As with the participants who performed stunts on the reality show called “Fear Factor”, many of us are outside of our comfort zones when we are in conflict. Unlike the contestants though when we are in conflict many of us do not experience conflict as sport, and we also lack their apparent boldness. This article expands on the notion of ‘fear factor’ when it comes to engaging in relational conflict and processes designed to facilitate the way through them.
In my conflict management coaching practice, clients often share a range of fears about their experience of conflict, and about participating in an ADR process or managing their situations on their own with coaching. Loss is one of the fears. This may have to do with the fear of losing face, the relationship, control, and what they want as an outcome. Other common fears are of reprisal, and of letting themselves and others down.
It is usual for clients to also fear the possible emotional repercussions. These are often related to previous experiences with conflict, not only what they are feeling about their current situation. That is, some people have histories of being unable to regulate their emotions, or have been continually frustrated with their inability to express themselves when upset. Or, in the past (and possibly in their present situation) they have been overwhelmed by the other person’s reactions to them. Clients in these circumstances may be inclined to shut down, give in, accommodate, and try to avoid conflict altogether.
On the other hand, some people are habitually combative and confrontational. For these clients there may be fears about repeating such reactions in the current situation, and facing negative consequences that have typically followed previous interactions.
Apprehensions of the nature described above - and more - are often combined with self-limiting beliefs about the general ability to engage in conflict effectively. These and a host of contextual factors contribute to the ‘fear factor’ for some of our clients, and as a result their openness and willingness to participate in processes meant to assist them are compromised before they begin.
Fears about Participating in Coaching, Mediation, and Other ADR Processes
Despite complex histories with conflict, or perhaps because of them, it is increasingly common, I find, for clients to seek one-on-one coaching with the goal of gaining proficiency to handle conflict more effectively. Objectives may be to learn ways of being in the heat of the moment - to be able to prevent conflict from escalating unnecessarily. Other goals may be to strengthen their skills to engage in conflict independently, confidently, and competently when it arises. Some clients seek coaching to be well prepared for mediation or other process, or for a challenging conversation or meeting expected to be contentious. Other coaching clients may want to improve their resilience and manage lingering reactions they experience in the aftermath of disputes, whether or not they have been resolved.
Fears that arise for coaching clients - even with well-intentioned goals to improve their conflict competence in these ways - are about failing and the ramifications if they do not succeed. Some clients also fear change and how to sustain new and different ways of relating, communicating, and interacting.
When it comes to mediation parties, starting point fears for many are also about whether the outcome will be successful and durable. Daunted by fears about interfacing with the person (or persons) about whom they have negative emotions may add to their concerns. Again, historical experiences with conflict and each other engender fears about participating effectively in the mediation forum.
In addition to these fears, it is natural for people to be concerned about what they do not understand. For example, sometimes verbal descriptions we provide about the process are given at times our clients are least able to take in information. For others, written descriptions are often general and do not necessarily cover their concerns. In either case, language and literacy issues may pose challenges. As a consequence, there are clients who do not fully comprehend what to expect, what their role is, what to say or do, and how they are to interact in the process. Pride, fear of sounding ignorant, and other reasons may mean some people are reticent to say so and come to the process with uncertainties and insecurities that impede their comfort and confidence.
Another fear factor is about us. We (the practitioners) are an unknown entity. Who we are, what we do, and how we do it are questions that may concern some clients. Although we make our best efforts and strongly believe in our skills and the processes we conduct, our clients may not feel trust or a connection with us. They may be reluctant to disclose this out of deference, embarrassment, or other reasons. Some also feel pressure to participate or view us as an agent for their organizations (when we provide our service in workplaces).
Certainly not all people experience fears of the nature described here. However, I do not think our clients, or we for that matter, are always conscious that fears of some sort exist. Nor are we aware of how their apprehensions impact them and their participation in the processes we facilitate.
Reflecting further on this topic of fears led me to consider the concept of courage. I recently asked members of a peer group about their own experiences about being in conflict – not in their role as practitioners. My specific inquiry was, “When you are in conflict under what circumstances do you find you need courage?” What follow are some of the most common sentiments in response to this question. Some are based on the practitioners’ observations of and discussions with coaching or mediation clients. Others are from personal experiences. I have framed them as ‘we’ statements since we shared many.
It takes courage to listen to and observe another person’s pain directed at and about us. It takes courage to regulate our emotions. It requires courage to take responsibility for our own contribution to the discord. We want courage to take risks and express our perspectives, needs, and interests despite concerns about the person’s reactions. We also want courage to hear and acknowledge the other person’s needs, interests, and hopes.
