Uncomfortable conversations: Love them or hate them?


Who relishes a conversation that feels uncomfortable?  Alesha Dixon commented in an interview earlier this year – “I love an uncomfortable conversation. I really do. Because I’m not afraid to learn and to be wrong.”  Her comment has really stayed with me. It’s unusual to hear someone talking about difficult discussions in such a positive way.

How do you feel when you’re out of your comfort zone?

It’s not uncommon to feel threatened – as though you’re under attack. If you feel yourself going into flight-fight mode, you wouldn’t be alone. Dan Goleman referred to the “amygdala hijack” in Emotional Intelligence: Why It can Matter More than IQ. That hijack often doesn’t bring out the best in anyone. Steve Peters has described the brain’s reaction to the hijack as a chimp.

Feeling threatened?

It’s a threat

When we perceive specific threats in a social situation, it affects our ability to interact productively. Commonly these are threats to our social standing: having our competence undermined, feeling as though we’re being micro-managed; believing a situation to be unfair. Acknowledging the stressors that trigger our threat responses is a good way to ensure that the confrontation doesn’t get the better of you.

You’re wrong!”

‘Being wrong’ is a very emotionally loaded phrase.  It can get in the way of listening to other perspectives because it’s a rare person who is able to keep practising active listening, when they feel like they are under attack.

It can be scary to admit that you might be getting something wrong – or that you just don’t know about something.  If you’re trying to do that in the middle of a conflict, then that’s really tricky.

But it’s important. You may be missing out on an opportunity. Those emotions may get in the way of hearing a different perspective – really hearing it, without that sense of threat.

Managing your emotions

Thankfully there’s a lot of advice around about managing that emotional response during difficult conversations.  Much focuses on getting your breathing under control – whether as part of mediation, or just taking some deep breaths.

“Why is Marcus so concerned about this issue?”

There’s also a classic technique of ‘distanced self-talk’ – as demonstrated by Marcus Aurelius.  There’s a shift from thinking ”why am I feeling so upset?”, which is considered immersed self-talk, to a distanced self-talk question, eg “why is Joe feeling so upset?” (if your name is Joe). 

Sometimes, getting some support from someone outside the situation can make a difference to how those discussions go. If you’d like some support to manage difficult conversations, get in touch and I might be able to help.

How do you introduce yourself? Career changers and evolving professional identities

When do you change your ‘introduction label?

What do you do?

The first time I introduced myself as a mediator wasn’t at in a business setting, or a networking event.  It was to my new dentist.  He asked me what I do for work.  I paused, before replying “I’m a mediator and conflict coach”.  This was the first time that I had said described myself by the field I was moving into. It felt significant.

I’ve worked in conflict for a long time.  But after years working overseas, I trained as a mediator a couple of years ago.  Since then, I’ve been working on building a mediation business. My focus is on workplace and community disputes – and, more generally, disputes where emotions are running particularly high.

When to change your introduction label?

As a career changer/pivoter, I found it hard to identify the point when it’s ok to label myself by my new role, without being disingenuous.  It’s the same when you’re starting out in your career.  I’ve heard of career coaches advising that you should use your ‘new label’ when asked what you do, rather than continuing in a box that you’re moving on from.

There’s a whole discussion over whether these labels are really helpful or not – and what using your work as your primary identifier means for you.  But I’ll leave a discussion of labelling theory to the psychologists.

According to Second Breaks, it’s important to reflect your new professional identity:

When you fully accept the shift in your professional identity, you project a level of self-assuredness that people around you pick up on and respond to.

For me, this came after I’d been a qualified mediator for more than 18 months, with several mediations and conflict coaching calls under my belt.  I’m not entirely sure why it felt right to tell my dentist that I’m a mediator. But it felt good and I’ve continued to introduce myself as a mediator since.

What’s your experience of evolving your pitch and how you introduce yourself?

Neighbour Disputes: When Your Home is Anything but a Sanctuary


Have you been experiencing issues with your neighbours?  With so much time spent at home, it’s not unusual to find that issues are becoming more challenging.  

6 Top Areas of Dispute

Noisy neighbours can be a significant source of stress

The Times recently covered Britain’s top six areas of disputes (according to a survey of six law firms:

  1. Fences and boundaries
  2. Noise/nuisance
  3. Pets
  4. Shared driveways – right of way
  5. Trespass (mostly involving boundary disputes)
  6. Trees and hedges

Options to resolve the issues without going to focused on practical ideas: “Far better to find practical solutions than legal ones.  If a neighbour is invading your privacy, buy specialist tinted glass… if the washing line is bothering you, erect a higher fence.”

But there are more ways to resolve neighbour disputes than going to court or putting up a big fence.  

Managing Disagreements

The Brighton and Hove Independent Mediation Service share these 5 excellent tips to improve difficult relations between neighbours:

  1. The more understanding the better – it may seem hard, but if you can show understanding towards them, they are much more likely to show understanding to you.
  2. Take a moment – take time to calm down and reflect before contacting the other person
  3. Explain your concerns – explain why you are finding it difficult and request a change that would help (eg “I finish work at midnight so when I get woken up because you put the TV on at 6am, it means I don’t get enough sleep. Please keep things quiet until after 8am.”)
  4. Offer to listen to the other person’s point of view – people are more willing to compromise when they feel their point of view has been heard and understood.
  5. See if it’s possible to agree a plan – or some changes – that would work for you both.

