Dealing with interpersonal conflict – constructive and destructive behaviours and approaches

Don’t Play Chinese Whispers in Difficult Conversations!

I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” (Alan Greenspan, American Economist) 

It’s so easy to mishear and misunderstand what others are saying to us and vice verse, particularly when tensions are starting to rise. Here’s a simple approach to help with this.
Watch the video (4 min) or see the transcript below:

Video Transcript

Hi, Mary Rafferty here…

Let me ask you, the last time you were on the phone to somebody and you were passing on information about your contact details, for example, your email address or your phone number, how did they respond? They probably said something like, “let me just check I’ve got that right…” and called back your phone number to you and then you had a chance to confirm or correct any digit they might’ve gotten wrong.
Why do we do that? Because it’s so easy for things to get lost in translation. That’s why the kid’s birthday game, Chinese Whispers is so much fun.

But this common sense approach of repeating back to somebody what it is we’ve heard them say and making sure we’ve accurately understood that, isn’t just for situations where we’re communicating phone numbers or credit card details. It’s very useful in many contexts, particularly where there might be some tension or disagreement creeping into a conversation.

Mediators do this all the time. Instead of jumping in with a response, immediately you can say something like:
“John, let me check that I’ve understood what you’re trying to say there. Are you saying you find the deadlines are too tight?” or
“Am I right that the way you see it, you’re not so sure that this project is going to work as well as it should work? Have I got that right?”
and then you wait and check with John, have you understood what he wanted to say. He might correct something and clarify something and then you check in again and then only then, when you fully understand what he’s trying to say, move on.

So why is this such a useful approach?
Well, first of all, our capacity to mishear, misinterpret and put our own spin on what it is we’re hearing other people say is so strong, particularly when there is tension or we are starting to get a bit irritated or having a bit of resistance to what the other person is saying.
By stopping, checking in ‘let me see if I  understand what you’re trying to say…” it reduces that interference. This greatly increases the chances that we’re going to accurately hear what the person is saying and be able to tune into where they’re at and therefore our responses will be more appropriate.

This simple approach of truly and genuinely listening and really trying to understand what the other person is trying to say and being open to hear that even if we don’t agree with it, makes it much more likely that they in turn will listen to what we have to say and try and understand that. And isn’t that what we’re really trying to do in conversations regardless of what the subject or the topic is.

So the key takeaway from this video is to start to use the phrase or use your own wording, something along the lines of,
“Let me check that I’ve fully understood what you’re trying to say…”
“Let me clarify… “ or “If I’ve got that right, are you saying ABC, have I got that right?
or “Can you help me understand because I  think I’m missing something…” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how positively that impacts on your conversation.

I hope you found this video useful.
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

Emails…Are you Trigger Happy? Read this Before You Press ‘Send’

In the late eighties I taught in Germany on a two-year Business English programme. One of the course handbooks focused solely on writing business letters in English. The students were schooled in great detail on the etiquette and nuances of letters and memos in a variety of business contexts. These ranged from sales to commissioning orders to making and responding to complaints.
Thirty years later in the era of emails and online communication, the art of writing a business letter has probably diminished in importance. But there is a lot to be said for the level of care, professionalism, precision and politeness, that was drilled into those students.

Email has many useful features but these same benefits can also lead to miscommunication and conflict. Many of the workplace issues that I’m involved in either mediating or coaching invariably include some reference to persons writing ‘abusive emails’ or ‘email bullying’.

Why is email such a cause of problems?

The problem with email is that it’s speed and convenience fools us into thinking it’s the same as a face-to-face interaction. But Bacall highlights some key differences:

Talking to someone directly permits what he describes as simultaneous mutual influence. Even though only one might be speaking, they are getting immediate feedback and information from the other person’s non-verbal communication – facial expressions, body language etc. and can amend and adjust their message or how they are conveying it accordingly.

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman points out that our brains are designed for face to face connections. Recent neuroscientific research has focused on the role of brain cells known as mirror neurons which assist us in interpreting other people’s emotions and intentions.

In non-face-to-face interactions such cues are absent and you are left to make assumptions about the other person’s feelings and intentions. It leads to what Goleman describes as an ‘optical illusion in the mind’, where you assume that the person is picking up all the unspoken emotional signals. But of course they are not because they don’t see you.

In fact, when reading an email, the lack of facial and nonverbal cues that might soften or contextualise the tone of a spoken message triggers our inbuilt negativity bias. So what a sender thinks is a ‘positive’ message is actually perceived as ‘neutral’.
Goleman states:

“Receivers think that positive email was more neutral. When the sender thinks it’s neutral, receivers tend to think it’s more negative. In other words, there is a general negativity skew to email”

Communicating by email feels like it’s almost face-to-face because of the speed, informality and ubiquity of this medium. But it’s not and yet we fail to give it the requisite attention that writing a letter demands. This means considering not only the content or message you want to communicate but giving attention also to the tone and impression you want to convey to the reader.
Emails tend to be read and responded to quickly and more reactively. Time pressures mean you fail to edit or reread and instead press ‘send’ so you can get on to the next task.

