Ever find yourself facing an irritating little relationship issue at work you know you should probably deal with but hope will just “go away”? Or how about that complaining employee who you wish would get over it? Or can you relate to having too many pressing deadlines to spare the time for trivial matters?
If you recognize yourself above, I’d like to invite you to reassess. As a workplace mediator, I talk with both sides in conflicts – the manager and employee, the peers, or the whole team. My job is to help people move through impasses and hopefully reconcile.
I usually start with a private, one on one conversation with each individual involved. This kind of setting is intended to feel comfortable and safe enough to reveal some of the miscommunications, hurts and damage that have accumulated over weeks, months or even years. Fairly quickly, people start to tell me the truth of the situation as they see it.
What I want you to know is that, after thousands of hours of these kinds of conversations, spanning the last 25 years of my career, there is one significant lesson I think you want to hear. When I ask, almost everyone can tell me where the conflict started, and that starting place is often insignificant and small.
So small in fact, we have a name for it in our field, we call it a “pinch.” These pinches seem too small to make the effort.
Recently, a good friend said something to me at a book club event that sounded a bit harsh. In the big scheme of things, her comment was really not a big deal. In fact, it’s easy to think I could be over-sensitive. But I knew from my own experience, if I didn’t talk with her about that micro-moment, it could affect other things. Sure enough, I saw her do something else innocuous and I stayed aloof a few weeks later, On some level, she picked up on the little shift in our dynamic.
That is precisely how destructive conflict can start.
One party experiences something they define as “disrespectful” but perhaps too small to clarify. Then one or two other pinches happen and start to be coded as more examples of disrespect. Let a few of those micro-moments go by, throw in a conversation or two complaining to someone else, and we start to pick up steam!
Knowing this, I approached my friend and asked if we could talk about something small as I wanted to clear the air. She agreed. I shared my moment, and the presumably completely unintended consequence on me – and then asked about her experience. She received my perspective graciously, acknowledged she had felt the tension too, and shared about what was happening for her at that time. Of course, much of it had little to do with me, but taking the time we both did to speak about our own experience and to be curious about each other brought us closer together.
It turned the pinch into an opportunity.
I’d like to invite you do a little experiment of your own. Think back to a really bad conflict in your life. Something you’d say was a disaster, toxic, not good. Got it? Now can you think of any early signs that something was amiss? This may take some reflecting, as it’s easy to not even notice those small moments. If you can find some– ask yourself: What did I choose to do about it? In retrospect, what might have been the consequence if first addressed as a pinch?
It takes a bit of effort to make talking about a pinch a priority, but it ups the chances you never have to go looking for someone like me!
If you want to keep the dialogue going, I’d love to hear from you! Post your comments below.
Guest blogger Julia Menard is a Mediate BC Civil Roster mediator in Victoria, BC. For 20 years, Julia has been helping people, businesses, and government organizations resolve conflict constructively. To find out more, visit juliamenard.com.