Bringing in a third party to facilitate a discussion can also be helpful and give you and your neighbour a chance to put the stress behind you and move on. Get in touch to talk through the options – you don’t have to do this alone.

“I get so emotional, baby”: Working with emotion in conflict


Emotional response to conflict

An uncommon response to conflict

Lots of us have an emotional reaction to being in conflict.  The heart starts to race, breathing shallows and blood rushes to the head.  For some, the red mist descends, and they are in fight mode. This is often seen as a negative and they are told not to be ‘so emotional’.  There’s a perception that when someone is considered to be controlled by their emotions, they are not rational.

But is it such a bad thing to be emotional? What happens if we accept emotions are a natural part of conflict?  

It’s natural to experience an emotional reaction when dealing with an issue where you are in conflict with someone else.  Surely, it would get easier to talk about the difficult issues without the added stress of feeling ashamed about our reactions?

Working with your emotions

In a great talk recently for the Harvard Programme on Negotiation on leadership, Professor Rob Wilkinson discussed emotions.  He acknowledges that it’s understandable to take challenge personally, especially when you feel committed to what you’re doing. That challenge may trigger an emotional reaction.  Beating yourself up about that is unlikely to help.

His advice – it’s ok to recognise that you are experiencing emotional response; human beings have survived because we have emotions.  So, after accepting this is normal, what next?  

There are lots of techniques that can help you to regulate your emotions – simply shifting your focus to your breath is often recommended and can be very helpful. Thinking about managing your inner chimp works for many.

Conflict Coaching

If you find that your emotions are getting in the way of managing a conflict, perhaps it’s time to try something different.  Conflict coaching can help you to manage your emotions and even use them to your advantage.

Expanding Your Conflict Style to Manage Conflict Better (& Reduce Stress)


How do you react when you feel yourself to be in a conflict?  Do you find your competitive nature is triggered?  Or do you want to avoid the whole thing until it blows over? We all react differently to conflicts – and sometimes our reactions differ depending on the conflict.  Often, however, we have a natural style that we revert to.

Why does this matter?  Because it’s a stress driver that we can reduce.

Conflict is everywhere.  For lots of us, our relationships are feeling the strain of a year of the pandemic.  There are conflicts within families, with work colleagues, with neighbours, with bosses etc etc.  

Many people find conflicts stressful and upsetting. Understanding our inherent conflict style can help us manage conflicts better and reduce our stress levels.  

The Styles

It’s me or you…

Thomas and Kilman describe five major conflict styles, categorised and explained below:

Competing: I want to win (at all costs?) – assertive and uncooperative

This style can be useful when decisions need to be made fast (eg in an emergency), or when you need to take a firm stance against someone trying to take an unfair advantage.  The danger is that it can be perceived as aggressive and focused on individual benefit.

Accommodating:  OK, we’ll do it your way…. (I’m not really bothered) – unassertive and cooperative

Could be a useful approach for an issue that you don’t really care about, perhaps to ‘bank’ the favour for something else that matters more to you.  The risk is that you might not get that favour returned.

Avoiding: Can the whole thing just go away now please? – unassertive and uncooperative

Perhaps this has its moment when winning the argument is genuinely impossible, or it just doesn’t matter to you.  But it’s generally seen as a weak approach that is unlikely to serve your best interests.

Working together

Collaborating: Surely, we could work together and get this sorted out? – assertive and cooperative

This style is really useful when you need people with different perspectives to work together on a solution, especially with multiple parties involved in a conflict.  It can also be useful when there have been other conflicts, are likely to be more areas of conflict and you need to work together in the future.

Compromising: let’s find a way through that we can both live with – moderately assertive and cooperative

Can be useful when the cost of the conflict is high, either tangibly (legal fees?) or as an intangible cost to the parties (eg the relationship impact).  This one can sound like a great idea, but there’s a risk that everyone ends up dissatisfied.

Which is better?

Well, that depends.  You may want to use different styles at different times.  In a negotiation, you may need to prioritise certain issues, and yield on others, in order to reach an overall agreement.  You may also have a few styles that you tend to use.  But maybe there are others you never employ.

It can also be hard to unlearn the conflict style that you have naturally developed.  If your immediate reaction is to avoid the conflict at all costs, doing something different goes against your instincts – and it’s a challenge.  

OK, I’m an avoider. Where do I go from here?

What now?

Recognising your instinctive style is a good starting point. There are lots of online assessments that can help, some for free.

Learning how and when to use the other conflict styles to get better results when you’re in a conflict can also help.  You can do this on your own, or with the support of a conflict coach.  Either way, it can be reassuring to know that you have a few options in your conflict repertoire to use when responding to conflict.  You’re not stuck in the same patterns for ever.

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