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Episode 67: Conflict resolution tips for work (and life)

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

Acknowledge, observe, empathize.

As an accredited mediator, facilitator and trainer who specializes in resolving workplace conflicts, Nicole Cullen gains a lot of satisfaction from creating space for constructive dialogue. Director of Cullaborate, Nicole comes to the table with skills that transform tug of wars into truces.

On Xero Gravity #67, she joins Elizabeth in a (fun) back and forth. You’ll learn that expectations, agreements and having a third party up front make a big difference, how understanding each other’s personalities helps avoid conflict altogether, what the potential signs are of an impending conflict, and why using non-violent communication will get everyone what they want — a great outcome.

That and a whole lot more including why “let’s take a walk outside” doesn’t have to mean a fight, and how to have — as Nicole eloquently calls them — courageous conversations.

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Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Nicole Cullen [NC]

EÜ: Hi everyone, I'm Elizabeth Ü and this is Xero Gravity.

Meet Nicole Cullen, she's director at Cullaborate. It's a mediation, facilitation and conflict resolution consultancy. Nicole's an expert in resolving disputes, both in the office and at home. She says that acknowledging that people are unique and embracing that diversity is the first step to mitigating conflict.

NC: In the workplace, and in life, we're all different personalities and we can't expect everyone to be the same as us. And we tend to like people who are more like us, and it's harder to get along with people who are really different to us. But the more we understand the other person and their own, you know, personality breakdown— what causes them stress, what puts them under pressure, and how do we deal with them once we know their personality characteristics — the more we know of people, the better we can relate to them and have fewer conflicts.

EÜ: And I'm wondering too, it seems like so many of the conflicts that happen in the workplace, or outside for that matter, have to do with misunderstandings around expectations. And so whether that be the deliverable itself or how someone should comport themselves in the workplace, or who's supposed to do something or by when.

What can you say as a mediator, or someone who's really used to dealing with conflict, about actually crafting agreements from the get-go that prevent the need to resolve conflicts later?

NC: I think it's back to basics, Elizabeth. I think that the more that there are formal and informal opportunities for communication between people, the better. I mean I've recently started doing some walking groups with colleagues who I am doing business with, just so that we have an opportunity to talk about business and our expectations of each other in an informal setting.

Now, not everyone has the time to go walking but, you know, whether you're at the water cooler or even setting up an informal meeting, or even using social media channels. I mean, there are so many fantastic online platforms now for sharing of information. So I encourage, you know, all of those opportunities for communication because the more communication there is, the better people understand each other. And I cannot tell you how many mediations I've been doing recently which simply arise out of a failure to communicate and a lack of understanding of each other.

EÜ: So you know the expression that the cobbler's children have no shoes. And so here you are, a professional conflict consultant and mediator. Is there a conflict in your own life that you just can't seem to resolve?

NC: [Laughs] How many, how many hours do you have? Look, okay, so I have three children and when they were little I would take them to the supermarket and they used to do the screaming thing in the lollies aisle, you know, “Where are the chocolates.”

EÜ: Yep [laughs].

NC: And I remember I used to apply a mediation technique, and I do recommend this for all parents out there. And they would be screaming for a chocolate and I would say to them, "So you want a chocolate, are you hungry?" And when they said, "Yes, I'm hungry, I'm hungry," I would say, "Well let's go around to the fruit section and you can choose anything you want. Okay?”

EÜ: Mmm, Aikido move.

NC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the symptom of the problem is the fact that they're screaming in front of the chocolate aisle but the underlying root cause of the problem is that they're hungry.

But to be honest, I have done a lot of reframing at home. So when I say reframing, that is when my family members mention something that they're very concerned about or that is of, you know, of concern to them, rather than giving them a solution I just connect in with them and I say, "Okay, I can understand that you're asking for this or that this is a concern to you." And it’s quite interesting that they lose track of worrying about the solution. So long as they've been heard on the topic of their concern that's all that matters.

EÜ: I think that's a really great tip, is focus on what the underlying problem actually is and take the attention away from the solutions. Of course you can bicker all day long about the most appropriate solution, but if you don't really know what the underlying problems are that you're trying to address you're never going to get to the right solution.

NC: I mean I will say that, I’m, like all people, I have decisions in life that I sometimes struggle with and I find it challenging to move forward. I get very stuck, like every other person. And so therefore, I recognize, I think I recognize the importance of bringing a third person in, even for personal matters. Now, it may be a trusted friend or your accountant, or somebody like that. But it’s so helpful to have a third person assist you.

EÜ: And that could even be just calling your friend on the phone, right, for a different perspective?

NC: Oh look, having support from people who understand and know you is really important and critical. So if you're in a conflict, make sure you've got someone who you can debrief with privately and confidentially. There's just nothing better than bringing someone in and charging them with the responsibility of supporting the two of you, the two people in the conflict, through a conversation.

