Tips on how to manage both your own and others, particularly in conflict

How do you listen if someone is upset, annoyed and off-loading on you?

Listening is a much-lauded but greatly under-used skill – and not because we don’t know how to listen well.  

Instead, it’s that so easily fall into the trap of trying to ‘fix’ the situation rather than taking the time to let a person talk (and think it) through and in doing that, find their own way to sort the situation.


Video Transcript:

Hi, this is Mary Rafferty here and welcome to this short video on listening.
What I want to talk to you today about is listening in the context of a difficult conversation where somebody might be annoyed,  upset or angry. It might be with you, it might be with another person, but either way they’re coming to you to unload and unburden themselves.
The question is how do we listen in this kind of a conversation? So ‘listening’ is a really important skill and we’ve all heard the term ‘active listening’. But my experience is that a lot of us don’t listen very well and it’s actually a very under-used and underrated skill. That’s because we have a sense that when we’re listening we’re just sitting there nodding, not saying anything. We’re not really adding any value to the situation or to the conversation. We’re just letting the person go on. We wonder how is that helping solve the problem or get this situation dealt with so we can then move onto the next challenge we have to deal with.

So this brings us to the question, what actually is our role when somebody comes to us with a problem, what am I trying to do as the listener? And of course the problem is that for a lot of people, the default mode we go into, is that I have to fix this situation. So if somebody is talking to me and unpacking a problem, as the listener, what’s happening in my head are thoughts such as:

“Oh, I have to come up with a solution…I wonder if this is what they could do…that’s what they could do. Now how can I get them to do this, that, and the other.”

That means that a) my attention and energy is going to be going to what’s happening in my mind rather than what’s happening for them, and b) I’m going start to feel impatient and perhaps I’m going to want to push them very quickly onto the solution that I’ve come up with.
I’ve probably really not paid an awful lot of attention to the actual content of what they’re saying, other than to discern some facts so that, that can help me quickly come up with some sort of an optimal and speedy resolution to the situation for them.

So rather than us trying to fix the situation for that person, when we start to see that when somebody has a problem, it’s always intimately bound up with the noise in their own heads, the thinking, the feeling that’s going on for them. Nobody can actually solve the problem for somebody else.
They have to have to come to that place by themselves. And you know, we can persuade and advise and do all that stuff. But really people have to find their own way to, to work through this stuff in their own heads.

As a listener, then our role is to help them start to unpack and get some of what what’s going on inside their heads, get some of that out on the table. Because when they have unpacked that a little and when they’ve kind of verbalized and talked things through a bit, then they’re starting to have more clarity, more ideas. They’re starting to get their own  insights and ideas as to what they can do to fix the situation.
So when we’re listening from that space, listening to help the person to understand the situation for themselves, listening to empower the person to figure this out for themselves, then we’re going to be very different in how we listen to the person.

You know, we talk about active listening skills such as nodding and open body language reflecting back, nodding etc. When we’re listening from a space of trying to support a person think something through for themselves, then we’re going to be doing those things automatically because we will see the value in those.
We will see the value in making space and letting the person talk, helping them hear what they’ve just said, which is what we do when we reflect back what we have heard them say.
“So what you’re saying to me is you’re really annoyed about. Can you tell me more about what it is that really got to you there? Oh, okay. So what I’m hearing you say is that, you felt disrespected in the meeting last week with Jean, or you felt disrespected in the meeting last week with me. What was it about that? What, was happening there for you?
Can you say more about that? Oh, okay. So this is for you, is about not feeling valued or this for you is about your project not being accepted.”

So by listening from that place, we can be much more effective in helping to actually solve the problem for the person. We’re just going to be automatically more empathetic, more connected with the person. There’s a saying ‘people don’t care what you know until they know that you care’. So we’ll actually come across as more caring, more interested in them. And that in itself can give the impetus and the space for them to start to have the insights that help them figure out what they need to do or that help them communicate to you the part you might need to play in helping them sort the situation out.

