Sunday, August 28, 2011

Conflict: Tips to Come Out Looking Good.

Picture from Wikipedia Commons
This month, the stars seem misaligned.  Conflict and fighting seem suddenly rampant - between friends and within organizations - not just among nations.  I'm not an astrology person, but so it feels in my gut.

For example, last month I ended a Facebook friendship because - even though it wasn't aimed at me - I couldn't face any more of this person's hurtful modus operandi - attack first and ask questions later.  A couple of weeks ago, I heard a tale about a set of organizations, coming together to work toward a greater good, that dissolved, instead, into a back-biting conflict, undermining the work of the collaboration.  Now, before they can apply their time to good works, they will first have to spend many hours rebuilding trust.

I'm not immune, either.  This week, I had a raw, unexpected fight with a woman who is both a colleague and a close friend.

And I've been attempting all week, more or less unsuccessfully, to dodge a second battle raging among another set of friends.

If there truly was an Athena, the Greek Goddess of War but also of Philosophy, she would be shaking her head sadly.  Athena, unlike her brother Ares, is not associated with the violence of war, but instead with the discipline of strategy.  Despite filling the occasional role of "warrior maiden," she preferred to settle disputes with wisdom.  She encouraged fighting only as a tool of last resort.

Here's another popular local theory:   "It's the heat."   

I don't buy that any more than I buy the astrology explanation.  What I do believe is that we are in difficult times.  People's work and life situations are in economic and therefore social crisis.  The three pillars of skill, experience and relationship are no longer enough to ensure a secure stool upon which to rest your life.  Competition for jobs, resources and opportunity has become fierce.  If you're an organization, the change-up in the funding game is frightening.  Nerves - at every level - are frayed.  Tattered nerves equal short fuses, bad judgment, strained relationships.  Conflict.

I've had somewhere between four and five hundred hours - I eventually stopped counting - of conflict training.  I train others in conflict management, believe I handle conflict fairly well, and, like Athena, am not afraid to face conflict when necessary.

But, as this week proves, I don't always avail myself of my own skill set.  It is more difficult to step back and strategize when the conflict becomes personal, or when I find myself unexpectedly in the middle of the fracas.

When that happens, I feel as icky, messy, unwashed as someone without any training whatsoever.

Poorly handled conflict - especially when public - can be downright humiliating.  It has ramifications beyond the immediate issue because it sends a message to the community about our ability to handle ourselves.  

We all want to be seen as someone who has their act together.

Self-reflection is a great growth tool.  After discussing all this recent conflict with the same friend I fought this week - talking it out safely is a great thing about true friendship - I decided to sit back and review some conflict skills.

And, because the pressure of these times ramps up the heat for personal and professional conflict, I thought I might share.

First, recognize your conflict style.  There are different ways of dealing with conflict:  avoidance, accommodation, competition, compromise, and collaboration.  Perhaps you recognize yourself or a frequent protagonist in one of the descriptions below.  Second, you can learn skills to enable you to acquit yourself honorably in a conflict.  I've given a few tips below for each style.

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Avoidance:   Usually, the root cause is actual discomfort with conflict.  Other times, you may look the other way when something goes down against your wishes because of a power imbalance.  Like when the person on the other side of the disagreement is your boss or has control of something you want. Either way - discomfort with conflict or fear of losing leverage - avoidance almost never works out well.  While there are times to pick and times to avoid a battle, if an issue is important, it pays to learn techniques for wading out into conflict without tipping the boat completely over.

Here is a strategy I use when fear is pushing me to avoid but I know I shouldn't:

Move toward the conflict with an open mind, asking questions.   Instead of coming at it with your point of disagreement, start by saying something like, "Help me to understand your thinking on this approach to...."  Then really listen before jumping in.  Maybe their approach solves a problem you didn't realize existed.  If so, you can say something like, "Well, I didn't realize that such-and-such was a problem.  I can see where your idea addresses it.  I'm wondering if we can find a way to address that problem without causing... [some other negative ramification you perceive in their approach]."

Now you're on the same team, problem-solving together.  You've become collaborators instead of opponents.

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Accommodation:   Do you try so hard to respect the views of others that you - or others -  wonder whether you have a view point of your own?   Peace and being liked are excellent outcomes, but sometimes accommodation comes at the result of personal credibility or loss of something that really matters to you.  If you're a constant accommodator, a likely outcome over time is resentment.

