Welcome to HEN - Transforming Conflict for our Health, Environment, Negotiation
HEN is published each month by Julia Menard:
Helping the Workplace Engage - One Tough Conversation at a Time! juliamenard.com
HEN arrives at the full moon -
because light transforms darkness.
Full Moon: June 20, 2016 - Year 14, Issue 6
Table of Contents:
1. HEALTH - The Power of Gossip
Have you ever overheard a conversation others were having - when you walked by, or sat beside someone in a coffee shop or restaurant? What I’ve noticed is that they often seem to involve talking about someone else not in the conversation: “She said…”, “I can’t believe he said…”, “When they were saying that…”
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar estimates gossip makes up two-thirds of all of our conversations – so no wonder it seems like it’s all the time!
Add this to what Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has discovered about gossip, and we’ve got a potent mix. Barrett is part of a team studying how gossip affects not just what we know about an unfamiliar person, but how we feel about them.
The team has shown that getting secondhand information about a person can change how we see them – literally! Barrett and her team set out to answer this question: Once hearsay has predisposed us to see someone in a certain way, is it possible that we literally see them differently?
Volunteers were asked to look at faces paired with statements of gossip. Some of the faces were linked to negative gossip, such as "he threw a chair at his classmate." Other faces were associated with more positive actions, such as "she helped an elderly woman with her groceries." Then the researchers looked to see how the volunteers' brains responded to the different kinds of information.
The team found that volunteers' brains were most likely to fix on faces associated with negative gossip and that the gossip affected how they saw the people visually, suggesting we are hardwired to pay more attention to a person if we've been told they are dangerous in some way, unpleasant or dishonest.
Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology sees this interest in gossip, not as a character flaw, but part of who we are as humans. He views gossip as a biological event – there for evolutionary reasons. He says that even when primitive humans lived in small groups, they needed to know who might be a threat. Gossip is a primitive way to assess danger.
By sharing negative information about another person, we unknowingly create distinct social identities — the gossiper brings the person he is gossiping with into his fold and creates an in-group while the person being gossiped about is made out to be an outsider (the creation of an out-group).
Add to this whole mix that we get a dopamine release when we gossip, and it’s just a fact that gossip is here to stay.
The problem is, gossip is often inaccurate, distortional and can change what we notice about another person, reinforcing the image and story of someone so narrowly that it’s difficult for there to be any other way of seeing.
We will never “stamp out” gossip – given its part of our biological survival mechanism. But we can become more conscious about gossip and the negative impact complaining about our co-workers can have.
Because of the work I do, I’ve developed a bit of an internal radar so that when I notice myself gossiping or complaining about another person, I use it as an indication that I need to take action. Either I need to talk with the person directly, or I need to get some help on how I can approach the person (or some perspective to let it go). I’ve become much more conscious, through personal and professional experience, of the cost of this very human tendency to gossip.
What do you do when someone comes to you to complain? Do you just listen (but fume inside)? Most people either listen or join in.
There is a third way. When someone comes to you to complain about a co-worker, you could see it as an opportunity to help the person figure out both the risks and benefits of approaching the other person to talk with them directly. It’s your time to be a conflict coach for someone else. Or let them know gossip comes at a cost and that you want to help – but not to take sides but to help to resolve the issues.
Start a conversation in your workplace about gossip. Is it okay? When might it be okay? When not? What kind of agreements do you and your team want to make about it? Gossip has a bad rap, but if it can be acknowledged that it is hard-wired into us human animals, then maybe the conversations can start on how to engage with it productively.
"Gossip, as usual, was one-third right and two-thirds wrong.”
… L.M. Montgomery
2. ENVIRONMENT - Where Does Our History Begin?
I was attending one of my classes the other day for my Masters in Education - on Place-Based Learning Communities (with one of my favourite profs, Dr. Ron Faris). We all presented our findings on various learning cities throughout the world. Student after student stood up and presented the historical context of their chosen learning city as well as what objectives and measures each city used to arrive at the distinction of being a learning city. We learned of the thousands of years old cities in China (Lu-shan’s “learning mountain”), Finland (Espoo) and India (Udaipur).
One group chose to present on Vancouver, as it is a learning city (as is my home town of Victoria, BC).
The students started their presentation as had the others, with an historical overview. After hearing about the thousands of years of history in all the other presentations, it seemed absurd to hear the start of Vancouver as being a few hundred years ago, when we all know that human civilization on these lands also go back thousands of years.
This national historical amnesia is one clear manifestation of a past that is buried.
We are part of one lineage that knits us all together by virtue of our presence here. A love and acknowledging of the land we all share, and its deep historical roots, brings us closer together.