To summarize then, the next time you’re in a situation where somebody is full of a story full of anxiety, full of fear, full of annoyance or irritation shift out of the ‘how do I fix this’ mode and the sense that ‘they are handing me the problem, I’ve got to sort it out’ and instead consider how you can be a catalyst here. How can you be a catalyst to help them see what they need to see so that they can take the next steps in this situation for them; or to help them communicate what’s going on inside their mind and the thinking and the feelings that are going on that you might need to understand so that you can play the part that you have to in helping sort the situation out.

I hope you found this video useful. I
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Trying to Manage a ‘Difficult’ Person: Are they Taking too much space in your head?

Does a person on your team sap everyone’s energy?Stressed out with too much thinking

Do you find yourself putting too much time and attention as a manager on their behaviours?

Are you constantly listening to grumblings from others about them?

When people come for coaching in these situations, they are usually looking for a list of strategies. How can they be stronger, firmer, more hard-nosed in ‘making the other person’ do what they should be doing.
‘How could I be more robust with them…?’ or
‘How could I make them sit up and take on board what I’m saying?’

A couple of months ago, I worked with Liz who manages a team of 8 people. She had reached the end of her tether dealing with a person on her team – let’s call him Tom, who has been difficult to deal with on many levels, over the previous 12 to 18 months. She wanted some techniques and strategies to help her address Tom’s behaviour.

It’s so tempting to think that if you could just find the right way to say something, talk to them, negotiate with them, cajole them or coerce them, things would be different. And, yes indeed, there are certainly are ways of communicating and interacting with another person that can either escalate or de-escalate conflict. I have written a lot about these already here here, and here, for example.

But if the only thing that you needed when you are dealing with a difficult person was tips and techniques, life would be very simple indeed. The world abounds with self-help books and information on ‘how to’s’ of every type. Yet, for any of us when we are faced with a stressful and challenging situation, it’s not usually simply a question of lacking information or techniques.

Instead, it’s the amount of noise and stressful thinking that gets generated in our brains in situations, that really stumps us. It does begin to feel like they are literally ‘doing your head in’.

Some of the things preying on Liz’s mind in the situation with Tom were:

  • Frustration and irritation that Tom isn’t fully performing in his role and is upsetting other people on the team
  • Concern that performance deadlines won’t be met and the knock-on impact this will have on the customer and productivity
  • Frustration at the amount of time that she has to spend listening to Tom’s colleagues complaining about his disrespectful behaviour towards them
  • Self-doubt that she hasn’t been managing the situation effectively and unease that some of this behaviour might be ‘her fault’
  • Helplessness because she has actually had a number of conversations with Tom to address various aspects of his behaviour but these have had little effect
  • Exasperation that her valuable time could be used so much more effectively if Tom would just do what he is paid to do.

In her latest book, The He’art of Thriving (2017), Kimberley Hare reminds us of one of the great adages in coaching:   p=P-I

Performance = Potential Minus Interference

This formula refers to the swirl of (usually negative) emotions and thoughts that are distracting us, and sabotaging our own sense of clarity and well-being, in any given situation.

For Liz, there is a whole ‘thought-storm’ ranging from frustration, exasperation to anxiety taking up space in her brain. And it’s impacting on her confidence, leaving her feeling helpless and unresourceful about the next steps to deal with Tom.

What can you do about this ‘interference’?

How do you manage when your head gets so full with a problem that you start to doubt yourself?

How do you get back into the driving seat and begin to trust again, your own inner knowing and commonsense about how to manage a difficult situation?

Hare (2017) is one of a growing number of coaches and practitioners sharing a new and transformational paradigm* about the nature of the human mind and how our experience gets created.

‘Interference is always coming from our thinking in the moment, not our circumstances or the external world’ (Hare, 2017).

She points to two key and essential truths about how our minds work:

1. The human mind only works one way: from the inside-out:

Your mind (rather than what is happening around you) generates your moment-to-moment experience of any situation. You cannot have an experience without your thinking being involved.

2. We all have a built-in design for success, well-being, clarity and creativity:

Whether you believe it or not, you have an innate and inherent source of insight and wisdom that can provide you with fresh and creative solutions to any problem you encounter.