Easier than face-to-face

Particularly where there is a difficult message to deliver, the remoteness of email feeds into our tendency to avoid a difficult conversation. It feels easier than an eye-to-eye confrontation. But you do this at your peril.
Communications expert Joseph Grenny tells us that face-to-face interaction causes us to behave more empathically and ethically. Out of sight is out of mind. And when writing an email this real time feedback around how our message is being received is missing.

Another unhelpful practice is that of ‘cc-ing’ – including others on a message by copying or blind copying. And, if there is already some tension in the relationship, it’s a surefire way to escalate the situation. Emails are often copied to managers/others to “keep them in the loop” or to ‘put it on record’.  But while it might achieve that aim, the impact of copying in multiple contacts can leave a person feeling publicly criticised or even humiliated.
‘Cc-ing’ in practice means inviting an audience to your disagreement or negative feedback message to this colleague. Instead of dialogue and co-operation, it’s more likely to lead to defensiveness and mistrust.

So how best should we manage email communication?

  1. Where possible, don’t use email to raise ‘difficult’ issues
    Email is an excellent form of communication in many contexts. However, if there is a sensitive or contentious issue to be raised with someone, email is a poor substitute for a face-to-face conversation. Such conversations need to be taken off-line and the requisite time and attention given to preparing and conducting them, to ensure that they don’t escalate the situation.
  1. Focus on tone as well as content:
    Always reread what you have written before sending an email. A good practice is to consider not only the content (have I conveyed my key messages accurately and clearly) but also and most importantly, the tone. For example, you could include some explicit reassurance about your intentions in the content of the email.

‘I was concerned that you missed the deadline last week. I know you’ve been very busy with other projects and am not questioning your commitment’.

End your message with an invitation or offer to talk about the issue, either in person or by phone.   Where your concerns are about performance or motivation, such accountability conversations shouldn’t’ be conducted at all over email.

  1. Recognise if the tone starts to ramp up, and get into dialogue
    If an email exchange starts to turn into a ‘difficult conversation’ then suggest that the matter be taken up in a face to face conversation. You might say ‘I appreciate you see things very differently… let’s see if we could arrange a meeting or conference call (if they work remotely) and try to get this resolved’.
  1. Visualise the person you are writing to
    Compensate for the remoteness and lack of human responsiveness of email by imagining the person sitting across from you reading what you have written. Bear in mind that they won’t have the benefit of seeing you and hearing your tone of voice. Particularly where you might write an email in the heat of the moment, it’s advisable to let it sit and come back and read at a later stage and with a more objective eye. Or ask a trusted colleague to read and give you feedback before sending.
  1. It’s a letter not a conversation
    Remember that email is analogous to letter writing rather than to conversation. Once it’s sent, you can’t amend or undo it. While emails tend to be more informal in tone, you still need to be mindful of common letter writing etiquette such as using the person’s name, appropriate punctuation, spelling etc.
  1. Understand the repercussions of ‘cc’ing
    If the message is a negative one, this could be akin to public shaming. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold someone accountable for their performance. But including other people, even where they might need to know, in an email communicating your dissatisfaction is most likely to escalate the situation and least likely to lead to any kind of productive outcome.

Of course there are times when issues have to be put across in writing and accountability is important as is ensuring there is a record. However, the face- to-face discussion about these matters needs to happen first of all where the heat of the issue can be dealt with.

While email has many time-saving benefits and most of us would be lost without it, it has its limitations. Trying to hold complex discussions or resolve conflict through email is at best a waste of time and at worst, can cause a situation to escalate.
To put a twist on the old saying ‘Email in Haste, Repent at Leisure’  

Read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’



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.

All Conflict Leads Us Back To Ourselves

Conflict leads us to ourselvesAll Conflict Leads Us Back To Ourselves. Many years ago I worked quite closely with another colleague. Overall, we had a pretty good working relationship, but some disagreements also as to how things should be done and what the best course of action was to take.

I remember clearly at times finding those disagreements quite difficult: my colleague didn’t really like to talk things through in a lot of detail, her style was more along the lines of stating her view and then sticking to it. My perception was that nothing I said seemed to be heard or taken on board.

Frustrated one evening, I called my sister to let off steam. She listened patiently for a while as I harped on about the situation and how irritated I was about her lack of openness to my viewpoint, how I saw things… ’You know’, I said indignantly, ‘what really bugs me is that she always thinks she’s right’. There was silence for a moment and then she spoke.