I learned this lesson years ago when I had travelled up to Bella Bella on the British Columbia coastline. In an effort to make small talk, I asked a young person who lived there the most common small talk question I’m used to being asked and asking: “How long has your family lived here?”
The young woman looked genuinely confused and went silent for a moment. She then looked up and said: “I don’t know. Maybe 14,000 years.”
‘…the traditional knowledge of the aboriginal peoples of Canada should be considered in the assessment of which species may be at risk and in developing and implementing recovery measures.’” (The preamble to the Species At Risk Act (SARA), enacted in 2002)
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3. NEGOTIATION - Mediator in a Box
If you supervise or lead people, you will probably not be surprised to hear that supervisors and leaders in the workplace deal with conflict 25 to 40% of the time.
Yet, most are not given any training in how to deal with conflict. This is especially evident when a leader will say that their employees are “acting like children.” That phrase tells me the individual saying it does not have an informed way of looking at conflict. Although some people may appear to be acting in ways that are similar to children, we can all have that same tendency when faced with enough stress and conflict.
Conflict, and the behaviours that go along with it, are symptoms of any number of problems going on underneath.
Two people who refuse to speak with each other in the workplace could be the end result of a leader who has not held either party to a higher standard of accountability for respectful behaviour. It could be a training gap for one or both parties – where a course on how to engage difficult conversations would be helpful. Perhaps that course could be useful for the leader and the whole team. It could be that job descriptions or roles are not clear and causing friction. It could be that the workloads are unmanageable. It could be a series of “pinches” – small miscommunications not checked out and clarified. Perhaps gossip has been running rampant and “sides” have been established.
What matters is not whether conflict does or does not exist — it does — but whether you and your team understand how to engage conflict in a way that can harness its creative and innovative potential.
It starts with raising your awareness of when conflict is starting to happen. It’s most productive to intervene earlier than later. If you observe any of these warning signs, you need to intervene:
- A sudden change in employee behavior
- A sudden change in employee body language or verbal tone
- Increased absences
- A noticeable reduction in productivity
- Increased palpable stress levels
Encouraging your employees to work out mild conflicts is a great way to build team morale and save precious management time. Without training and agreements on how to work out those differences though, it can backfire and cause unintended consequences like more destructive conflict dynamics, so training and support need to go along with the expectation to resolve conflict. But if your employees begin exhibiting these behaviors, it’s time to step in.
But how do you assess what is going on and how do you intervene?
This is a complex juncture – and the subject of whole courses. One important step is to simply talk to people. Ask questions. Repeat back answers. Stay curious, unbiased, open. This could be called the “assessment” phase. Don’t just accept one person’s point of view as “the” truth – but search out for more pieces of the truth to create a wider, more robust understanding of what the problem or problems could be.
And resist the temptation to decide one person is the problem. In one organizational-wide change, the organization was able to reduce on the job errors and increase productivity by shifting the blame from individuals to the system. Errors were attributed to systems failures and more people started coming forward; “Leesa [Lyster, St. Joseph’s General Hospital, Comox] worked with staff physicians, senior leadership and our board of directors to … move from a culture of blame and shame to an environment that focused on system changes and learning opportunities.”
One tool which can help you stay omni-partial is Mediator in a Box. Mediator in a Box was created by two sisters, Marla Sloan and Clare Sprowell. They spent years researching an interest-based conflict resolution model and turning it into a simple step by step model which can be used for most disputes.
In a 2008 study on Workplace Conflict by CPP Inc,“only 22% of non-managerial employees believed that their managers do a great job of sorting out disagreements.” Furthermore, the single most critical activity for effective conflict management was listed by respondents to be conversation:
- More informal one-to-one conversations with direct reports (chosen by 42%)
- Providing more clarity over expected forms of behavior (40%)
- Acting as mediators (40%)
When Marla and Clare approached me about becoming the Canadian distributor for Mediator in a Box, I was thrilled as it’s a product I really believe in! Mediator in a Box can provide a structure to help leaders work through conflict. Using a tool like Mediator in a Box also offers a step by step process that can help assess what might be going on. A too common trap is for a supervisor to side with one employee or the other and using something like Mediator in a Box can help with omnipartiality as well.
I’d love to hear your experience!
“The whole business starts with ideas, and we’re convinced that ideas come out of an environment of supportive conflict, which is synonymous with appropriate friction.”
… Michael Eisner, CEO and Chairman of Disney
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Julia Menard, B.A., Cert. Con. Res., P.C.C.
Leadership & Conflict Coaching, Mediating, & Training