These two truths might sound simplistic and aspirational. But the implications have enormous potential to transform your personal and professional life.

The more deeply you understand and realise these two facts, the more you thrive.

Going back to my client Liz above, here’s what Liz began to ‘see’, as we explored the depth of these two truths.

First, she realised that, tempting as it was to see Tom as the ‘cause’ of her stress and frustration, that experience was being generated in her own mind. Knowing she has 100% responsibility for where her experience in any moment comes from gave her back a sense of power and psychological freedom. She no longer felt a victim of Tom’s behaviour.

‘You can never experience anything but your own thinking. It’s just not possible. Seeing this fact is like releasing the emergency brake of a sluggishly moving car. In the next moment performance improves’
Invisible Power, Insight Principles at Work: Everyone’s Inner Capacity: Manning, Charbit & Krot (2015)

Secondly, she realised (contrary to other ‘stress management’ training she had attended) that she didn’t have to try and ‘manage’ or stop her thinking about Tom and the situation.

Knowing instead that underneath all the barrage of negative thoughts and feelings she is having about Tom, her mind has its own innate self-correcting mechanism that will always kick in.

She could see that all she had to do was take a step back, get quiet and let her own inner knowing emerge, about where next to go, in dealing with the situation with Tom.

So you are thinking…what happened to Tom?

Did Liz pull off some miracle that transformed his behaviour? Probably not. (And that’s not what this blog is about!)

But she did feel a lot lighter, more at ease and so much clearer about what the next steps she had to take around managing him. She also found that much the worry and rumination about Tom as a ‘big problem’ had dropped away. She was back feeling confident and in control and had a renewed energy and focus to get on with her work.

‘Everyone in this world shares the same innate source of wisdom but it is hidden by the tangle of our own misguided personal thoughts.’
Sydney Banks


* Curious to learn more?

I have been studying and learning about this approach for the past three years and am applying it in particular, to coaching Managers and Leaders dealing with challenging and intractable conflict situations.

Known as ‘The Inside Out Paradigm’ or ‘Three Principles of Mind Consciousness and Thought’ (see for example this website: Three Principles Global Community or the references above) it is increasingly being shared and taught in a variety of contexts. Ranging from businesses, schools, hospitals, multi-national corporations, prisons, social services etc. it is one of the most effective ways to achieve well-being, resilience as well as effortless success.

Replaying a ‘difficult conversation’ in bed at night? Learn why we do it and how to stop

What a peaceful, pastoral scene, a cow contemplatively chewing on its cud. Grass is high in roughage and hard to digest. Nature has given some mammals the capacity to regurgitate the cud. By chewing it over and over, it yields more nutrients and benefits. We aren’t cows but we too get into cud-chewing behaviour. Have…

How to Be More Resilient in ‘Difficult Conversations’

In my ‘Difficult Conversations’ workshops, ‘being more resilient’ is one of the most common objectives people have. Stressed with Conflict
‘How can I build better coping skills?’
‘How do I stop myself from going over and over the situation in my head’.
Does this sound like you?

The dictionary defines resilience as the ‘capacity to recover quickly from difficulties’ or ‘ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’.

But where does resilience come from?

Is resilience some quality/skill out there that you can learn with practice? Or are some people inherently more resilient than others?

Much of the current thinking on ‘resilience’ appears to support the idea that resilience is something one learns or develops. People talk about toughening up, growing a thicker skin, learning to keep a stiff upper lip.
Other advice around resilience advocates working on our own internal mind-talk, having a more positive outlook, seeing the silver lining behind the cloud. So a friend might suggest you ‘don’t take it personally’ or ‘just let it go and move on…you can’t let them bring you down’.

And all of this has some validity. We all know people who seem to be naturally resilient, for whom a clash or heated conversation in the office is all par for the course. They seem to fall sunny-side-up all the time and pick themselves up and dust themselves down very quickly after any setback.

Why does ‘conflict’ have such an impact on us? 