Accommodation was exactly what led to the fight with my pal.  I chose to look the other way when she proposed something not in my personal best interest, because she's my friend and I simply wanted her to be happy.  Later, despite my intellectual decision, I discovered I was hurting because she hadn't taken my needs into consideration.

      Of course, how could she have known my needs?  I failed to express them.

Chris Argyris and Don Schon, authors of a set of theories on organizational behavior, say our actions frequently differ from the way we say we would like to act, because we adopt behaviors to preserve relationships.  If you're trying to accommodate someone, one probable reason is that you care about the relationship.  Realize that the other party to the relationship, whether work or personal, probably also highly values the relationship and will work with you to find mutually acceptable solutions.  Here's a better way of handling an urge to accommodate:

Look for mutuality in accommodation:  Simply say, "I really want to accommodate you because I know this is important to you.  I am worried about a couple of things, though.  May I share my concerns with you so we can figure out together how to accommodate both of our needs?"

I really, really wish I would have said something like that to my friend before our fight.  

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Competitive:  If you find yourself pushing an issue regardless of how insignificant the stakes, you may be a Competitive.  If you've stopped making reasoned arguments and are, instead, throwing expertise or rank around, dropping names, hoping to get a credibility edge, you may be a Competitive.  Do you pride yourself in holding back a few points you can concede - points on matters about which you didn't actually disagree - just to make it look like you're being reasonable?  If someone accuses you of being all about winning, do you point back to those crumbs of concession?  When you've been cornered - do you make dismissive comments about your opponent or your opponent's position, wash your hands of the situation, and walk away?

Believe it or not, this kind of conflict has a place.  When all other options for conflict resolution have been exhausted and someone needs to fearlessly stand up for what is right, digging in with your heels might be necessary.  Or, when decision-making processes just go round and round in circles, someone has to make a decision for movement.  A person this self-confident can usually be counted upon to make the tough call.

Unfortunately, the downside of competitive conflict is that it rarely results in learning, which requires open-minded self-reflection.  Not, dig-your-heels-in defense tactics.  

And it often results in loss of relationships, because being unable to grant credibility to others is, in a way, the same as failure to accept your relationship or collaborative partners for who they are.  We all want acceptance. Trust is built around acceptance.  And failure to be able to see any credibility in another person's perspective leaves that person feeling like talking to you is talking to a wall.  They will not trust you to take their needs into account.  They will come to believe they cannot work with you.  Everybody loses.

Barbara Kellerman, author of several books on leadership, says there are five relational positions in an organization:  leader, follower, by-stander, isolate, activist and die hard.  Someone who is so competitive, sticks to his or her opinion regardless of what is best for the relationship or the group, is, with rare exception, not a leader.  He or she is a die-hard.  That's because a good leader must also be a good listener.  Followers will either follow willingly or they will surreptitiously move to undermine a "leader" whose values do not include concern and compassion for followers.  If you really want to succeed in bringing people around to your opinion, being a competitive die hard is not the way to gain influence.  Here's my advice:

Practice standing down.    Make a decision that for an entire day, you will simply listen.  Actively listen.  Practice inviting opinions and searching them for value.  Practice thanking people for sharing their thoughts, and voice the value of their opinion back to them without following the statement with a persuasive - or any - opinion of your own.  Practice being Zen-ish about having an opinion.  Let go and let it be ok not to have an opinion.   Eventually, when you get good at this work, try to integrate the new Zen you into your own opinionated behavior - exhibiting both opinion and appreciation for the opinions of others.

I predict that you will be pleasantly surprised by the results when you back up and give others space to have a valid opinion too.

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Compromisers:  In the traditional conflict negotiation model, parties give up stuff to get other stuff.  In the end, usually both parties are equally miserable, but willing to live with the deal.  If you're a compromiser, chances are, you hate conflict because you always walk away feeling deprived.  The key, according to "Getting to Yes" experts Fisher, Ury & Patton, is to turn a conflict into a collaboration, rather than a compromise.  My advice here is the same advice I have given the Avoider. Move into the conflict asking questions, trying to ascertain the other person's or organization's needs.  Acknowledge those needs, and then enlist the other parties in working collaboratively to solve the problem in a way that meets both their needs and yours.  If you've sincerely acknowledged their needs, there will be the raw material of trust upon which you can begin building mutually satisfying solutions.

I don't mean to make this sound easy.  Building mutually satisfying solutions sometimes requires more than listening and trust-building.  It often requires people to park preconceived solutions  - what we in conflict management call their positions - long enough to explore the underlying interests their positions seek to satisfy.  Once the underlying interests are on the table, creativity can flow as the entire group seeks explore alternative solution ideas to get all parties' needs met.

