Tag Archives: conflict resolution

Non Anxious Presence 1

Something ‘Touchy-Feely’ for the Office: The Non-Anxious Presence

I have written previously about planks in a preventive approach to workplace conflict. Shortly I will be writing about the costs of allowing conflict to escalate and the costs and benefits of soft processes like mediation. But now for something ‘touchy feely’. (I know how well that stuff goes down with managers!)

Many of the conflicts in which I have been invited to intervene have entailed massive degrees of reactivity on the parts of key players. This has often proceeded from insecurities and anxiety around role clarity, status and perceived threats to a sense of self-esteema and competence. Within this cocktail of reactivity it may take only one player to have the capacity to stand back, take stock and bring a different quality of presence to the situation. Managers may be effective key persons modelling this kind of ‘non-anxious presence’ amid office or workplace battles.

The phrase ‘non-anxious presence’ is a phrase used to connote the quality of this connection with others. This kind of presence is, ideally, free of pre-occupations with our own anxieties (e.g. about what to say next, etc), distracting trends of thought that call us away from the present moment, or crippling resonances of past experience evoked by the present situation or self-interested agendas. Of course anxieties are augmented all the more in situations of conflict, especially when they entail a perceived threat to one’s power, status or sense of competence.

While a ‘non-anxious presence’ is not overcome by any of the above-mentioned dynamics, it is still mindful of them, as they will make up the sometimes very loud background music. We remain mindful of their dynamics and power for disruption. In a word, to be ‘non-anxiously’ present is to allow the intention to be present to others to override any inner turmoil that may be around. This may be immensely challenging in a conflict situation, especially for the parties involved. A key building block enabling this ability to bracket turmoil, while remaining mindful of it’s stirring, is emotional maturity. The capacity for a non anxious presence rooted in emotional maturity serves all of us well, especially in people management roles or as third parties supporting individuals in the heat of conflict.

The development and nurture of emotional maturity has been a key plank in my own work with people over the years. Whether as a trainer or mediator, I have sought to assist the growth of self-awareness alongside technical skills for engaging with conflict. Emotional maturity in the sense I understand it is a capacity to be deeply aware of and name one’s feelings and connect with one’s own thoughts and body. It entails a capability for being earthed in the present moment. Perhaps emotional maturity should by definition comprise part of the person spec for anyone in a ‘people management’ role along side other competencies.

Louise Gold writes about the healing dimension of mediation and proposes ‘presence’ as an integral quality of the mediator. She defines ‘presence’ in terms of centeredness, a conscious connection to one’s deepest values and beliefs, connectedness to the other’s humanity and being congruent, i.e. doing what you are and being what you do. Where this quality of presence obtains, there is also a commitment to our own and the other person’s wellbeing, the mindful awareness of what is going on for both of us while disentangling our own baggage from what belongs to someone else and an ability to sit in the storm of a conflict without losing connection with the calm centre.

The more we cultivate this kind of self-awareness, the more we will be able to bring that quality of presence to the full repertoire of interactions with those around us, friend, family and ‘foe’ alike. Also there is a difference between ‘non-anxious’ presence and being free of anxiety. As a friend recently put it, it is ‘to be anxious but not be anxious about being anxious’. Here anxiousness becomes part of the mindful energy that helps us contribute to the wellbeing of our social worlds.

This may all sound touch feely but I believe that the development of this ‘soft skill’ for managers – and any employee – can prevent some hard consequences both in human and financial costs.

Pig

Lessons from a Pig

You may have come across this story before:

Two drivers are careening down a country lane from opposite directions. The winding road is narrow and bounded on each side by hedgerows, affording little space for manoeuvre. One of the drivers, a gentleman, was focused on the road and thinking about his destination. Suddenly, from the opposite direction, a car appears, driving at speed. The two cars just manage to scrape pass each other without damaging the cars. The woman driving the other car shouts ‘Pig!’ as she passes by. The man quickly lowers his own window screen and yells back, ‘Cow!.

As he rounds the next bend he ploughs into a pig standing in the middle of the road.

There often lay behind conflict various assumptions we make about one another. I have often found this to be the case in work based conflicts and neighbourhood disputes. Individuals assume what the other one intends or thinks. ‘‘He is deliberately winding me up with his radio playing.” “She is trying to undermine my work.” “He is a racist!” “They are anti-social and do not care one bit for the wellbeing of others’. ‘He knows how I feel about that!” Etc. The problems then escalate in proportion to the lack of communication between individuals. Sometimes people are just too worked up to attempt direct communication, imagine that they can’t speak to the other person for whatever reasons or simply because the default position of talking about the other person rather than to them is so deeply rooted.

