After being a “conflict professional” for a quarter of a century now, I have to tell you, the most tragic move I see in conflict starts in a very miniscule way.
Do you know those times in your life when a little thing happens between you and another person you care about? This little thing could be as small as an omission, a little white lie. Perhaps you don’t tell someone something because you are afraid it will “hurt her feelings.”
Or perhaps it seems too risky to bring something up. I mean, you’ve seen relationships go south before – why would you bring it up? Too much to lose.
Or perhaps you fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t really matter. The conversation will not change anything and it’s not important to bring it up.
No matter the reason why you tell yourself you shouldn’t bring it up, let me tell you, that’s where it starts.
That’s where the little wedge starts. This little wedge is almost imperceptible. In communication theory, there’s a name for it. It’s called a “pinch.” We write about this in the conflict theory world. Pinches are small. A colleague of mine even calls it a “dot.”
These pinches or dots are your true opportunity point!
It’s easy to bring something up when the stakes seem smaller. That is the time to engage with the difference, not when it has built up to a series of difference and a sea of gaping difference. As the pinches accumulate, as the dots compound, you are making more distance in the relationship. It’s hard to see so it might seem like it is not happening.
But just because you don’t see sound waves coming out of our stereo, does not mean there isn’t music playing – because it is.
Where can we find the sense of imperative, or “obligation” or “duty” to bring up such topics when they are small?
For leaders in the workplace, there should be no question that leaders have an obligation to provide a safe container within which conflict can emerge and be transformed in a positive, healthy way. This should be a given and an expectation of anyone who may want to, or has been given, a place of leadership in any context.
This asks a lot of leaders as well. It asks of them that they be conflict aware and, most importantly, that they be conflict competent.
In a world so replete with problems to engage, to manage and to transform, our leaders need to know that as a species, we are easily threatened. Our leaders need to know because we are easily threatened, we need a sense of emotional safety to be able to engage conflict constructively. Our leaders need to know that when we are scared, or made to become scared, we go back to our primitive, reptilian behaviours.
This happens to all of us.
Our leaders, most importantly, need to know it is their duty and obligation, to help us stay engaged with our pre-frontal cortexes. We need to be encouraged to be calm, we need to be encouraged to feel safe and secure so we engage in complex thought.
It can help all of us to pause and consider the following questions. These questions prompt us to consider the possible consequences of inaction:
- Will these pinches continue?
- Can the irritations, in you and/or in the other, fester?
- Might the other person feel hurt, or suffer in some way, if you don’t engage with this issue?
If the answer is “yes,” it is time to do the right thing.
- Find your courage
- Initiate the conversation.
- Trust the process and the other person.
Clear up the pinch. Because, guess what? No, it won’t just go away.
And if you need help figuring out how to bring it up, just ask!