‘You know Mary, I think it’s you who always thinks she’s right…’
Her unexpected words sank in. Bang…my bubble of anger was burst. She had nailed it and helped me to realise that at some level I had started to doubt my own viewpoint. My colleague had tapped into my own lack of confidence in my position. My frustration and vehement arguments were more about convincing myself than her.

In difficult conversations and conflict, we have a tendency to project our negative feelings of anger and irritation onto the other person:‘I’m angry because they are so narrow-minded and won’t see it my way’. Yet if we think it through enough, we will find that all roads lead back to ourselves. The first person you need to engage when you’re feeling triggered or annoyed with someone, is yourself.

Get clarity on the part you are bringing to this emotional response because that will better help you manage it. And taking responsibility for our own reactions is an essential first step in moving out of confrontation and into problem-resolving.


Do I have to say ‘NO’?

When invited to outline their key challenges in ‘Difficult Conversations’ / ‘Managing Conflict’ courses, being able to say ‘no’ effectively to a request or a demand is high on most participants wish lists.

Delving a little deeper, concerns that emerge around turning someone down or setting a boundary on an aspect of their behaviour or actions include concerns about

  • the relationship being damaged
  • the other person getting angry and the situation becoming confrontational
  • they not accepting the ‘No’ and trying to challenge our power or authority
  • having to ‘waste’ time explaining over and over again that the answer is ‘no’
  • guilt about not granting the request

A ‘Positive No’

William Ury identifies the core challenge of saying ‘no’ is that it seems to force us to have to make a decision between exercising power and maintaining the relationship. We get caught in an either/or dilemma when what we should be aiming for instead is how we can hold our boundary AND maintain the relationship. Ury advocates we strive towards what he terms ‘a positive No’.

A first rule of thumb is to ensure you are respectful. This doesn’t just mean saying ‘No’ in a calm and sensitive tone. A respectful ‘no’ means taking the time to engage with the other person, listening to their concerns, acknowledging their needs and valuing them and their needs even though on this occasion you may not be able to satisfy the substantive request they are making.
Harvard Negotiation experts Fisher and Shapiro (2005) identify what they term core baseline needs common to most people. Addressing these core concerns (appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status, and role) leads to more successful negotiation as well as minimising the level of conflict generated. Interestingly many of these can be easily addressed at little or no tangible cost. They do however require a shift in mindset – from seeing this person and their demands as something to be swatted away like a buzzing fly to having positive regard for them at a basic human level.

For example, regardless of what level of difference might lie between us and another person, all of us are capable of ‘appreciation’ – simply acknowledging to the other person that we listen to and appreciate the merits and difficulties of how they think and feel and that we endeavour to put our key message across to them in a way that they will understand.

Think laterally about their needs and interests

Consider taking a broader view of what people might need and your ability to fulfil some of these needs. At a superficial level it might seem like you cannot grant their request. The substantive and overt issue might seem incompatible with what you can provide.
A classic example is where someone has to be turned down for a job they’ve applied for. It would seem time-wasting to engage in anything other than a ‘dear John’ letter or email to break the bad news. However, if we take a more considered approach at what that person’s needs might be in that situation, we see that they have other needs that we might be able to satisfy. For example they might have a need for acknowledgement and recognition of what they did do well. They might need to hear specifically what they can improve on the next time and perhaps most importantly, they probably will benefit from some reassurance and encouragement to keep on trying.
So while you didn’t meet their apparent need to get the job, you did meet other important and less obvious needs they had. While we are communicating a negative message at one level, we are at another level trying to communicate that we have positive intentions towards the other person. It’s not that we are trying to soften the reality of the ‘No’ but what we are saying is ‘I cannot grant your request, yet I understand and respect it and wish you as a person no ill will’

Avoid a confrontational push-back

A common trap we fall into is that in striving to be what we believe to be assertive and strong in holding a particular line, we deliver our message in an overly forceful manner. Anticipating resistance, we mistakenly think a vigorous tone will deter them from pushing back against us. In reality what this often does is to provoke the person and invite further argument. What can also contribute to an unhelpful tone is that we ourselves aren’t in a completely calm and unruffled state of mind. We might be feeling frustrated about the substantive issues, we might be feeling nervous about their possible reactions. Or we might be feeling guilty about what we have to communicate. All of these will impact on our own emotional state and that in turn makes us more vulnerable to communicating in a less than optimal way. This calls for us therefore to spend time in advance not only considering what needs to be said but more importantly, taking whatever steps we need to take to develop a calm and centred state of mind or at least, to effectively manage our anxiety or irritation.

