Past pain

This is the last of a four-part series on conflict analysis looking at the four causes of conflict in the workplace. Part 1, different information, looked at the conflict when two or more parties have different information. Part 2, different interests, looked at the conflicts arising when each party wants something different or wants a different outcome. Part 3, different personalities, looked at the clash of different personalities and personal styles.

The fourth root of conflict is past pain. In many ways this is the most difficult one to deal with.  Probably all of us can recall a situation where a conflict simply appeared, as if from nowhere. Afterwards we scratch our heads and ask ‘what was that all about?’

Richard, a senior executive, had this experience one morning when his PA verbally attacked him in a prolonged rant over some extra work that had been divided up among all the staff following the unexpected departure of a team member. It was the first time she had ever verbally expressed disagreement in the two years she had been working for Richard. And that was probably part of the problem.

Suppressed and stored disagreements lead to resentment

In many cultures, people find it hard to express disagreement with those they perceive as ‘authority figures’. This is particularly true of women. The result is that when someone steps on their toes – whether literally or metaphorically – they tend to absorb the pain and say nothing.

But just because they don’t speak up doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling anything. Thoughts such as ‘this is unfair’ or ‘why am I being picked on’ can lead to feelings of resentment and anger. Over time these can build up, until one day something happens which is seen as ‘the last straw which breaks the camel’s back’ and the dam bursts. All the feelings which have built up over time are expressed in a fury of emotion.

The person on the receiving end of this outburst usually has no clue as to the build-up of events leading up to it. As a result they may feel angry at what they perceive is an ‘over the top’ reaction to the immediate problem. In Richard’s case, the PA was given a written warning about her behaviour. This led to a frosty atmosphere between the two with little communication, and a few months later the PA left her job.

The level of trust determines the speed of communication

It is an axiom that the level of trust determines the speed of communication. Where there is high trust, there is a high flow of communication. Where there is low trust, the communication flow is reduced to a bare trickle.

And yet communication is necessary if we are to build trust.  The moment when Richard’s PA had her outburst was an opportunity for communication. Something was expressed on that day which hadn’t been said in the years before: – the dissatisfaction and anger felt by the PA. For sure, there could have been much more appropriate ways to express that dissatisfaction. But it was, nevertheless, an opportunity.

When we are attacked, we tend to go into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. This is part of our evolutionary conditioning, and is an instinctual survival mechanism. However, the fight, flight or freeze reactions are associated with a different part of the brain to the frontal lobes which are our reasoning and problem-solving centres. When we feel threatened, or stressed, blood actually flows away from our frontal lobes into the more primitive parts of the brain around the brain stem.

The results are not conducive to good communication and problem solving. We tend to either fight back, perhaps by shouting and verbally attacking, or walk away, or shut down internally. What we really need to do is to listen, to deepen the flow of communication and by doing so, build trust.

It helps if we realize that the outburst of anger we are experiencing is not about us personally and about the current situation. When we understand that something else is going on, then we can see these moments as opportunities for deepening communication.

There is other stuff going on

As human beings our lives weave together many different strands. As well as our professional lives we have our families, friends, pets and various social networks. We might follow sports teams or TV soaps. We might be struggling with health issues that no-one else knows about. Try as we might to separate our professional lives from our personal lives, at the end of the day we are one person and we are affected by everything that is going on.  A person who is grieving over a beloved pet that has just died is going to be in a different mental space to a person who is feeling cocky because their sports team won the night before.

We bring to the workplace all of our stresses around our family relationships, money worries, health concerns. Even small things, like encountering an obnoxious and aggressive driver on our way to work or losing a favourite pen can have an impact on our frame of mind.

Pain from our early years

The history of past pain we bring into a conflict may also go back to formative experiences in childhood. The way each of us see the world is coloured by our own personal, family and cultural history.  Patterns we experienced in our early years become programmed as general beliefs we hold at a subconscious level about the world and how we operate in it.

Some examples:

  • Sita had an over-controlling  mother who used shame and humiliation as her main methods of control. As a result Sita tends to be over-sensitive to criticism, and easily gets into a rage when she feels humiliated in any way. She is particularly sensitive to criticism from women in authority positions.
  • Simon’s father had a violent temper and used this to get his way whenever he was crossed. As a result Simon internalised a belief that in order to get what you want you have to get angry and shout at people.
  • Charles was the seventh of eight siblings in a family with limited resources. Sharing and fair-play were essential for Charles to thrive. As a result Charles gets very angry whenever he feels that he has been treated unfairly or that an injustice has been done.
  • Barbara’s Jewish parents survived the holocaust. She grew up hearing the stories, always accompanied by warnings that you can’t trust non-Jews – that you never know when they might turn on you. Although Barbara rejects this world-view at a conscious level, at a subconscious level she constantly feels different and somehow alien.

Avoiding escalation

So what is the best way to deal with a conflict when we suspect that something from the past is being brought into the present?

The most important thing is to try not to take it personally and to stay calm. If you feel that a person’s reaction to a situation is like an 8 on the Richter scale when the situation only warrants a 3, then by reacting back with an equally strong 8 you share responsibility for escalating the conflict.

On the other hand, it doesn’t help to play the amateur psychologist and say things like ‘you are feeling angry because I remind of you of your alcoholic father’. This is also guaranteed to ramp things up a notch or two.

Emotions are always felt in the here and now. The ideas of past and future belong to a different part of the brain which is concerned with story. When someone feels an emotion, they often attach a story to it. So what they communicate has two aspects to it – the story and the emotion. To lower the emotional temperature, it is vital that the person who is feeling something strongly gets a sense that their emotion has been communicated; that whatever they are feeling – whether it is anger, shame, humiliation or sorrow  –  has been heard. Whether the story they have attached is accurate or inaccurate doesn’t matter in terms of the emotion felt.

So, for example, if Ron is feeling angry and he attaches to that feeling the story that I deliberately withheld information from him, the best thing that I can do is listen and acknowledge that he is angry. Then, once the emotional temperature has dropped, it is possible to explore whether Ron’s story is the whole story.

What happens if I argue back immediately? What if I say that I didn’t deliberately withhold information and tell Ron that he is angry because of something else?

In this case, by responding to the story instead of the emotion, I communicate to Ron that his strong feeling of anger has not been heard.  As a result, he feels even more angry. Whether I know the real reason for Ron’s anger or whether I don’t know, the result will be the same if I respond to the story instead of the emotion.

Asking questions

Once the emotional temperature has reduced, as a result of listening and responding to the emotion, it may be possible to explore other possible causes of the conflict. This is best done through asking questions rather than suggesting what you think is going on inside the other person’s head. Questions like ‘is that the only reason you are feeling angry?’ invite an open dialogue which can build trust. Statements like ‘You are probably angry because … ‘ are likely to lead the other person to feel judged and misunderstood – which kills dialogue and reduces trust.

Conflict analysis

Now that you know the four root causes of conflict in the workplace – different information, different interests, different personalities and past pain – you can look at any conflict and try to analyse what the different possible causes might be. This will be the subject of a future article on conflict analysis.

Download this series as a free ebook

These articles have been compiled into a free ebook, with an additional conflict analysis questionaire at the end to help assess the different components of any conflict. If you would like to download a copy, just fill in your name and email address in the form here, and it will be emailed to you. Click here to access the ebook.

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow

Conflict analysis – four causes of conflict, part 4. Past pain
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