In the absence of direct communication between individuals, caricatures develop and issues multiply and become inflated. The enemy image that is nurtured regarding the other tends to lend weight to one’s own sense of righteousness and being hard-done by. It colours our perception of their every word and action. Where there is a power differential between individuals (e.g. one person has line management responsibilities in relation to the other) the prospects for distortion are immense.

I have often had the experience as a third party mediator of a palpable release of tension as individuals communicate with each other clearly and honestly, very often discovering facts about each other that were, up till then, unknown. Previous perceptions are put into a very different context of understanding we light is shed on them through actually listening to one another. On one memorable occasion, two neighbours who had loathed each other because of an on-going conflict over noise issues not only came to view each other in a manner stripped of previous assumptions but came to an amicable agreement and then shared the cost of a taxi home. I discovered sometime later that when one of the women was widowed shortly thereafter, the neighbour with whom she had been in conflict became a major source of support for her.

But conflicts do not necessarily have to be resolved by third party mediation. We CAN talk to each other. Sometimes, because of habit, we may need someone to coach us along the way. In workplace situations management can help by helping to create an atmosphere of wholesome communication and providing support, from outside if needs be, when communication breaks down. Conflict resolution, empathetic listening and communication training are an investment in people and workforce well worth making.

Where there is a habit and culture of open and honest communication assumptions can be tested before they become hardened into ‘truths’ about one another and conflict processed in a way that is healthy and promotes wellbeing.

So the next time someone shouts ‘Pig!’ in your direction you may wish to consider your assumptions about what they mean. And do drive carefully.

human labour

Conflict ‘Provention’ in the Workplace

Some years ago, John Burton in his book, Conflict: Resolution and Provention’ addresses intractable conflicts on the international stage. He coined the term ‘conflict provention’, which he proposes as an approach to conflict resolution that is based on human needs theory. He noted the broad failure of traditional techniques of social control and enforced resolutions to provoke significant change in arenas of conflict. By ‘provention’ Burton means proactively addressing through structural and dialogical means, the bedrock human needs that remain unsatisfied in the conflict situation, with a view to preventing conflicts from arising.

There is also learning here for conflict resolution in the work place. I was talking to a friend a few days ago who was describing some of the targets that had been set for him regarding a project he was managing. He commented that the targets were highly impractical in terms of the projected time frame and had clearly been determined by funding and local authority agendas. They reflected perfectly the ethos of ‘Performance Management’, which focuses on targets more than the worker delivering the service. The targets are often designed without any reference to the wellbeing of the worker, however worthwhile those targets might be. (Who would not want to see a major children’s event come off successfully, or a range of supportive services delivered in deprived areas of a community?) But where the targets, in their cumulative form, are out of sync with the ‘human resources’ for delivering them, we set the workers up for failure and burnout and generate conditions for workplace conflict. (By the way, I dislike the term ‘human resources’. There is something cold in it that reduces the human worker to a factor of production or a cog in the machine.)

One important ‘proventive’ factor that might usefully be built into a company, agency or business’s approach to work includes a more humane way of setting targets for the workforce. Teachers, social workers and professionals across statutory and private sectors lose many good people through burnout and stress and no doubt often create conditions rife with conflict. (My friend tells me he will deliver the targets but at the cost of his own wellbeing and, perhaps, the wellbeing of his household. He does not want to be seen as ‘a failure’.)

Of course a realistic regard for one’s market and the ‘mission’ of one’s business or agency are important factors in a larger business plan. I am not suggesting that we disregard these but only that something else is needed to humanise the equation. Setting targets should include an evaluation of market concerns, service delivery and the potential impact on the wellbeing of those delivering the service. This will entail a culture shift for many organisations. It also requires, in some context, collaboration – not to mention, creativity – at many levels: local delivery services, local authorities, and central government – and, for third sector agencies, private trust fund bodies. In the private sphere there will also be a number of stakeholders who need to be engaged in a ‘proventive’ strategy for approaching service delivery. This becomes more urgent especially in an atmosphere where cuts are being made and workers are required to pick up the slack in a reduced workforce.

Whether such a shift is likely in what is more and more a buyers’ market characterised by zero hour contracts, big bonuses for those profiting from increasing surplus value on labour, and workers desperate to keep or find jobs remains to be seen. But I suspect that when individual workers feel valued and have a stake in setting targets and agendas for their work they will have more energy, a sense of meaning and good will that will pay dividends in levels of productivity and morale.