2013 was a challenging year for me personally and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I made a somewhat chaotic start to 2014. Exhausted, I have faced any number of new tests at a time when I feel my energies are depleted.
At work, in a state of exhaustion, I have faced inner struggle as my body tells me I need to rest and my inner Company Director tells me I need to crack on. In need of space, I’ve found it hard to handle some of the challenges that face me personally and have had some difficult interactions with loved ones.
Only the other day, I missed signs that, triggered by something I’d said, a very dear friend was close to losing his temper with me – something he has never done in the quarter century we’ve known each other.
Conflict – a part of our human experience
It seems I am not alone. Whether in the work place or at home, conflict – discord between ourselves and others or conflict within ourselves – is a regular part of the human experience.
In case you doubt it, I invite you to take a moment to notice what’s going on for you at this time.
Starting with yourself, are there any parts of you that are in conflict with each other? Are you striving to move forward in some way and yet procrastinating? Are there things on your “to do” list that, somehow, you are trying to avoid? Have you set out your New Year vision for more exercise, healthier food, seeking a new job… and yet find that your actions belie your intentions. If you recognise any example of this in your own life, you probably know just how much frustration, confusion, fear and other emotions you feel as part of this inner conflict. It could even be that you feel strong emotions – fear, perhaps – about feeling those emotions. You may even be trying hard to pretend that you’re “fine”.
Are you in conflict with anyone else, either in the way you are interacting with each other or in the way you are thinking of someone or feeling about them – be it a colleague (or colleagues), a friend, your partner or other family member? Maybe you haven’t said anything and still, you’re fed up with the challenges you face when working with someone or some group of colleagues in your organisation. Maybe you just can’t face going home once again to your teenage son’s sock pile, or to your partner’s admonitions that you’re late home – again.
Maybe you’ve even had a conversation with someone in the last ten days which was tense, angry, difficult.
On the path of most resistance
Recently, I was witness to an example of a conflict between a manager and one of his members of staff.
The manager, Greg, had found out that Jane, his staff member, had said no to a request from one of the organisation’s major clients. It was her judgement that the company would struggle to meet the client’s requirements and, what’s more, to do so would be unprofitable.
The first she knew of any problems was when Greg sat her down and instructed her to make arrangements to meet the order – that day. Jane knew that her team could not do that without letting down other clients and, what’s more, she was confused. Why the instruction when she had a clear agreement with her boss to say no to any requests which would prove unprofitable to the organisation? She asked for an explanation and was told Greg would get back to her following a meeting he was scheduled to attend.
This brief exchange left Jane feeling shocked and concerned. She did, though, want to make clear that she wanted to find an outcome that worked for Greg and for her other clients. She decided to drop him an e-mail to that effect and to let him know when she was available to talk about how they could fulfil existing orders and make room for this one. She also included figures so that Greg could assess the profitability of this order.
She was shocked when Greg responded to say that he didn’t want to see her in the office for the rest of the week and would contact her by the end of the week to discuss any further disciplinary action.
Greg’s action put him squarely on the path of most resistance. Rather than work with Jane, who had expressly told him she wanted to meet with him to find a way forward that worked for them both, he chose to work against her.
Fear – and the power of compassion
Greg didn’t know it, but he acted out of fear.
His great fear was that saying no to his largest client would damage a long-standing relationship. And because it was Jane who had said no, when fear kicked in, he decided she was in the wrong and tried to exercise control. Jane, who was more than willing to collaborate with Greg to find a way forward, was not happy to be suspended without good grounds. Instead of holding a meeting to discuss a way forward that worked for everybody, Gregor’s action led to a lengthy process which consumed time and energy without actually working well for anybody.
In truth, we all have our inner Gregs and Janes. The same kind of conflict occurs when we sponsor one part of ourselves at the expense of another. Yes, we (that’s you and one part of you) think it’s a good idea to do do x – but goodness, how frustrating that one part of us is standing in the way! What a stupid part! It’s totally irrational! Let’s push a little harder… push through… The trouble is, whether we are dealing with inner conflict or conflict with some other person or group of people, this approach increases the struggle, the effort, the time needed to find an – often imperfect – way through.
In my work as a coach, I have found that struggle ends when compassionate collaboration starts. In my conversations with clients, I invite them to notice what each part of them is really wanting. As clients let go of judgement and start to really listen, they open up the possibility that parts of them that have been in conflict can begin to collaborate. The question “which part of me is right?” gives way to a different question – “how can those different parts of me find ways to ensure all our needs are met?”
In her conversations with Greg, Jane recognised that he felt a great deal of fear. She decided to stick up for her needs – but not at the expense of her manager’s. She tried to understand his fears whilst also asking for revisions to the guidance he had given her previously, so that she could support him in managing the company’s relationship with a major client. She also launched an appeal against the disciplinary action he had taken.
Sometimes, the choice to be present to everyone’s needs – to collaborate from a place of compassion – throws up solutions which surprise everyone concerned. Jane could not know ahead of time, for example, whether her discussions with Greg would throw up new solutions or lead her to conclude that she didn’t want to work under such a regime.
In my own life, gaining clarity about my baseline requirements for working with one organisation recently led me to realise that yes, we want to work with each other but no, we don’t have the basis for any kind of agreement that would work for me. I was surprised at just how relieved I felt as I leaned into this clarity and let go of trying to find a way to working together work. I knew I would prefer to be on good terms than to work under an agreement that didn’t give me what I needed.
As I shared that, no, I wouldn’t work with this particular client, I let go of struggle and stepped into ease – and a new set of possibilities. I was able to do this and to stay on good terms with a potential work partner because I gave full weight to my needs – and theirs.
It takes time and commitment to practise compassionate collaboration. At the same time, to do so opens up ways to increase your effectiveness and create ease in your role as a leader and beyond. I don’t want to understate the effort and discipline involved to develop in this area but I do want to offer you a first step:
I invite you to identify just one inner conflict or conflict with others and to get curious about what you need. Get curious, too, about what others need. And whether out loud or in your own heart start to say – to yourself, to others – “Hello. I see you. Your needs matter.”