Does it have to be an absolute ‘No’ ?

It’s always worth considering whether our ‘No’ needs to be so absolute. What is our motive for the refusal of what’s being requested? Are our emotions driving it rather than our thinking, e.g. fear of setting precedents, fear of losing control or just lack of time to think things through properly? For example, let’s suppose someone is asking for time off during a very busy period. They knock on your door and before they have uttered half a sentence our instinctive response is to refuse. However, you take the time and hear them out and realise that their request for time off is to attend to a family matter which while not life threatening, is of significance to this person. Equally, you present to them your concerns about this and the possible impact on the work being done. Then you both spend some time brainstorming about ways to meet both your need for the work to continue and the other person’s family needs to be addressed.

Owning our ‘No’

Finally, yes sometimes we have, as my father used to say, reached the station called ‘STOP’. Yet we are feeling uncomfortable about delivering this message – perhaps it’s guilt at upsetting someone or perhaps it’s just sheer frustration because we know they will get into an argument about it. We also waver because we might have to enforce negative consequences for the other person. Preparation for such interactions require that not only are we clear about the content of our message but more importantly, that it is fully aligned with our own values and/or organisational values and that we are acting with integrity. Preparing in this way allows us to be in a more centred state of mind and also ensures that we will be more likely to remain calmly resolute if the other person is challenging our position. It will also facilitate us to

  • dispel our doubt or guilt about the action we are taking
  • be more patient with the other person’s resistance and attempts to challenge us
  • explain in an authentic and clear way what our rationale is for the actions we feel we have to take
  • be able to calmly educate them about (as opposed to threaten them with) the consequences of not complying
  • feel empowered to respectfully, yet steadfastly, enforce any consequences.

So remember ‘no’ comes in many shapes and sizes – make sure your one is the right fit for the situation!

Bringing Out the Best in People: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective (Part 2)

Did you ever play team sports as a child? If you were anything like me (two left feet!), you were the last one picked for the basketball team. Not only that, but you spent most of the game desperately hoping someone would take pity on you and you’d get thrown the ball just once in the game. All in all not a happy experience, but come on get over it, it’s only a game of basketball.

Or maybe not… Naomi Eisenberger a leading social neuroscientist at University of California designed an experiment in 2003. Volunteers were invited to play a virtual ball game of catch ostensibly with two other people, all of whom were represented by avatars on the screen. Halfway through, their avatar stopped receiving the ball and they observed the other two avatars appearing to throw only to each other. Afterwards, the game players self-reported being quite bothered about being excluded (‘I felt rejected, I felt meaningless’). Furthermore, the brains of the volunteers (they had been lying in an MRI scanner for the duration) showed activity during the time they were ignored in the same parts of the brain (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) as is associated with the distress of physical pain.

Since then many experiments have replicated these findings and scientists are unequivocal about the influence of social interactions on many physiological and neurological reactions. As outlined in the last newsletter, our brains are constantly evaluating events for the level of reward or threat that they might present. Evian Gordon refers to this adaptive motivation as “minimize danger and maximize reward” , a fundamental organising principle of the brain. Our experiences are also mediated by another filter system in the brain which means that threatening or negative stimuli are processed more quickly, more intensely and last longer than reward-offering stimuli. This means that if we are presented simultaneously with a reward and threat-activating behaviours, our attention and energy gets invested in the latter. The profusion of bad versus good news stories in our media is testament to this; how many of us would buy a newspaper full only of happy stories and good news?

Brain-friendly Work Environment: The SCARF Model

The key to creating a ‘brain-friendly’ work environment requires a focus first of all on reducing the potential for the stress-inducing threat response and at the same time, striving to find ways to increase brain rewarding experiences. Leadership expert David Rock has developed a simple model that summarises some of the neuroscience research in this area. Known as the ‘SCARF’ model, it identifies five critical domains of social experience that have the potential to tip us into either threat or reward state of mind.

This refers to how we see ourselves in relation to others. For example, when we feel ‘better’ than another person, our sense of status increases and simultaneously, the primary reward circuitry in the brain is activated. It’s why we enjoy winning at games. Conversely, the prospect of a performance review or negative feedback will cause the threat response to kick in. No surprises, there, few people enjoy hearing negative points about themselves. Yet there is still a strong discourse around the role of ‘feedback’ to help improve people’s performance. The ‘praise sandwich’ version of this attempts to give a nod to the need for positive endorsement but as pointed out above, the negative piece will have a much stronger impact. So being aware of how brain unfriendly they can be is the first step. Rock also advocates ensuring that performance feedback is participative and developmental and that managers strive to acknowledge and appreciate people as much as possible.