So why can’t the rest of us all do this? Why do we feel bruised and impacted after an angry encounter? Why do we spend days worrying in advance, and nights ruminating after, a meeting to talk to John about his poor attitude at work?

As someone who has spent the past 12 years training, coaching and mediating with people who are trapped in a difficult or conflictual relationship, I have meted out the advice above on a regular basis: ‘try and see it differently’, ‘do deep breathing’, ‘imagine them as an angry toddler…’

Yet in my own personal conflict experiences, such advice always felt hollow, somewhat glib and a lot easier said than done. I’d find myself dwelling and rehashing a scenario in my mind. Upset feelings seemed to linger like a shadow at the back of my mind and I’d be extra cross for letting them ‘make me feel so upset’. I’d overthink my next encounter – ‘should I be nice…’ ‘should I be cool’…’how the hell should I be with them…’

A new understanding about how our minds work 

That was until I came across an understanding that has led to a revolutionary shift, over the past two years, in how I experience not only ‘difficult’ conversations but every single aspect of my life. (Read more here about this understanding here too)

What I now see, is that this idea of resilience as being a ‘thing’ out there that I have to work on, practice and ‘build up’ is no longer true. That the whole gamut of emotions – frustration, upset, hurt, anger… that arise in a conflict situation, are something that if I worked hard enough on myself (or was born ‘naturally resilient!) wouldn’t arise. And most significantly…that I needed to master some magical art of zen to quash and get rid of all the relentless agonising and analysing – mental gymnastics that just leave you exhausted.

All of the above well-meaning tips and suggestions fail to address some of the fundamental misunderstandings about how our experience is generated, and where resilience and emotional well-being come from. And it is these misunderstandings that are keeping us stuck.

Misunderstanding 1: 
The unpleasant thoughts and feelings you are experiencing about the difficult conversation or conflict are coming from the person(s) you are dealing with (or your boss, your team, the organisational culture…).
Not true.
All these thoughts and feelings are coming from inside of us. Our minds generate our experience of every event, person, behaviour we encounter. This is not saying that the person we are in conflict with isn’t real or they didn’t raise their voice or fail to follow through on what we asked of them. It’s simply saying that the thinking and feeling that are arising for us about this situation are created internally.

Misunderstanding 2:
You need to get better at controlling your thoughts and feelings (that others are making you feel) and practice having a more positive and optimistic outlook. Then you would be more resilient.

Not true.
We cannot control our thoughts any more than we can control the weather. Thoughts come and go all the time: apparently we have between 50,000 and 80,000 per day (how do they count this I wonder!). Trying to control or change them is like holding back a river. Nigh impossible, which is why when we are trying to ‘fix’ our thinking, we feel stressed and exhausted.

And, what we think, we feel. There are libraries full of theories of emotions, where they come from, what to do with them and how to manage them. But the simple (although utterly profound) fact is, that feelings are a reflection of our state of mind. Period.
Our angry and upset feelings aren’t actually coming from John, who isn’t doing his work effectively or speaks rudely. They are generated within us and linked to the thinking that we engage in when we bring John to mind or meet him.

Misunderstanding 3:
Resilience in dealing with difficult conversations is about building coping skills and practicing not taking things personally. You just need to practice and develop your capacity for dealing with hard knocks.

Not true

Resilience isn’t some abstract quality/characteristic outside me that we have to strive and strain to attain. Instead, it is our natural state and default state. Well-being, good feelings, self-confidence are already inside us. We are primed and designed, to reset to this state of being, regardless of what’s happening outside and around us.
Yes, unwelcome thoughts and feelings will arise in us. The creative potential of our mind can give us both negative as well as positive experiences of our reality. Resilience is what emerges when we see the truth of this phenomena.

Let your thinking settle 

So what does that all add up to?

Imagine our mind is like a snow globe. Left sitting on the mantelpiece, the snow is settled and you can easily see the miniaturised Christmas landscape inside. But when you shake it, the snow swirls around and masks your view of the pretty scene. Thought Snowstorm

Our mind operates the same way. In its natural, default state, our mind is settled and calm and we can see clearly and easily how to deal with problems and challenges that life throws at us. But when something happens that upsets, frustrates or annoys us the fight/flight response kicks in and leads to a whirl of negative thoughts and feelings. We begin to feel churned up inside, just like the shaken snow globe.