~  ~  ~

Collaborators:  Collaborators know that working together to find solutions that accommodate all parties' valid interests will result in better, more durable solutions and better long-term working relationships.  If you're already a collaborator, congratulations!

But, in times like these, when people and institutions are stressed, you may find yourself in the middle of unexpected conflict, acting from a more guttural and less strategic position.   I hope that some of the tips above will move you along.  

Athena would be proud.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

To Jody and Lisa, With Love

Last night on Chicago Hope, in an episode that was probably shown years ago, but which I am watching for the first time via, Alan Birch, the hospital's lawyer, died of gunshot wounds.  Alan died leaving an ethical will, parts of which we were privileged to hear on the show.  I wish I could recall it for you, but of course, I was crying, not taking notes.

An ethical will is a third type of will.   A regular will disposes of belongings.  A medical will asserts your preferences regarding end-of-life care.  The ethical will, however, is a vehicle by which you may transmit those values you hold most dear to the people in your life whom you've also held most dear.

Not that those people - if they are children of a Jewish mother - haven't heard those values before, over and over.  Like a broken record.

It won't surprise my daughters to learn that I, too, have written an ethical will.  I wrote it for my daughters, almost exactly ten years ago, in case, God forbid...

Chicago Hope, however, prompted me - I really hadn't thought about the will since I wrote it.  Tonight it dawned on me that the ethical will was buried somewhere in my computer, and, God forbid, my daughters might never see it.  So, I decided to memorialize it here.  If anything happens to me, will someone please send my beautiful daughters the link to this blog post?

Pththth pththth...

Dated July 19, 2001

28 Tammuz, 5761

To my dearest, most beloved daughters,

The idea of an ethical will, a will bequeathing you not the materialistic leavings of my life, but instead bestowing a final Torah lesson and the thoughts of my heart, is a custom of our people, perhaps built upon the idea of the parental blessing at the deathbed.  Isn’t it like me to sneak in a final Torah lesson?

I feel blessed to have been your mother.  Clearly you girls have been the greatest of all of God’s gifts to me.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to care for you, to watch you grow from beautiful, open and curious children to become graceful, kind, capable, intelligent women.  But even more, through you I have been given a second and third chance to see life freshly through your eyes, to rethink the purpose and value of life in the clarity of my love for you.  And because you are so precious I learned with a special poignancy just how fragile and precious is each soul, and how great a gift is our time with one-another in this world.

As children we are turned inward, each toward her own needs, joys and fears.  Others seem to exist simply to meet our physical and social needs.  As we mature, how clear it becomes that the joy of any one person depends not upon the service of other souls, but upon reciprocal service, the intertwining of lives, the giving and getting of love, support, kind words and deeds.  In short – joy is a communal experience, a treasure bestowed upon each soul through meaningful linkage with other souls. 

I know each of you learned this lesson early, because you both have a strong love for your family, and valued and long-time friends in whom you have invested much of your hearts.  How much greater will your joy be, I therefore ask you, when you extend these practices to your extended family, your community of friends and the larger community of humanity with whom we share the planet Earth.  Each “reaching out” to another, whether friend or stranger, blesses your own life with many unforeseen riches.  Judaism provides me with a beautiful set of instructions for this sort of human interaction, and I pray that you, too, will find meaning and purpose here.

Honor father and mother and teacher.  Find the holy flame, the b’tzelem elohim in each person you meet.  Look for and connect with the higher soul of each human-being, and you will find that people respond to you from that place in themselves.  There is something to learn from every human being, even if it is only something about yourself.

Always take the opportunity to do gemilut chasadim.  Doing a kindness means so much more to the recipient than is apparent.  Visit the sick.  Comfort the grieving.  Rejoice with the bride and groom.  Smile from your eyes, as well as with your mouth.  Say the kind word that springs to your lips.  Really listen.  Really care.  Go out of your way.  Whatever these little acts cost in time, energy and even money, you will be repaid abundantly in love, friendship, kindness, and a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Take care of you - physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Take care of your bodies.  Take care of your hearts.  Take care of your souls.  You have an obligation to yourself and to those in your care to be healthy, so you can make the most of life.  Do not neglect exercise, and get yourselves regularly into the fresh air and awe of God’s beautiful natural landscape.  Allow yourself the time to rest.  Forgive yourself your mistakes.  You are strong women, to whom others will always turn for care, nurturing and assistance.  Remember that you are also soft women, and let others nurture you when the need arises, or when others simply wish to give you that gift. 