Our brains like patterns and predictability. Uncertainty causes the brain to immediately divert valuable thinking resources and attention towards trying to fill these gaps. This is why so many of us find change difficult. Maximising certainty is about giving people road maps – explaining context and background to what’s happening, setting clear objectives, being explicit about expectations. Even where there is ‘bad news’, our brain prefers the certainty of hearing the worst to what might seem like a more supportive approach of only drip feeding the negative in stages to try and lessen the impact.

This refers to the sense of control or choice we feel we have over aspects of our environment or our lives. Every parent knows how much more effective it is to present tasks as choices (‘do you want to read your bedtime story or brush your teeth first’ versus ‘go to bed now or else’). As adults, we are no different, for example micro-managing is a key trigger for most employees. In the workplace, autonomy will always have limitations but there are many ways to facilitate a sense of choice. Daniel Pink, who highlights autonomy as one of three critical motivators, cites a study of workers in an investment bank where managers who offered ‘autonomy support’ to staff reported higher job satisfaction and better performance.

Our brains are wired to categorise people as being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group and is closely linked to how we decide whom we can trust. We trust those who seem to be ‘in our group’ or like us but equally, we withdraw and detach when they do something to breach this trust. It also explains why a dispute or an issue between two people on a team can end up fracturing the whole team. So having an eye to team dynamics and fostering collaboration is essential. Rock cites a Gallup report from 2008 which showed that encouraging ‘water cooler’ conversations increased productivity!

A sense of fair play is a primary need and we react very strongly to being treated unfairly, activating the part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust. Rock also cites research that demonstrates when we feel unfairly treated, we feel rewarded when our superiors are punished. Our fairness triggers are so strong that given a choice between someone winning at our expense or both of us losing; we will more frequently select the latter. In terms of workplace conflict, feeling ‘unfairly treated’ is probably one of the most frequent reasons cited in grievances and complaints against managers. So striving to demonstrate openness and transparency around how decisions are made and be pro-active in this will help to maximise a sense of fairness.

Much of the above is essentially common sense i.e. that people need to be treated fairly or the importance of trust in the workplace. What is less obvious however is that the social needs identified above aren’t simply a set of values that would be nice to aspire to in the modern workplace. Rather, the science is telling us that we are biologically hard-wired to react as strongly to having our social needs disrespected or unmet as to our basic physical and safety needs!


Rock, D. (2008), Scarf: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others: NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44–52

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

Pink, Daniel (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


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.

How High is Your EQ?

Emotions and ConflictHow High is Your EQ? Internationally renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tells the story of one patient known as Elliot. He was a successful manager in a large corporation, married with a family. He was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor which was successfully removed with surgery. However, afterwards he was a completely changed man. His ability to make decisions was so dramatically impacted that he lost both his job and his wife, suffering financial ruin.

Yet his IQ, which was prior to the operation well above average, remained the same. Similarly, no pathology could be found on standard neurophysiological tests, to the extent that he was refused disability because he couldn’t prove his brain was not normal.

Damasio conducted a series of further tests on Elliot which seemed to demonstrate that while his cognition and intelligence was completely intact, his ability to feel and respond emotionally had become severely stunted.
The impact of this was that he became unable to make even the simplest of decisions and manage himself and his relationships with others.

Damasio’s research demonstrates the central role emotions play in learning, memory, decision-making and social cognition. In the past thirty years, a substantial body of research attests to the significance of emotions and the concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ at work.

What is Emotional Intelligence EQ

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is about how people and relationships function. Experts identify four key domains of EQ: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationships management. In particular for leaders and managers, fostering well-developed skills and abilities in these four key areas is crucial.

This is the ability to be able to tune into, identify and hold in your awareness your own emotions as they arise. It also implies having a positive regard for oneself tempered by an accurate and realistic inner picture of your own strengths and limitations.

  • Develop a conscious awareness when something triggers you that you are now annoyed, upset or frustrated.
  • Practice tuning into your own physical and emotional reaction as it is happening in the moment.
  • Explore to what extent this negative event causes a greater earthquake in your self-confidence and self-belief. (‘I realise that what John said about my report is making me question my report-writing skills in general’)

This is the next stage in effective emotional processing – what actions or behaviours you now reach for, on foot of having had some sort of internal emotional reactivity to an event or person. At a neurological level, we are hardwired to react defensively rather logically to events that trigger negative emotions.

For some people, their reaction is ‘hot’ – they engage in actively destructive behaviours such as displaying anger or anxiety, which can appear aggressive or overwhelming to people around them. Others stress reaction is to reach for ‘cold’ or passive destructive behaviours like disengaging or removing themselves either emotionally or physically and present as cold or aloof to observers.

