Tips on how to cope better with the stress and emotions of conflict and disputes

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
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Thanks for watching

Difficult Conversation? Don’t Forget Your Oxygen Mask

Difficult Conversation? Don't Forget Your Oxygen MaskDifficult Conversation? Don’t Forget Your Oxygen Mask!

You’re sitting in an aeroplane with your three year old son.

Suddenly, the plane starts to jolt and rock. You feel dizzy, it’s hard to breathe.

The little boy starts wheezing and crying with pain. You can feel panic rising.

From above oxygen masks drop down. Grabbing one you rush to ease the small boy’s gasping but just in time, you remember the flight attendant’s mantra “secure your own mask first

It’s easy to get focused on the other person.

Whether it’s in caring for them as in the scenario above or arguing with them when you get stuck in a difficult conversation.

But it’s a mistake. In the airplane, the pressure drop reduces the level of oxygen in your brain. You can no longer think straight. It’s the same physiological reaction when someone is being disagreeable or arguing unreasonably with you.

Imagine you are giving feedback to a team member. He doesn’t like what he’s hearing, starts defending, it’s not his fault, it’s not fair, you didn’t support him enough.

You can feel frustration rising. Why doesn’t he get it that his work isn’t up to scratch? Why can’t he see that you are trying to help him improve? You try to reason with him.

He’s not listening. A knot of irritation spreads slowly from your stomach. The tone gradually rises as you both get more annoyed.



Emotions like anger and frustration cloud our thinking. We go into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline and cortisol are released which lower oxygen and glucose levels in the brain. We become less rational, more reactive.

When the tension is rising, it’s time to don your oxygen mask. Landing a ‘difficult conversation’ safely needs you to be calm and composed, not irate and indignant.

How to keep calm when tensions rise:

Here are some strategies to stay calm, centred and in control in a ‘difficult’ conversation.


  • Learn to recognize the physical signals of early arousal:

Become aware of the subtle changes that take place in your physiological state, body language and tone of voice.
Does your stomach clench, does your neck heat up or tighten?

Do you become more animated, raise your voice or are you more likely to become quiet, close down?
Being able to notice the early signs of getting irked and irritated will make it easier to inhibit and manage this response.

  • Take 3 or 4 slow, deliberate deep breaths:

It sounds clichéd but deep breathing counteracts angst-inducing stress hormones. Focused, mindful breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.

  • Find a way to take either a physical or mental ‘time out’:

Going into listening mode can be a way of ‘buying time’ for you to regroup mentally. Perhaps ask a question, ask them to repeat something.

While they are talking, do your deep breathing. If the situation permits, find a way to take a short time-out: ‘Can I just have a think about this for a couple of minutes and come back to you?’

  • Count to ten:

Yes, your mother was right.
Counting to ten works in two ways. It slows us down, we are less impulsive. It also distracts us – as long as we are focused on our counting 1 – 2 – 3 … and not on what’s bugging us.
Combine it with deep breathing, it’s a simple but powerful way to instantly soothe simmering feelings.


  • Adapt a fly-on-the-wall perspective:

Imagine you are an observer looking from a distance at the situation. Our tendency is to become immersed in our feelings, even afterwards, getting stuck in rumination which further feeds our anger. But a ‘self-distancing’ approach can minimise and dissipate angry feelings in the heat of the moment.

  • Reframe or reappraise how you are viewing the situation:

It’s been said that in a ‘difficult conversation’, the most important conversation is the one you have with yourself – before, during and afterwards.

Research shows that we can influence our emotional response by reframing or reappraising a situation or event. Practice statements or ‘self-talk’ that you can reach for when you are feeling triggered.

‘I am calm and in control’ or ‘This isn’t about me, it’s their issue’ – these work for me. But it’s an individual thing, you need to find some sentence that works for you.

  • Know your own hot buttons:

If you know the kinds of words or behaviours likely to trip your switch you will have a better chance of not reacting. It’s useful also to know why this button is hot for you – what meaning do you take from it.

What sets you off? I’m kind of allergic to people adopting a ‘victim’ stance. For me, it signals someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for themselves and their situation. So I need to do lots of deep breathing when someone behaves in this way.

In summary:

There are many ways you can use to keep you in a mindful and clear state of mind if tempers start to rise. You need to find the one(s) that work for you.

And it’s not that you should just ignore or tolerate all sorts of unhelpful or inappropriate behaviour from others. Sit there passively while they steamroll you into doing what they want.
It’s just that staying calm and unruffled when it’s actually happening means you can be more strategic and mindful about what you say and how you respond.

No more ‘I should have, I could have…’ afterwards.

Just clarity and peace of mind.

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.
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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?



Powerful Questions to help Managers prepare for ‘Difficult Conversations’

Powerful Questions to help Managers prepare for Difficult Conversations“ John, I need to talk to you about..something…”
Of all of the situations I have been hired to work on over the past decade, the majority of them related to a breakdown in relationships between a manager and a member of their team. Somewhere along the lines, difficult conversations have lived up to their name and everyone was left feeling upset and frustrated.