In the words of Hillel, “That which is disdainful to you, do not do to others.”   Seek justice, but always temper justice with mercy.  Be honest in your dealings with others.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try not to judge harshly.  It is nearly impossible to know what happens in the hearts and homes of other people.  Care even for the stranger, like your foremother Sara.  You were once a stranger in the land of Egypt, and you may yet be a stranger again. 

Remember, you are part of a larger, extended family.  You are descended from strong, loving women on both sides of your family, and it is in their merit that I have raised you.  If I made a major mistake in your up-bringing, it was in raising you so far from our own family.  It is not too late to connect with your cousins and their children.  Don’t let the fact that you’ve never met some of them discourage you.  These are your people, and you share a common heritage.  

Practice tikkun olam.  Care for the Earth and its inhabitants.  The Earth is your home, and the home of your grandchildren.  Never stop learning.  Be curious and keep your eyes and your minds open.   Listen.  Watch.  Ask.  Read.  Books can widen your exposure immeasurably, and help you feel your membership in the community of planet Earth.

Lisa, as a last gift to me, light candles on Shabbat.  Leave open your mind to the possibility of God.  If God seems a distant idea, look inside at that which feels close.  Remember that your most intense emotions, your deepest sense of awe, all feelings of enlightenment and connection to things bigger and beyond and outside of yourself, all these feelings have their origin deep inside your center – your soul.  And while God is everywhere, inside is a good place to look first when looking for God. 

Jody, you have been blessed with the strength of faith and dedication to your Jewish community.  These blessing are not given without strings.  You are obligated to act on your faith, to be an example and a leader, and to protect, nurture and cherish your faith, your heritage and your community.   Continue to study Torah.  Make the ve’ahavta your watchword.  Let each and every act of your hands, your mouth and your heart speak of God and Torah.  And light the Shabbas candles, please.

In closing, both of you, take care of your sister. 

Love always, Mom
Sandra Price
July 19, 2001

Just Hanging on the Porch Waiting for My Bailout

Story Book Cottage, Ashville
Republicans are finally talking about raising taxes, but unfortunately, they're talking about raising taxes on working folks who used to be the middle and lower classes.  These same folks are rapidly being reduced by the economy to the lower and the no-place-to-go-from-here classes respectively.  When asked to justify this, they will point to the enormous number of Americans who are paying no taxes right now, and say, "Everybody should be paying something."  Otherwise, the saw goes, it's too easy for those people to have the wrong ideological opinions about how tax dollars should be spent.  If it's your own money, you'd be more cautious.  When it's other people's money, not so much.

The thing is, all these people who are paying little or no taxes are paying something else.  It's just not in cash.  Instead of sacrificing money, the poorest are sacrificing medicine.  They are sacrificing food from their tables.  They are sacrificing new school clothes for their kids in September.  Those who used to be middle class are now sacrificing evenings out to dinner.  They are pushing that new car off a few more years.  They are taking a short sale on their underwater homes and a hit on their credit.  Followed by the humiliation of downsizing into a rental place and the despair of losing the most important of American Dreams - home ownership.

It is really easy to sacrifice a little money when you have it.  It is much more difficult to be asked to make the kind of choices many Americans are facing today.

Those proposing raising taxes on those who are hurting most are wrong-headed.   Because people who are financially disabled are also people who aren't making enough money to properly feed, clothe and get medical care for their families right now.  Not to mention, they contribute less to the country's economic engine.  What I mean by that is that demand fuels production.  If stuff isn't flying off the shelves - if you've been into a big box store lately you will have seen many empty shelves - less stuff gets made, less of us are employed.  It's a vicious circle.   And that's the vicious circle carrying America down the tubes right now.  While I figure we'll come out of it one way or another, in the meantime, real illnesses aren't getting treated, real children are going hungry, real lives are going down the toilet.  And when we do come out of it, I predict we will look much more like a third world country than we used to a couple of decades ago.  Those of us who have lost jobs, opportunities, savings - our lives will look permanently like something less than we had, something less than we'd dreamed or expected as citizens of the world's greatest country.