So what a mediator does is they hope to broker a conversation between parties who are locked into conflict. So mediation's really useful when a conflict has begun and it's become quite entrenched and the parties just are finding it really difficult to get breakthrough and have conversations with each other.

EÜ: So I'm imagining that someone would bring in a mediator after you've gone through all of the appropriate grievance processes within the workplace but before you might bring in the big guns like an attorney. Is that correct?

NC: Yeah. So, look as a golden rule, the earlier you can get in and try to resolve conflict, the better. The longer you leave the conflict, the more likely that the parties are becoming sort of polarized and very positioned and very locked into their own first person position in relation to the conflict.

EÜ: Right.

NC: And of course, as you get down the track, people do go off to get legal advice. They start talking to other advisors and they start getting more and more information about their own situation, and they can often become more and more sure and more and more satisfied that they are right and the other person is wrong.

EÜ: That actually sounds very familiar. I do tend to do a lot of research to prove that I'm right. [Laughs]

NC: Yeah. And I'm sure you are right. [Laughs]

EÜ: What are some of the signs that we can learn to recognize to prevent larger conflicts down the road?

NC: I think some of the early warning signs in a workplace are around lowered productivity, for example. You've got people that used to be pumping out lots of different activities and perhaps work products and suddenly the productivity has tapered off. Another warning sign is the fact that you've got people who are taking sick leave and they're absent from the workplace. Overall you've got decreased morale, people who are just less happy, perhaps, you know, gossiping in the corridors. Or, you know, perhaps even avoiding others. Even organizing lunch parties or social events but not including some of the other people in the workplace. You might have, moving up the scale, you're starting to get higher levels of emotion and people who are having inappropriate conversations or speaking inappropriately of others.

EÜ: So it sounds like a lot of these, especially around lower productivity or people taking sick leave, decreased morale, it sounds like someone's immediate supervisor might be in the best position to actually notice those signs. But what if the conflict is with that supervisor? Who's responsible then for calling out that there might be a conflict brewing?

NC: Yeah. Oh and that is such a typical scenario that you've actually just mentioned, Elizabeth, where the conflict is actually with the supervisor. And I mediate a lot of matters where there is a power imbalance and so you’ve got somebody who reports to a manager or a supervisor and in fact therein lies the conflict, or at least the conflict lies within that relationship.

The best thing to do is not to take somebody by surprise. You're not going to get a good result if you just bowl into somebody's office and start telling them about a problem or accusing them of something. You need to set up a time with them and also flag with them that you'd like to talk. So that they get some notice of the fact that there's a topic to be discussed.

EÜ: What if you're not the supervisor, how can you bring that up with the person you're having the conflict with? Whether or not it's your supervisor. I think it's important to acknowledge that so often there are these power imbalances.

NC: Mm. It’s very challenging because most of us don't like conflict. Most of us are conflict averse and would much prefer to, you know, hide under the doona at home than to approach a colleague to discuss something that's challenging. So I think the first thing to do is to think about, from your own perspective, you know, what are your own concerns and be really clear about what it is that is upsetting you, and what sort of outcome you might like to get if you have a conversation with the other person.

EÜ: Well let’s pause there for a second because I think that's often the hardest part. People really want to complain about what's not working but they aren't willing to spend that time and do the work to identify what it is that might make it better. Do you have advice for people who maybe are stuck in that complaining mindset to shift that around to really focus on what a positive solution might look like?

NC: Yeah. I'm all in favor of people taking responsibility.You know, if the patterns of behavior that have previously been happening are not achieving the right result, then recognize that and do something different.

The other thing that we need to do is think about things from the other person's perspective. Now, when you're in conflict that's usually the last thing that you want to do. You don't really want to think about the other person and what their needs are. But if you want to achieve your own outcome and the goal that you are setting for yourself then you're going to have to work with the other person for some sort of win-win solution to the problem. So ironically, the more we think about the other person and what their needs are, the more likely we are to achieve our own objectives.

EÜ: And what are some techniques that you use to help snap people out of their self-centered view and get them into the other person's shoes?

NC: Oh what a great question. So when I'm a mediator and I’m talking with someone who is very much in first person, that is talking, you know, using the “I” word and talking about their own experience, the first that I do is actually acknowledge their experience. Because if we don't acknowledge somebody's experience and their feelings and their concerns, and if we quickly ask them to think about the other person's perspective, what happens is they will not go there. They will actually stay in first person and keep talking about their own grievances.

EÜ: And I've been personally very much inspired by non-violent communication as a technique for acknowledging other people's experience that really does acknowledge what they're feeling, or what you have observed of their behavior without actually labeling who they are as people.

NC: And I think you're right because there is very much a trend these days to look at behaviors but move away from labels. And in a lot of workplaces labels become an easy way to maneuver and to operate. And if that becomes chronic that can become bullying and lead to a bullying claim, and you know, Elizabeth, I was talking with someone from a large membership organization recently, and they had been experiencing a bullying claim that had been right through the system, had been right through to a very adversarial ending. Which included a full-blown workplace investigation.