This newsletter highlights some powerful questions that you can use to help someone prepare for what is euphemistically called a ‘difficult conversation’. They are aimed at assisting the person to think through in advance all of the possible landmines that might explode and plan ways to either avoid or manage to these to the best extent.

Why might conversations become ‘difficult’?

By a ‘difficult’ conversation we mean any interaction where a manager has to give an employee feedback that could trigger a negative emotional reaction from them.

For the person on the receiving end, hearing negative stuff about oneself has the potential to upset or annoy them. They may interpret it as a threat to their identity, self-esteem, competence or how they see themselves in the workplace. Other variables also such as the level of trust and rapport between them and the feedback-giver also play into how triggered they might feel, react and behave.

For the person giving the negative messages, they too are prone to reactivity. For a start, they may already be feeling irritated or frustrated over the substantive issues. That will negatively influence their attitude and how they come across, perhaps sounding aggressive or confrontative. On the other hand, they might just be fearful or anxious about the other person’s reaction. That could lead to watering down their key message or fudging the issues.

How might you help them prepare?

The sets of questions below are designed to be used as part of a preparatory coaching session. They are aimed at helping the person reflect in advance on all aspects of a potentially contentious interaction. These include:

Content: this is about getting clarity on what the substantive issue(s) are and the key message around this.

‘Landmines’: this is about having thought through and understood the underlying emotional and possibly identity issues for both themselves and the other person and how they might deal with these.

It would be essential of course that the questions are asked from a coach-like stance of curiosity and exploration, with a view to stimulating their thinking and helping them gain useful insight.

Help them get clear on what they need to discuss

  • What are the observed facts/behaviours that you believe you need to raise?
  • What specifically is it you believe they have done/said…?
  • What are the unmet expectations you had?
  • What’s at stake here for you in this situation?
  • How do these issues impact on your working relationship with this person?
  • What sort of changes might you want from this person’s behaviour/attitude?
  • What is most important to you about how this conversation goes?
  • How much trust is there between both of you for having this kind of conversation?
  • What are the benefits of raising this issue with this person at this point in time? Are there any risks or downsides?

Help them explore their own ‘landmines’

  • What is going through your mind right now about this situation?
  • You mention you are feeling frustrated/annoyed/very angry/humiliated …how might those reactions be impacting on your views of this situation?
  • How might they impact on how you talk to the other person about these issues?
  • What assumptions might you be making about the other person?
  • How are those assumptions helpful to you?
  • How might those assumptions be affecting how you will relate to them in this conversation?

Help them explore the other person’s ‘landmines’

  • What might be at stake for them in this conversation?
  • What expectations might they have of you or their relationship with you that this conversation could challenge?
  • How might that impact on them?
  • What assumptions might they be making about your intentions here?
  • What are your intentions here?
  • How can you ensure that they accurately interpret your intentions in having this conversation with them?

Questions to plan the conversation

  • What are the priority points/key concerns that you need to convey to them?
  • What is it you want to be sure they understand about ‘where you are coming from’?
  • What do you not want them to assume about you?
  • What do you want to convey to them about your intentions?
  • How will you help them understand your positive intentions?
  • What might get in the way of them seeing your positive intentions towards them?
  • How can you say that in a way that they can hear it rather than be defensive?
  • What might be their key needs and concerns?
  • What might they want you to understand about them?
  • How will you demonstrate you’ve understood where they are coming from?
  • How can you start in a neutral and non-blaming way?

Questions to plan how to stay on track

  • What might they say or react that would take you off track in this meeting?
  • How will you manage that?
  • What aspect of what you say could take them off track/cause them to be defensive or confrontative?
  • How will they know that you are open to hearing their point of view?
  • What do you want to be conscious of not doing during this meeting?
  • What other times do you feel you have handled meetings like this well? What was it you were doing that worked well?
  • What do you want to be conscious of doing differently in this meeting compared to other times [when meetings with OP didn’t go so well]?
  • How will you know that this meeting was successful?
  • What are the options as to how you will both go forward after this meeting – what would need to be agreed between you both?

‘Difficult conversations’ are an occupational hazard for Managers in every working environment. Supportive and thorough preparation in advance can however assist in ensuring they not only remain constructive but can also be a useful learning tool to build their capacity and confidence for future ‘difficult conversations’


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 Conflict Competent Are Staff in Your Organisation?

When I ask people in training courses and workshops to cite some images or associations they have with the concept of ‘conflict’, I usually get a whole list of negatives (angry, war, hate, stress…) and very few positives. ‘I don’t like conflict’ is a common refrain, so I do my best to avoid it’. Yet if we think about it, how realistic is it to want to avoid all potential conflict situations?

What is conflict after all but a situation where people have different viewpoints, with a bit of emotional attachment thrown in. So whether the project should be done my way or yours could cause conflict, less likely are diverse views as to which hobbies or wine we prefer. In every workplace, where there are on-going and interdependent relationships with a variety of viewpoints on how and what should be done, conflict is inevitable.

