Don’t Avoid Conflict just to be Nice

Originally Published on February 14, 2019 on LinkedIn

Be nice.

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

You’ve probably heard other variations of the golden rules we were taught as children to follow. I still believe in their value in our society and our human interactions but somehow, over the years, I lost touch with how I was really feeling and just kept “being nice.” When someone hurt my feelings or really pissed me off, I would keep silent and privately curse their existence. I wouldn’t tell them the truth even if they asked but I got in the habit of bitching to my friends about how I felt without addressing it with the offender.

I believe that many of you, like me, were never really taught how to address conflict in healthy ways. I remember taking a few classes at work about “Crucial Conversations” and other workshops and they may have given me exposure to new ways of dealing with conflict but it wasn’t really until years later that I was able to put them to the test and felt like I was making progress.

As I was just sitting down in an empty conference room for a video meeting, I saw a fellow co-worker opening the glass door with the fury of a bull with horns raised and ready for a fight. We had been waging war with each other via email for weeks and the last bomb had really set her off. As she rounded the large conference table toward me, her finger in the air thrashing up and down as she yelled “… what you don’t understand is…” and my ears didn’t hear the words after that. I glanced toward her with my fingers still on the keyboard, “I really want to understand you but I cannot hear past your finger in my face.” I was ready for another verbal slash but instead, she dropped into the chair beside me and began to cry. I was so surprised but I turned my chair toward hers and comforted her for a moment and knowing that people would soon be joining us in the room, I suggested she pull herself together and we’d talk later. And, we did. We talked as we walked out of the office together every day and discovered that our bosses were contributing to our battle and made a point to talk over things before assuming we were out to get each other. That was over 10 years ago and she is one of my best friends.

In another instance, I reached out to a fellow coach to partner with me on a Portfolio Management workshop. I scheduled a call with the customer to introduce her and convince him she was worth the extra investment on the contract and she didn’t show. I did the dance and apologized with the promise that we would reschedule. Another call rescheduled and she didn’t show up… again. She apologized via email later that day and I asked to meet with her to work on the workshop in the office later that week. As we sat down, she asked if we could take a moment before we jumped into the work. I still remember the words she spoke. “I want to apologize for missing both of the calls… it’s not something I’m proud of and I promise not to do again. But more importantly, I want to know how it impacted you.” It caught me off guard. No one had ever asked me that. And I could tell she was sincere. And just as I was about to reply with the all too common “It’s ok. I’m fine.” I took a purposeful pause and sat back in my chair to consider her question. How did it impact me? “Well, it was very uncomfortable for me to be on those calls after raving about how awesome you are. I had to dance around a bit to save face and thankfully he and I have a good relationship and he was understanding. I was really embarrassed and a bit upset with you.” While I was talking I realized how uncomfortable I was being this honest and at the same time, I could see that she was embarrassed too. “But, I believe in you and I want sooo much to work with you on this. I know that you’ll be so great on this account and I can learn so much from you.” If memory serves me, we both wiped away a tear or two before moving past that and getting back to the work. I didn’t share with her how important that single conversation was until weeks later over dinner after a successful day delivering the class. It was a confirmation for me that I can handle conflict much better if I let myself have feelings, acknowledge them and drop the numbness of being nice. It was also very important for her to be the one to help me that day. She was exactly who I needed in that moment to help me through conflict with vulnerability as a strength not a weakness.

Those two stories are very important for me as I continue to weave my way through conflict. I still catch myself cursing people under my breath or regretting that I bitched about the situation to my friends to let off steam. So, if you see a strange look in my eye, it could be all those training wheels straining under the pressure to be a better person, to remind myself that this conflict may not be about me but about what’s going on for you. You may be hurting and I want to be attuned to that possibility before “well, F*&! you!” slips out of my mouth. Yes, I’m a flawed person and I’m doing my best to make shifts in my beliefs that drive my thinking and my behaviors. So let’s start taking a chance with each other to be real, to be vulnerable and to consider this obstacle is the way through to deeper, more meaningful relationships.

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