing their time striving to understand each person's perspective so they can smooth things over. That's not to say managers should never invest their time and energy connecting with employees in this way. But they would be better served coaching their team members on how to communicate more effectively to resolve the conflict amongst themselves in those conversations.
It's essentially the difference between teaching a person to fish versus giving them a fish.
One of the reasons managers don't take this approach is because they haven't developed the skills to coach their team members in navigating conflict in healthy ways. Wise leaders will bring me (or someone with similar skills) in to assist with resolving persistent conflicts. Usually, there's a performance concern - the conflict is impacting customers' experiences or creating an unnecessarily stressful environment for the entire team or leading to burnout.
When managers seek outside help in this way they are making a powerful statement. First, they are saying, "I know when to ask for help!" Instead of acting like they have all the answers themselves. Second, they are saying, "I hear you, and you are worth investing in." When people feel valued, seen, and heard they are willing to contribute more.
Earlier this year, I was asked to help two team members work through what had become a persistent conflict together. First, I met with them each individually to help them prepare.
In those conversations, it came out that one of the team members, we’ll call her Casey, was conflict-avoidant because she had been in verbally abusive relationships most of her life. She had never experienced healthy conflict before and she was deeply afraid to speak her mind as a result. Because Casey shared these intimate details with me, I was able to guide her with compassion through this challenging learning opportunity.
The other team member, we’ll call her Linnea, had been struggling to find a compatible work partner for over three years. The turnover was causing stress, which she inadvertently projected onto Casey. There were things Linnea expected to be done that weren't happening.
In addition to holding the space, my job was to provide tools for them to relate to each other while finding a way forward. Upon hearing each of their stories, I recognized sharing the Four Stages of Learning could provide a lens for them to better understand each other. The Four Stages of Learning are:
Unconscious Incompetence - you don’t know what you don’t know
Conscious Incompetence - you know what you don’t know
Conscious Competence - you know what you know
Unconscious Competence - you don’t know what you know
During our time together, Casey was able to provide Linnea with valuable feedback that helped her see their working relationship from a different perspective. Not surprisingly, Linnea’s many years of experience in her role had led to a high level of Unconscious Competence. As a result, she made false assumptions about Casey’s core knowledge, which made it harder for Casey to do her job effectively.
The Four Stages of Learning was a valuable tool because it was relatable and actionable for them both. It gave Linnea a new way of sharing her expectations of Casey. And while Linnea had felt like she expressed these needs before, Casey was now in a position to hear them and ideate solutions for meeting them. Before we worked together, Casey often responded to such feedback defensively because she was triggered.
Not only were Casey and Linnea able to heal their conflict and find a way to work better together. They both also gained valuable new skills they continue to carry with them today. While Casey’s childhood experiences made her conflict-adverse, her boss gave her a tremendous gift by showing her a healthy way to navigate conflict.
Has anyone ever misunderstood what you said? Do you have an important conversation coming up but don't know how to handle it? What if you could save yourself hours of heartache, stress, and crisis mitigation with just 20 minutes of journaling? There's still time to join today's Journal Jam (at 2pm MST) and give yourself the gift of effectively navigating your next important conversation! More information and registration is available online here.