That’s all a normal part of being human. The problem arises because we also believe:

      • The feelings and thoughts are an accurate picture of reality (‘John is a jerk and behaving badly and this has to stop’ versus ‘John raised his voice twice at the meeting’)
      • We have to get rid of or manage the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that have arisen and/or stop John from causing us to think/feel like this
      • The best way to sort the problem is to keep thinking about it and go over and over it in our minds. (We don’t do this on purpose but at some level, we believe this to be true).

And it’s these misunderstandings (about the nature of thoughts and feelings and where resilience comes from) that keep us stuck. We add more thinking and ruminating to an already shaken-up snow globe, instead of just putting it down and letting the snow in our minds settle.

The problem isn’t that we get upset or annoyed or frustrated with people. The problem is the thought-storm we get into, in order to try and fix the upset feelings and thoughts that have arisen in the first place.

If we can begin to see that the only thing separating us from our innate well-being and clarity is our own temporary maelstrom of thought, that will settle on its own if we let it, then we can bounce back much more quickly.

When we realise that trying to ‘fix’ thoughts and feelings, exacerbates rather than eliminates them, we see the futility of it.
Our churned up thoughts and feelings go away much quicker by themselves than when we try to do something with them.
And from this less agitated state of mind, we can more easily tap into our wisdom and common sense about how best to deal with the person/situation.

Try it yourself 

The next time you find yourself caught up in some sort of stressful or anxious thinking, see if you can take a mental step back and notice the snow globe of whirling thoughts in your mind.
Explore the idea of not engaging with the thoughts and feelings, seeing them for what they are and not being seduced into believing them.
Be curious about what it might be like to drop the stormy thoughts and feelings and letting your natural aptitude for clear and objective problem-solving emerge.

But don’t forget…this is much less about a ‘technique’ and much more about a journey of self-discovery so don’t force this…or you’ll just add the fuel of ‘more thinking’ to the fire of stormy thoughts and feelings.

I’d love to know how you get on!

Are you in ‘Parent’, ‘Child’ or ‘Adult’ Mode (or all 3!) at Work?

Transactional Analysis“But what if you needed to give her a telling off…”

This was the comment of a participant in a recent ‘Difficult Conversations’ training session with a group of managers. The discussion was around the room layout and whether the manager should sit behind a desk or not, when giving negative feedback to an employee. His frame on the “telling off” prompted me to look at the interaction through the lens of Transactional Analysis

It’s tempting to believe that how well (or badly) people respond to negative feedback to simply be a product of their own personality quirks. Transactional Analysis however tells us that the outcome of these interactions is predicated not only on the attitude of the receiver of the feedback, but also on the mindset or attitude from which it comes.

Developed by Canadian born Psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950’s the theory is that all human beings possess multi-faceted personalities and that these different aspects of their personalities are susceptible to change whenever we relate to one another. Berne identified three observable and distinct core ego states, which he defined as Parent, Adult, and Child.

Three Distinct Ego States

The Parent state has its origins in the behaviours, thoughts and feelings assimilated (and emulated) from parents or other parental figures and is formed by the influences that affect us as we develop through our early childhood. The Parent state can be that of the Nurturing Parent whose qualities are positive and affirming or Critical Parent, representing the authoritative, disciplinarian and prohibitive aspects of parenting and society.

The Child state is the ego state in which we behave, react and perceive in a similar manner to how we did as a child. Child state interactions can include anger, tears and tantrums, in a reprise of the feelings and emotions from our childhood. As with the Parent state, there are two possible aspects to the Child state. They can either rebel against any kind of authority (Rebellious Child) or they can conform, adapting themselves to the wishes of those around them (Adaptive Child). In the Child state, our responses are primarily driven by the emotions we are feeling. On the plus side, the Child state also reflects a more light-hearted, free-spirited and spontaneous aspect of our behaviour.