EÜ: Wow!

NC: It was a bullying claim that went right through to an investigation. Just take a guess at how much it cost.

EÜ: Gosh, I have no idea.

NC: They spent $100,000 on this conflict and on the claim, $100,000. Now that's the cost of a salary for someone who they could have put back into the organization. Just imagine the Christmas party they could have had for that sort of money. But you know, so and in fact, along the way the damage that was done by the stress and anxiety of the investigation process within the organization was impacting negatively on the staff, you know, all of the staff members in the team.

So it’s really important not to put labels onto people. But really to talk about the behaviors that they're exhibiting and talk about them from our own perspective. So, you know, you might say to somebody else, "You know, I feel uncomfortable when you raise your voice with me."

EÜ: And that's a perfect example, again, of non-violent communication.

NC: Yeah.

EÜ: How helpful do you think it is for workplaces to use things like the DISC method or Enneagram or Myers Briggs test so that, whether it's managers or just colleagues in the workplace, understand that there are, in fact, different ways of being? Are those types of characterization techniques helpful or do they just further exacerbate conflict or labeling?

NC: Here in Australia we're seeing a trend towards using profiling tools in the workplace and there are a number of different models that can be used and they're all trademarked and there are quite a lot of practitioners who work with different models.

So without discussing the actual models, I think the profiling tools are very, very useful. So I was talking with the HR person from a large corporate client recently. They had put the profiling tool right through their organization and he said to me the return on investment was significantly positive. I asked him how he could tell that and he said, "Well look, we do employee satisfaction surveys and after the profiling we noticed much higher levels of satisfaction amongst all of the employees." And anecdotally, they could see the people were getting along. Because if you're working with someone who you now know to be a detail person who likes to cross their T's and dot their I's, then you know, you've got a better understanding of them.

EÜ: What kinds of differences do you notice between your large corporate clients and the smaller business clients that you work with, in terms of mediation or conflict resolution?

NC: I find in both small and large organizations there's usually an attempt by the people involved to try to resolve conflict themselves. And, you know, as a mediator we really encourage that. Perhaps in the larger organizations you're more likely to have a grievance procedure. So there are opportunities for people to actually lodge a formal complaint and for the complaint to go through a complaint channel. I'm finding that with a lot of the large organizations these grievance procedures are getting choked up.

EÜ: And I love this term that you're using, courageous conversations. What tips do you have for those of us who might not be that comfortable leaning in to what might be considered awkward? You mentioned earlier, also, those people who are conflict averse. There's got to be some techniques that people can adopt to start leaning into those courageous conversations, as you call them.

NC: Yeah, well look, I think a courageous conversation is really a conversation that you know that you need to have but you don't really want to have. So it’s that sort of conversation that you have been putting off but it's been niggling. And you know, it’s really about working out the timing, so finding the right time to have that conversation and plenty of situations have ended badly because the poor timing has been chosen. So I like to think about the end result. Rather than the pain of the conversation, you know, what in fact, could be a brilliant outcome if, in fact, this conversation is a good one?

I often say to people who are coming to a mediation or a facilitated discussion about a workplace conflict — it's not the same thing as going to a dinner party with your friends on a Saturday night.

EÜ: No.

NC: People don't enjoy talking about conflict and so it can be hard and it can be painful but, indeed, there is nothing more rewarding than having a breakthrough in that challenging conversation and for the other person to look you in the eye and actually say, "I can understand what you're saying. I understand your point of view and I'm sorry for what I did."

EÜ: I agree, I agree. That that is useful advice for anyone in any field, so thank you. We're going to finish up with our question countdown. Which is five quick questions and five quick answers. Are you ready?

NC: I'm ready.

EÜ: What business, book or idea has made the biggest impact on your life and why?

NC: Allan Parker has got a fantastic book called The Negotiator's Toolkit. It's so easy to read and it's an excellent bible for anyone who's working in conflict.

EÜ: I will definitely check that out. And what's the one thing you can't live without?

NC: I can't live without my phone, but, you know, that's like everybody. I get nervous if I've lost it.

EÜ: And speaking of your phone, what's the most useful app on your phone right now?

NC: Oh, I've got the app that tells me when the train is coming and I love it.

EÜ: And in one sentence, what's the greatest lesson you've learned throughout your small business journey?

NC: I think the greatest lesson I've learned is to look after myself because as a person who works in conflict resolution I need to be always working at my peak and working at the top level of my competence.

EÜ: I agree. Finally, what skill do you want to enhance this year?

NC: I would like to enhance my ability to ask questions. I find that every time I ask an extra question, or allow time for somebody to fill the space in the conversation, I learn so much more.

EÜ: Well, thank you Nicole, it's been so great to have you on the show.

NC: Thank you. I have loved having this conversation with you, Elizabeth.

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EÜ: That was Nicole Cullen, director of Cullaborate — mediator, facilitator, and conflict consultant. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity. Have a great week and we'll see you next time.

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