The same people who claim that we should be raising taxes - on folks other than themselves - also cling steadfastly to the "trickle down" idea.  For anyone who doesn't know what "trickle down economics" are - if there is anyone who still doesn't know, the likelihood of them being here, reading this blog post is probably nil - it's the concept that if we leave rich people with their money, they will do what they do best, which is invest it into new businesses, etc.  Which, in turn, will create new jobs.  Which in turn will spread some additional wealth.

The problem is, there is every evidence that trickle down will not help America.  First, for awhile now, it's been fiscally fashionable to start your businesses overseas.   All that trickling is creating jobs in India, China, Brazil, you name it - anyplace but the good old U.S. of A.  The boldest front for corporate growth is overseas, where trickle down has morphed into a water fall, and as a result, the standard of living in countries attractive to corporate investment is rising even as ours is falling.  Hey, I wonder if there's a correlation.   If you haven't bothered to click on any of the alternately-colored type - these are links that take you to sources that prove my point so you don't think I'm making all this up - please click on this one, which says U.S. companies are giving up on American consumers. 

I try to find my data, by the way, at conservative fiscal and reporting institutions so that my R friends don't get all caught up in attacking the source.

The second piece of evidence is that many corporations are simply sitting on corporate wealth.  These are the more cautious companies, afraid to invest even in the profit fields of China and India, because the entire world economy feels so shaky.  Even if you believe trickle down works, if the wealthy aren't investing, then trickle down doesn't stand a chance.

So, to get to my point.  The smart way out of this mess would have been to give the approximately $3 trillion dollars in bailout moneys so far distributed ($11 trillion committed) directly to consumers.

By the way, isn't $11 trillion the approximate amount of deficit this country is sporting??

Many consumers are hungry.  They want to put their kids in cool extracurricular activities.  They want to cruise the Bahamas or hike in Sonoma.  They want new pick-up trucks, new landscaping, new kitchen cabinets.  They  would have spent, spent, spent.   And think not only of the instant spending, but of the indirect ramifications of so much pent up demand being satisfied.  Jobs, jobs, jobs - particularly if we put some serious taxpayer dollars into a hard-sell Buy American campaign.

Or, just think if we would have given a one-time free pass to homeowners in trouble with their mortgages.  One million homes were foreclosed on in 2010 alone.   I don't have time to add up the entire number since 2006, when the mortgage crisis hit full tilt.  The banks wouldn't be holding a shocking number of foreclosures on their books.  Mortgage payments would have been made.  The housing market would have kept more of its value.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans would still have good credit, enabling them to continue to buy the things they want to buy.

But no, we bail out Wall Street, and the automobile industry, and the airlines and... and... and... all on the basis of trickle down.  Or the "too big to collapse theory," just another wrong-headed rationalization for supporting the mega-corporation instead of the human being.  Ok, if you must know, it's a theory resulting in taxpayers giving blood to prevent a domino collapse of overly interdependent financial institutions.  Bad news. Or necessary for economic correction.  Depending on who you ask.

I say, bail out the little guys.  I will be the first to sign a contract to use the money to buy American.  Do not raise our taxes.  That just hastens the demise of our economy....  If anyone asks where I am, please tell them I am hanging out on the front porch, waiting for my bailout check to arrive.  I've picked a pleasant spot to wait, because I'm gonna be waiting a long, long time.

All In the Family Revisited

Sammy Davis Jr. lays one on Archie Bunker

The themes of socialism, race, the place of religion in politics are still all with us.

Yesterday was lazy.  I didn't feel good, so after teaching I did an enormous amount of sleeping and nearly as much TV watching.  Somehow I ended up taking a little trip down sitcom memory lane with "All in the Family."

After watching a "30 years later" interview of Carrol O'Connor (Archie) and Jean Stapleton (Edith) on a talk show I didn't recognize, I decided to hunt down the pilot episode.   It turns out there were a couple of other pilots shot but not shown.  Apparently the characters are played somewhat differently in the alternate pilots.  If you want to see a meaner Edith - modeled after the English version of the show called "Till Death Do Us Part" - go to YouTube and find the other pilots.  I watched the inaugural episode of the British series, too.   I didn't even know there was an English version.

By the way, these shows are both proof that nothing much changes in political wrangling. Being separated by an ocean doesn't much matter either. In "Till Death Do Us Part," the daughter says, "He blames everything on Labor. He'd blame the weather on Labor if he thought he could get away with it."


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Blown About By the Winds of Change

As I watched this "cute" video it struck me - this is exactly how it feels to be under-employed in America right now.  I hope America manages to regather herself as well as this family of ducks does.