These two, often conflicting ego states are kept in check by the Adult state, through which we are enabled to draw on our comprehension and analysis of our environment – both internal and external. The Adult state has the capability of calling upon the resources of the other two states and achieving a balance between the two. The Adult state is open to here and now and is characterised by respect for the other person as an equal and an awareness of all life experience, as opposed to just the parent or child experience. All of us have the potential to behave from Parent Child or Adult ego state and even in one interaction, we might alternate between these states.

Workplace Interactions and Transactions

Back to the example above where the manager has to give negative feedback, his use of the ‘tell off’ frame has overtones of Critical Parent. This in turn can evoke either form of the Child response – the Adaptive Child being submissive and apologetic accompanied by feelings of shame and low self-esteem; the Rebellious Child being resentful and defensive.
Playing things out a little further the Adaptive Child response might then prompt the Manager’s Nurturing Parent ‘Ah you’re not so bad after all, come now, dry your tears’ or even more of the Critical Parent ‘If you don’t … then I will have to…’. In the former, the Critical Parent-Adaptive Child interaction might seem to be effective but in the long run, does not allow the employee to develop their own Adult ego state. In the latter, conflict will ensue, the Rebellious Child pushing back and each becoming more polarised in the relationship.

Alternatively, the manager can approach the situation with an Adult ego state although this is certainly no guarantee the interaction will be plain sailing. Just yesterday a Manager I was coaching was reviewing how a ‘difficult conversation’ she had prepared for with an employee on her team. She planned and succeeded in framing her interactions from an Adult state of mind e.g. being calm, factual, objective, non-blaming or judgmental albeit giving a key message about expectations around objectives not having being met.
Despite this the employee had a Rebellious Child reaction, saying it was unfair, raising her voice, counter-arguing and saying she would go and report the situation to HR (whom perhaps she perceived as a Nurturing Parent?). The Manager herself felt positive about the fact that she had not reacted by either backing down or rebelling herself ‘well I am the Manager’.

Of course the employee also has the prerogative around which ego state they can respond from. The Adult state response to the Critical Parent would be to listen, invite details and clarification and if necessary apologise and amend their actions. An Adult response to feedback neither resists and defends nor does it self-flagellate and become overly dependent on the approval of others.


A harmonious, professional working environment is only achievable, in the context of the theory of transactional analysis, by all members of the workforce seeking to ensure that their behaviour is either predominantly “Adult” or reflects the more positive aspects of their “Parent” or “Child” state.

Failing to ensure that the more positive ego states predominate risks creating (and maintaining) a workplace where (unresolved) conflict, hostility and misunderstanding are in constant evidence, with the inevitable impact on morale, efficiency and productivity.

Thanks to my colleague Treasa Kenny who introduced me to Transactional Analysis when we collaborated in a recent team facilitation

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
Check out some more resources here or download the Complimentary Guide in the sidebar.

Change how you think about a conflict or difficult situation

Think of a situation where you are experiencing conflict (either internally or externally) – perhaps finding it difficult to deal with or manage someone in your workplace or team. What sort of thoughts and feelings come up? Many of you might have thoughts such as:

  • ‘What am I going to do with this (awkward/difficult/tricky) person?’…
  • ‘Why are they such a jerk?’…
  • ‘Why was I dealt this hand?’
  • ‘How am I ever going to find a way to manage them’
  • Feelings you might have range from frustration, irritation, feeling hopeless, trapped to downright anger, upset or even despair.

Well, according to author Marilee Adams ‘Question Thinking’ approach, either consciously or sub-consciously we constantly ask ourselves questions as part of our mind’s internal running commentary.

At a basic level, it might be mentally contemplating whether we want ham or cheese sandwiches today at the lunch counter. Buteverytime we meet any kind of problem, challenge or conflict, we also run a script of questions/comments, although in many cases, we are unaware of this.
Adams identifies two clear categories or mindsets that underpin our questions: ‘Judger’ and ‘Learner’.

