Words—said in person or typed out—are links to our character, judgement, and heart. As a leader, my words are weighed more heavily than most. I am judged for what I say and how I respond, so it matters that I be thoughtful. But because of my childhood, I found conflict intolerable and withdrew from anything that smacked of friction, staying quiet and distant in the heat of battle.
Some people have the gift of gab and are able to respond in the moment during an argument or conflict. But I found that type of immediate response outside of my ability. Deep inside, I just wanted to be liked and accepted, and had a strong desire for peace and stability. And so I ignored conflict, hiding my true feelings, and pretending no problem existed.
As a new and young CEO, this was a miserable way to run a business. I'd hide behind time, hoping a particular issue would just disappear. Or I'd spend hours after work typing well-crafted emails, hoping the recipient could hear my tone and intention, rather than read it through the lens of the bitterness I had created. I felt that I needed time to say the right thing—the helpful thing. But these passive approaches never patched things up. Instead, the rings of connection would eventually break down, fracturing relationships and undercutting my influence.
I began taking management workshops where I learned I was doing everything wrong. I learned that direct communication created deeper attachments. Everyone just wants to feel heard and understood. It was my job to make sure they had a platform for that, but that together we could create a path forward.
If you too tend to avoid conflict in hopes that things will just get better on their own, here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned:
- Avoid blaming and shaming language: stay professional with the aim of showing up as your best self.
- Be assertive, not aggressive: think ahead of time how you can state your needs without emotion and use "video language" (only stating facts that can be seen; avoiding interpretation and judgement).
- Make a face-to-face appointment to discuss the issue over coffee, creating a neutral platform for both voices. By removing the conversation from your place of power, it communicates that you really care about the relationship.
- Repeat what you think you heard. Share what you are thinking and feeling then ask him or her to repeat what s/he thinks you said. Continue until you are both on the same page.
- Remove the situation from your self-image. Nine times out of ten, it's not personal...you both are reacting not just to the circumstance at hand, you are also reacting to the way you've been treated in the past—stored responses and cognitive filters that distort perceptions.
I am far from perfect and I need to continually remind myself of this advice—after all, I'm re-wiring and creating new cognitive pathways in my brain that are different than the ones that I learned as a child. As Lynne Eisaguirre, an author and former practicing employment attorney says, "We need to learn to listen as witnesses... to learn to listen to what is objectively there, as opposed to our messy stew of memory and desire." And with that, we can overcome past childhood experiences and create new and more healthy attachments with our employees and coworkers.