  • A key skill is to be able to slow down and not react to the fight or flight urge when you feel angry or upset.
  • Effective self-management means being able to ‘talk yourself down’ or self-soothe, when something isn’t going your way.
  • Rather than trying to suppress or ignore emotions, think instead about having a dialogue with them. They are important and relevant signals that something is not in order for you. Acknowledge and accept them as messengers and then take the time think clearly about what’s most important so you make conscious choices about how to respond to the event.

Social Awareness:
This refers to your ability to tune into others and to have an interest and concern for what might be prompting their behaviour or actions.

  • We are all programmed to focus on observable behaviours in the workplace. We also need to learn to focus on discerning the often unspoken needs and resulting emotions that might underpin these behaviours.
  • Develop your empathy skills, being able to ‘walk in the shoes’ of other people, particularly, if they have done something to annoy or upset you.
  • Rather than automatically making negative assumptions about people’s intent or motives when they do something you don’t like, practice giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Relationship Management:
This encompasses skills in collaboration, co-operation and influencing others with integrity. When powerful emotions overtake us in interpersonal reactions, it refers to our ability to keep focused on the bigger picture of the long-term relationship.

  • When you are triggered by someone else’s behaviour, as well as considering what you want from them, reflect also on what you want for your long-term relationship with that person.
  • Consciously devote time and energy to nurturing trusting and collaborative relationships with others. Foster your interest in sensing the needs of others and your motivation to help and support them.
  • When you are communicating with others, take time to shape your message in a way will be clearly and constructively understood by the other.

Contrary to the mindset that emotions have no place in the workplace, an ability to negotiate both one’s own and others emotional troughs and peaks in the workplace is a must.

Jumping to Conclusions – Look before you Leap

Jumping to Conclusions. Imagine this situation: you are walking down the corridor at work and a colleague is coming the other way. You say ‘hi’ in a bright and friendly tone and this person barely looks at you, has a cross look on their face and hardly greets you. What assumptions would you make about why the person acts like this? Would you immediately think ‘what a rude and unfriendly person who is very arrogant’? If so, you have just made what is known as a Fundamental Attribution Error, one of the psychological theories that might explain how a conflict situation might get started or escalates.

Attribution theory tells us that people make inferences about others behaviours based on 2 different factors: situational and dispositional. In other words, we explain the actions of others sometimes based on ‘characteristics’ that we attribute to them or their ‘disposition’ and sometimes we explain things based on the context of the behaviour i.e. the ‘situation’.

However, being human, theorists have discovered that we sometimes make mistakes in how we attribute behaviours to other people and indeed to ourselves. This is called Fundamental Attribution Error and it tells us that we have a tendency to attribute negative behaviours of others to dispositional factors whereas our own negative behaviours we rationalise away as ‘situational’. To put it simply, if someone is racing down the road breaking the speed limit perhaps, we tend to think they are ‘macho drivers’ who don’t care about other people’s lives. If we ourselves however put the accelerator down, we explain it as ‘just this one time I have to go a bit faster as it’s an important meeting and I don’t want to be late’.

So how does this relate to how we manage conflict?

It means that in many of the situations where two people are disagreeing or in dispute over something, frequently they are making the fundamental attribution error and attributing negative assumptions as to why someone has done something. This attribution in turn is further fuelling their negative reactions to what the person has done. In other words, if someone fails to send the email on time or gives some negative feedback, not only is the person upset about the missed email deadline or hearing criticism but they are also further triggered by making a negative attribution as to why someone might have done this in the first place.

When these problems occur, often it is difficult to get over them. We see and deal with the same person day after day, and our negative feelings just intensify; it can be very difficult to ground them. The only realistic way to overcome this is to change the way we think and ask the right questions rather than assuming answers to the wrong ones; this was we can begin to handle the situation more appropriately.

If we fail to question our assumptions then we are likely to feel resentful, angry and frustrated. Work relationships get progressively strained and we feel the need to get rid of our own bad feelings about the other person possibly by bad mouthing them or persuading other colleagues to go against them and side with us.

So what can we do to lessen the effects of Fundamental Attribution Error?

Fundamental Attribution Error is in many respects a result of our lack of knowledge. We make unfavourable assumptions because we are unaware of the real motivations behind their behaviour. It is important to step back and consider other possibilities; for instance try to imagine alternative scenarios that could explain the behaviour.