It requires courage to accept disappointment when our expectations about the relationship and the outcome are not realized. It takes courage to listen with curiosity and accept differences of views. We need courage to not make conflict about right and wrong, or win and lose. It takes courage to initiate a discussion with the other person with whom we are in conflict. It takes courage to be on the receiving end of a conflict conversation that the other person initiates.
We want courage to face the perceived challenges and stretch outside of our comfort zone by participating in a forum in which we face the other person. It takes courage to deconstruct our conflicts and disputes – to understand them and ourselves. It takes courage to face and accept where the other person is coming from. We need courage to check out assumptions and let them go if we realize they are inaccurate. It requires courage to change or give up strongly-held positions.
It requires courage to empathize, to humble ourselves, and to trust ourselves, the other person, and the process we engage in. We want courage to admit mistakes and accept blame. It takes courage to speak our truths. It takes courage to be open to learning and to try different ways of being in conflict. We need courage to swallow our pride and set our egos aside. It takes courage to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, to apologize, to forgive, and to move forward. It takes courage to walk away. We want courage to speak up and face situations head on knowing things may not mend – but rather end – the relationship. We need courage to be vulnerable.
Brene Brown in a TED Talk (“Listening to Shame”, March 2012, http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html) says, “Vulnerability is not weakness…Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage” and “it’s our clearest path to courage, engagement and meaningful connection”. This and another quote by Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection are especially pertinent to conflict management practitioners and this discussion on fear and courage. In this latter reference she says, “Courage is like – it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue. You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”
Brown’s words of wisdom strongly resonate for me and support the notion that it is an important part of our role as coaches, mediators, and other ADR practitioners to help our clients gain courage to be in conflict.
Some methods that are commonly used to normalize conflict and clients’ fears follow. The methods suggested also aim to lessen their anxieties and build courage - making the conflict experience more accessible and positive. These and other techniques work especially well, in my experience, when we devote sufficient time coaching clients who are planning to manage a situation independently or in pre-mediation (or other pre-ADR processes).
To begin with, the importance of establishing strong, supportive, and trusting relationships with our clients cannot be overstated. This entails, among other things, making the space and time for them to talk, reflect and regain their equilibrium – commonly off-kilter at these times. Facilitating conversations of this nature from a place of compassion, positivity, and non-judgment models openness that further assists clients to become increasingly comfortable to express their concerns, truths, hopes, and needs. What is more, encouraging clients to name and express their fears and emotions helps reduce their potency.
Some other methods that facilitate clients’ ability to become more courageous and ultimately gain increased composure involve helping them gain increased awareness and the ability to step back from their conflicts and related fears. By encouraging clients to carefully think out and analyze the conflict dynamic in their situations, they are better able to gain and process different perspectives, including their own contribution. Insight-building questions, metaphors, reframing, and other reappraisal techniques are useful in this regard. Using an optimistic and future-oriented approach encourages clients who are planted in the past problems and fears to move away from what went wrong to what will move things forward.
Further, assisting people to prepare for their interactions strengthens their confidence and courage significantly. This may involve helping clients to set intentions, construct and practice communications, and envision how they want to show up and express themselves. It also includes assisting them to prepare to receive the other person’s comments and reactions, and to respond in ways that align with and facilitate their desired outcomes. Exercises of this nature yield optimum results when practitioners provide constructive acknowledgement, feedback, and input on our clients’ efforts and progress.
Unlike the contestants on the now defunct show “Fear Factor”, anxieties may impede the willingness and ability of our clients to fearlessly engage in conflict and processes designed to help them. It is therefore helpful for those who feel vulnerable and apprehensive to have the opportunity to identify, discuss, and overcome as much as possible what is challenging for them. Incorporating techniques that assist people move from reactive to reflective ways of thinking and feeling facilitates this.More happens too when we help prepare clients to be in conflict. Trust and connection that builds when practitioners devote time and energy to our clients help fortify their skills and confidence which has a direct impact on their comfort with the process. Our openness, understanding, and support further serve to increase our clients’ ability to participate effectively in conflict, whether they do so independently - with coaching - or as a party in mediation or other forum. Together with a positive, future-focused, and compassionate approach practitioners help to normalize the experience of being in conflict and ultimately strengthen our clients’ courage to find their way through conflict in ways they may not have imagined.