‘Judger’ questions are fairly well known to most of us. For example, if someone isn’t performing at work or when we are finding their behaviour difficult to deal with, more than likely the type of questions running through our minds are:

  • “Why is this person not doing what they should be?”
  • “Why are they so irritating/unmotivated/awkward…etc.”
  • “Will they ever learn how to do the job right’
  • “Is it my fault that I haven’t been managing them properly”
  • “Will they ever improve…will I ever get them to change”

‘Judger’ questions stem from and reinforce a negative, blame-focused mindset and lead to what she describes as the ‘Judger Pit’. The alternative is the ‘Learner’ mindset and the questions associated with that might be:

  • ‘What does work well here…what are their strengths’
  • ‘What can I learn from this situation?’
  • ‘How could I think differently about this situation?’
  • ‘What’s important to them, what makes them ‘tick’?’
  • ‘What can I do on my side to make things work better?’
  • ‘How can I see this as a challenge that I can overcome?’
  • ‘What learning can I take from this situation?’
  • ‘What can I do to stay motivated and positive in respect of this situation?’

If you have been reading each of the two sets of questions in your mind, you may by now start to understand what makes a tool like this so effective. It’s not so much the actual questions themselves, rather it’s the mindset that it creates as you ask these to yourself.
Just take a minute to read through each list again and see how you feel at the end of each. Have you noticed that with the first list,you can find yourself sinking into a negative, somewhat hopeless and at best resigned state of mind? And with the second list, you are feeling more upbeat, looking outward, hopeful frame of thinking?
This is where the real power of a tool like this lies – it shifts your mindset and starts to plant the seeds of possiblity, options and ways forward rather than reinforcing what’s not working. You also feel more empowered and energised so you will be more effective in how you approach the challenge and will therefore reap better result.

Using the tool: The best way I find to use this tool is to:

  • Think about a situation where you are finding someone else’s behaviour or work a bit of a challenge to deal with
  • Become aware of the type of thinking/questions that you are asking yourself – in particular, any ‘Judger’ questions that come to mind
  • Now consciously select some of the ‘Learner’ questions -recite them mentally to yourself, even write them down
  • Then go away and forget about it, letting your sub-conscious mind work on this positive direction. If the situation does come to mind, try and keep it focused on simply asking the ‘Learner’ rather than the ‘Judger’ questions.

You will be surprised at how your energy towards this person slowly shifts from negative to more neutral …. and if you persist, that somehow solutions start to appear.

Transforming Negative Feedback

A common challenge for managers is how to deal with employee behaviours and possible conflict that could result from a negative reaction on their part to feedback they have received. You might feel like saying ‘come on get over it’ but negative feedback has the potential to impact on a person at a very deep level and cause a lot of conflict.

In their book ‘Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss What Matters Most’ (1999, Stone, Patton, Heen) refer to what they term ‘identity issues’, in other words what an event tells us about ourselves and who we are in the world. Competence – being seen as capable, proficient and able to do a good job is a core identity issue for many people. Being told therefore in a performance review that you didn’t achieve a particular grade can feel very threatening and upsetting. Once we feel threatened and upset, we are then much more vulnerable to engaging in reactive and unfriendly behaviours.

So how might a manager best manage a situation where an employee has developed an ‘attitude’ as a result of negative feedback?

Tony is a manager of a team of 12 people. Recently an opportunity to work on a special project arose and all team members were invited to apply for this role. Five applied in a process consisting of an interview and presentation. One was selected in the end, and Tony met each of the other four to give them feedback on why they were not chosen. Since then, Tony has noticed that one of them Mary, has been a bit aloof and distant towards him, for example not bothering to engage much in team meetings.

What does Tony do? Here are the steps he took, which have since led to a positive rebuilding of the working relationship.