Doing this isn’t always easy. Anger and frustration are powerful emotions, and overcoming these feelings doesn’t come easily to most of us. Often some kind of third party mediation is necessary, but there are several ways in which we can move forward. Some examples of these are given below:

  • Build trust – trust is one of the most important factors in creating and maintaining a harmonious workplace and where there is trust between people fundamental attribution error is less likely to occur. Trust is a workplace ethos that involves the whole workplace culture and there are many ways in which it can be encouraged. For instance there should be opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other and build trust. As individuals there is also much that we can do to engender trust; this involves ensuring that we are always trustworthy, and that we default to the trusting rather than distrusting others. The more we know and trust each other the less likely we are to make erroneous negative assumptions about each other.
  • Be objective – rather than taking to heart the reasons why a colleague has acted in such a way, it can help if we are able to be objective about it. If you feel angry, then consider that it wasn’t their intent to make you angry.
  • It isn’t about you – realise that ‘it’s not all about me’ …while me might like to think that other people’s behaviour is ‘to get at me’, it’s much more likely that you are the last person they have in mind when they do this. Try not to take it personally, even if it does cause you pain, and never try to ‘get your own back’.
  • Consider their circumstances – as we said above, we need to step back and consider other possibilities. If somebody is performing poorly, then it might not be their fault; their poor performance could be a result of their environment. Consider what external factors might be at play and make allowances for them.
  • Talk about it – if you find that you are having problems with a colleague then the best way of handling them is to talk about it. This requires a level of trust and maturity, but simply sitting down together and going through the issues informally can reap huge rewards.


Fundamental attribution error is a common workplace phenomenon. People come to erroneous conclusions about the capabilities, characters and motivations of others. Simply being aware that we tend to do this can improve the situation considerably.

When you find yourself feeling negative about a work colleague ask yourself if there are other factors that are in play. If you can imagine how external factors might be affecting them, then attempt to put yourself in their shoes and consider how you might react.

Following some of the suggestions listed above really can help, so give them a go. Remember, just as we make fundamental attribution errors over others, others may well make fundamental attribution errors over us.

Which Wolf Will You Feed?

A few weeks ago, I became embroiled in an interpersonal conflict situation. The details of who said what and when, are incidental. The key point is that I was annoyed, angry, upset etcetera by actions of the other person. Equally, they had similar reactions to actions that I took. What’s been interesting since then is to observe how my mind has processed these events.

There is a well known Cherokee legend about a grandfather who is talking to his grandson about handling negative emotions such as anger, hurt, upset. He talks about the internal conflict as being a fight between two wolves. One wolf represents negative emotions such as fear, anger, hurt, irritation. The other wolf symbolises peace, harmony, forgiveness, love. His grandson then asks which wolf will win to which his grandfather responds ‘the one you feed’.

So what I’m finding happening for me internally is exactly this struggle. It’s the struggle between the two ‘stories’ that I find cropping up for me about what happened.
On the one hand, I can tell a story of hurt, feeling let down, humiliated, frustrated, isolated. In telling my version of the story to my friend or partner, I can grasp for details of little things the other person said or did that support my ‘argument’ about my being wronged.
There is plenty of payback for me in doing this. My friend will respond with a dish of sympathy for me and indignation on my behalf at the behaviour of the other. These supportive and caring actions on her part also help to increase our connection and bond as friends.
I also get the pleasure of hanging out on a nice green patch of moral ground because I ascribe a certain rightness to my views on the issues in dispute. There’s quite a kick in running the movie in my mind of me barrister-like, rehearsing and reciting the case against the offenders, block by block building back my injured ego, in a vain attempt to squash any bad feelings that might be tempted to arise and upset me.
Holding a story of being a ‘victim’ in my mind has lots of benefits to it. I can build a monument in my mind to this story of injustice and have the further pleasure of taking it out and polishing it at regular intervals for the rest of my life.

But as legend tells us, there is another wolf that can be fed. I can tell myself another story: Here is a situation where both of us have been upset, hurt and triggered by actions that each of us took on foot of the circumstances we found ourselves in.
Yes, ‘they’ did some things that upset me but I too, took actions that were upsetting to them. Even though it was inadvertent on my part, the impact was still the same.
Honest appraisal also must lead me to conclude that I failed on one of the key aspects of good communication – to listen to what was not being said (but being thought and felt) by the other person(s) at crucial times in the events that happened.
I can remind myself of key values that I hold about how I engage and relate to other people and how they engage and relate to me. While these values have been challenged and undermined for both of us, I can persistently push myself to find a way to restore our working relationship to one that again upholds these values.
This ‘story’ is less seductive. It means having to let go of the anger which I then realise has been covering up more uncomfortable emotions: hurt about some things that were said, fear about taking the next step and unease about the unhelpful actions on my part in the situation.

So it’s a struggle – do I succumb to the almost delicious temptation of the victim story? Or do I resist that very hungry wolf and instead, take a few deep breaths and very gently lead my mind down the other track?

Which wolf do you feed?



Accountability Conversations

Effective Accountability Conversations.