If we don’t view conflict as inevitable, then ask yourself – should most staff/managers be able to do any of the following?

  • Raise issues with a team member or a direct report that could be potentially contentious?
  • Hold others accountable for work tasks agreed and set?
  • Give constructive feedback?
  • Negotiate and influence others with integrity and respect?
  • Be able to integrate a variety of perspectives and viewpoints in problem-solving discussions?
  • Able to use probing questions to get at the essence of what’s being communicated by another person?
  • Be able to play the ball rather than the ‘man’/’woman’ when a disagreement arises

The above list of skills occur daily in many people’s jobs – certainly for those at management level. They also encompass core skills and knowledge in the area of ‘conflict management’.
Most management/leadership courses offer one day or one module on ‘conflict management’ but it’s frequently not considered a core organisational value or competency, to be continuously improved and fostered for all staff.

In order to be able to effectively engage with people around issues that need to be talked about, it’s essential to have ongoing support and review of a measurable set of ‘managing conflict’ competencies, just like any other essential components of the job.

Why it’s so important:

In a 2008 CIPD survey of 660 HR practitioners, almost half found they have to manage conflict at work ‘frequently or continually’, taking on average almost 4 hours per week. Yet almost a third of companies provide no training for staff in this area. Similarly a 2013 CIPD report cited managing difficult conversations to be ‘the most frequent skill gap for front-line supervisors by HR professionals’.

There is a significant body of research in recent years (IBEC, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development etc.) citing the importance of ensuring line managers are conflict competent.

As Thomas Crumm (1987) states ‘It’s not whether you have conflict in your life, it’s what you do with it that conflict that makes a difference’. Avoiding the high costs of destructive conflict means ensuring staff and managers have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to engage with and manage the inevitable conflicts that arise in every workplace.

Read more about core Conflict Competencies for Managers and Leaders here

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.

Lessons from Mandela

As this week of mourning for Mandela draws to a close and he is being laid to rest tomorrow, here are a a few vignettes from life of Nelson Mandela. These capture some examples of his greatness, particularly in the areas of leadership, forgiveness and reconciliation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu when asked by author John Carlin for one word to sum up Mandela replied: “Magnanimity”.
May we all strive to be a little more magnanimous in 2014.

Some lessons from Mandela – may he rest in peace.

  • Bill Clinton was said to have talked about how he had spent time with Mandela and observed that if he was bothered or angry about something he was very quickly able to move past this and not let it get in the way of the relationship with the other person. What was striking was Clinton’s reference to how disciplined Mandela was around managing his anger.
    All too often we let anger or annoyance consume us. We see it as a justified response, that we are driven to by the behaviour of others, rather than seeing it as something that we can choose to be disciplined around.
    Learning: How can we be better manage strong emotions, rather than acting on and expanding them, can we hold them briefly in our awareness and then let them go

  • Ferghal Purcell, manager of the Lough Erne Hotel in Fermanagh recounted on RTE Radio 1 last week his experience of Mandela in 1991. He was manager of a hotel in South Africa where the ANC came to negotiate with de Klerk and his team. For four or five days Purcell and his staff worked unobtrusively in the background looking after Mandela and his cabinet, to ensure as comfortable and smooth a stay as possible. On the last day, Mandela summoned him to his hotel room. He approached with some trepidation, fearing some cause for complaint. Instead he was met by Mandela and all his cabinet colleagues, each of whom Mandela invited personally to express their heartfelt thanks and appreciation for hosting them so well.
    It was impressive the effort he put into acknowledging people and service he could have taken for granted.

    Learning: How can we be more mindful of people in our lives at work, in our community that we take for granted and take the time to simply thank them for their support and contribution

  • During his long tenure in Robben Island prison Mandela came to realise that the best way to solve the conflict in South Africa was to engage with and educate himself about the white population. He set about learning Afrikaans, at the time seen as the ‘oppressors’ language, reading Afrikanner history and trying to build relationships with his jailers. In the long run, he achieved far greater victories through his ability to connect and respect rather than to fight and reject. Learning: How could we try and reach out and build and thus transform relationships with people we feel least drawn to and even somewhat threatened by?
  • In 1995 the rugby World Cup final was held in Johannesburg and won by the South African team, the Springboks, which were formerly one of the most hated symbols of apartheid. Mandela used the tournament as an opportunity to unite the nation in a common cause. His wise understanding of the power of gesture led to him attending the Final wearing the Springboks rugby shirt and cap with the number of the captain, Francois Pienaar, on the jersey. When he presented the cup to Pienaar, he said ‘”Thank you Francois for what you have done for our country”. The powerful impact of this simple generous action was illustrated in Pienaar’s response – “Mr President, thank you for what you have done for our country”.
    Learning: How can we find simple but powerful ways to be generous and inclusive to those we view as being ‘on the other side’?

To finish with a short quotation that summarises for me the essence of what Mandela stands for: his combination of humility and wisdom in stating: ‘One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others’