  • He observed the behaviour and rather than reacting to it or becoming defensive, he realised that it was a function of Mary’s own upset and disappointment about the situation
  • He decided that he would need to do something about the situation and try and get it sorted out. He realised that he needs to rebuild this relationship and ‘get back on track’ not only from the point of view of the team and the work that gets done but also because it’s much pleasanter to work with someone when there is a friendly rather than distant professional relationship
  • He reflected thoroughly on the situation in a conflict management coaching session and in doing that came to a couple of realisations:
    • In thinking back on the presentation that Mary had given, Tony realised that she had put huge time, effort and passion into it.
    • This meant that any negativity or rejection would be hard to hear and that Mary would need support to deal with the disappointment
    • Tony realised that he hadn’t really empathised fully with Mary when he had met her to give her the negative feedback
    • He also realised he hadn’t given Mary a chance to talk through her disappointment or to give her viewpoint on what he said

He decided that it was important to talk again to Mary about this and spent some time planning exactly what he wanted to say. He knew it was important to get across to her:

  • His acknowledgement of how much work Mary had put in and to empathise with her upset and disappointment
  • Invite Mary to share about this herself and give her the opportunity to express her views around it and have them listened to by Tony
  • Reiterate how much he valued her as a team member and contributor to the team and that her talents were valued and needed
  • Reiterate how much he valued her as a person working on the team and let her know that it was important to him to rebuild a good working friendship.

He also prepared himself to hear some negative feedback from her – perhaps about how he had selected the person or carried out the interviews. He knew that this might make him become a bit defensive but that the better way to deal with it would be to:

  • Listen attentively and not interrupt
  • Acknowledge that it was reasonable that she might see it in that way
  • Explain to her with as much transparency and honesty as possible his viewpoint and what his reasons were for taking the actions he did
  • Assure her that he would reflect on her feedback
  • Reiterate again the positive aspects of her performance at the interview and presentation and encourage her to continue to give of her best

Result: One somewhat edgy and tricky conversation for Tony but a much more engaged and motivated team member at the end of the day.

Talk to us about how to give negative feedback and avoid conflict on your team

Do you create ‘demons’? How anger can damage our view of a situation

I had the wonderful privilege of going to see the Dalai Lama speak on ‘The Power of Forgiveness’ in the University of Limerick a couple of weeks ago. He spoke about anger and it’s effect on us.

He reminded us that if you are angry and put all your energy into focusing this anger onto one target or one person, then it can be very destructive to you yourself. On the other hand, if you try and break it down and see the bigger picture, the many factors might have led towards a situation that made you being angry, it can dissipate and cause less damage – to oneself also.

A recent Conflict Coaching session that I was doing with a client really illustrated this for me.
Ann, my client, was going to a new department but had some misgivings about her new manager Jean, based on some negative and recent experiences she had had with her, in particular, a meeting where Ann met with her to discuss her start date etc.
Without going into all of the history, Ann was feeling very upset and very angry with Jean and very negative about having to work with her as her manager. In fact, what she really wanted to do was to give Jean a piece of her mind, as it were and hand in her resignation – not at all practical though for her family and financial circumstances. She had also become very anxious and worried about the impending return to work.

In the coaching session we looked first of all at the situation from Ann’s viewpoint and explored how it was she had been upset by Jean, the emotional impact it had on her and also the assumptions that she had started to make about Jean.
We then spent some time talking through the situation but looking at it from Jean’s point of view. This is one of the key features of conflict coaching – it challenges the client to explore and start to view the situation from the other person’s point of view.

In doing this, the client is being asked to take a ‘bigger picture’ view – what the Dalai Lama referred to as a more ‘holistic’ approach. Some people find it difficult to do this but this is where the real nuggets of learning and developing how one deals with conflict, lie. The better the client can engage in this piece of the coaching work, the more they will gain in terms of real insights and ways forward for dealing with the other person.

Ann was completely open to doing this and took a very honest and authentic look at how Jean might have viewed her. She realised that her behaviours might have been triggers for Jean and saw how they might have upset her or caused her to be somewhat negative. She saw how both of them as well as some other circumstances beyond them, had contributed to the difficulties.

At the end of the session, she said she she felt greatly relieved and much less angry when she thought now about Jean – she commented ‘I had created a demon and now I realise that I only have to deal with another human being’. It’s so much easier when we realise that we are just dealing with someone like ourselves – the same fears, needs, concerns – and of course the same hopes and dreams too!

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