Brian was hired 6 months ago as a new Manager of a small team of 7 staff in a branch of a country-wide service organisation. He’s committed and enthusiastic and has big plans to improve service delivery and productivity.

Alice has worked there for 15 years and Brian is finding her less amenable to taking on board some of the changes he’s trying to implement. Things like flexibility around the roster, putting the customer first and generally having a positive and upbeat attitude – these are a few of his wish-list for areas he’d like Alice to improve.

‘I suppose I’ll have to sit down with her and talk to her about her attitude’ he said during our last coaching session.

‘What have you been doing to build a relationship with her and give her a sense of being a valued member of the team’ I asked him.

He looked at me wryly ‘valued member of the team…hmm’

Not an uncommon reaction – Brian is so frustrated and feels he has to go in and ‘lay it on the line’. But getting someone to change their behaviour or ‘attitude’ is not a once-off event or conversation. You cannot expect to walk in one day, invite the person for a meeting, give them a shopping list of what they need to improve on and then hope for the best.

Here are some of the thoughts I shared with Brian around how he might work with Alice:

1. The ‘relationship’ bank account:

Think about your working relationship with everyone as a bank account. Actions that put money in the account are all of the interactions that you have with them that foster positive emotions. This starts with basic friendliness – the light-hearted small talk that builds connection over time. You are demonstrating an interest in them as a person and that you respect them. The next stage up from this is helping them feel valued for the work they are doing. Find opportunities to affirm and appreciate them.

Yes, you are probably sceptical about this (as Brian was!) but if you sit down and think about it, I’m sure you can come up with a few things that every team member does, that you are actually satisfied with. Even if it’s just a few things, try and identify these and then give them positive feedback – not gushing or inauthentic, just clear and supportive.

The thing about the relationship bank account is that it’s like a real bank account, things work much better when there is money in the account. So if you have built a relationship with Alice whereby there is credit in the account, then when you are sitting down with her to talk about something that might be challenging for her to hear she will be more open to this. If there’s no credit there, then you are in the red. Having an accountability conversation with someone with whom you haven’t already got some sort of positive relationship won’t work long term. While you might get short term compliance, the longer term consequences range from their behaviour worsening to them going on sick leave or even raising a complaint or bullying grievance against you.

2. What’s In It For Me:

We hear this all the time in sales – knowing your customer WIIFM. Well the same applies here. You have to try and figure out what’s important to Alice in this job. Yes, I know you’ll say it’s just the money but our motivations are never that simple and we all want our paycheck at the end of the week. All of us have values and identity issues at a deeper level that are important to us. In the workplace these might be things like being seen as competent or caring and wanting others to think the best of us. So you need to be trying to find what these are for Alice and reinforcing them where you can.

Knowing what’s important to someone also helps you when you come to have the accountability conversations. You can leverage this when you are talking to them about things that need to change – how that will benefit them in terms of their reputation or whatever it is that helps them feel valued. It will also assist you in helping them get clear on the consequences of not changing i.e. ‘I know you might find some of the clients difficult to deal with and don’t feel like being friendly. I worry that you won’t be able to continue to be in charge of the reception area though unless we can find ways to help you cope more effectively’.

3. Think ‘bigger picture’ but have a detailed plan:

Changing someone’s behaviour isn’t easy or quick. Think about yourself – how many times have you made a resolution on January 1st that you had forgotten by Jan 31st. This is because we take on too much, don’t provide regular habit-changing support activities and give up too easily. The same applies here. Alice has been in this job 15 years. She has built up a whole repertoire of behaviours and an approach to her job that works ok for her. So you can’t decide that you will shift all that in one conversation about her ‘attitude’. Consider the following:

  • You need to prioritise – what might be the two or three key behaviours you feel need to be changed?
  • Rather than thinking what you don’t want her to do, frame it as much as possible as what you do want to see happening.
  • Be really specific – ‘change your attitude’ – what does that mean? Is it that you want her to come in and be dancing every morning? Is it that you want her to be more welcoming and upbeat when clients come into the office
  • Link it to what it is you think is important to her. Maybe she’s a very caring kind of person (with her cat or her ill neighbour!). Help her see how the clients might benefit from her caring and warmth.
  • Explain your intentions in talking to her about this: ‘I’m looking at how we can make the customer’s experience more positive…I’m not in any way trying to undermine you or make you feel less valued’
  • Invite her thoughts on how she could be best helped to make any changes and get her input around how you will check in with her on it regularly and the timelines around this.

Accountability Conversations about performance are an essential aspect of management. But they can’t happen in a vacuum, rather they are just one piece of the jigsaw. They need to be part of a bigger context which has at its core a focus on bringing the best out of everyone on the team. Not a sprint, but a marathon.


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.