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Confrontations and Difficult Conversations, or “Get Your Pit Bull Off My Beach”

Alex MacLaren writes...

I once asked a devout Catholic how he handled the big questions about God that he inevitably faced when parenting his teenage children. He laughed knowingly and said that everyone in his family was a dedicated confrontation-avoider, so the problem had yet to arise. It’s a good answer, because religion is one area where confrontation is historically unlikely to yield happy outcomes and harmony.

We spend much time as storytellers engineering such disagreements and hoping for confrontations of one kind or another, because good stories ensue: events! High stakes! Revelation of character! All the stuff we want to see in Game of Thrones, please, and not in our everyday life – and please, not at work.

We are often asked to tackle ‘Confronting A Problem’ with groups in the workplace. This is tricky as we are unlikely to enter into a confrontation over something we don’t really care about, and in my experience people prefer to leave their emotions at home if possible. But sometimes, either because it’s our job, or because something is a real issue for us, we have to take it on.

Typically my advice is to be realistic about the context: what you want to happen? What is the issue at stake, rather than who are the people that cause the problem? Are you thinking about the options available to the other parties? And who has the power in this situation (a massive problem for middle managers)?

And then the more interesting element is the behavioural element in approaching the problem. How human is the language used? Are you making eye-contact when you suggest options? Are you holding eye-contact while you listen?

Finally it’s worth remembering that if you are not a confrontation-avoider, it is worth experimenting with avoidance as a strategy. I’ve just moved from central London to a quite hard-up seaside town in Kent. Last week I was happily on the beach, which was busy with families, accompanied by my partner and our 4-year-old who was playing naked in the waves. To add to the family situation my mother was visiting, and she was ill with a cold. It was striking how much my animal protectiveness was animated by the situation: within an hour I’d called the RSPCA about a dying seagull that was silently cawing from the sand at the high-tide mark, and had a conversation with the council about a leak from the public toilets (it turned out to be a cracked drain from the foot shower).

But the real issue arose when a couple of guys showed up and strode along the beach with their pit-bull on the loose. There is sign at the ramp saying dogs are not allowed on the beach at all from Easter to September, and I have seen it ignored by pit-bull owners a number of times. On all these occasions I’ve been surrounded by families with babies and small children, and the air noticeably fizzes with the at least mild anxiety of many people looking and doing nothing. Fear is in the air. I’ve done nothing, and nothing has actually ‘happened’. On this occasion that option is open to me…

So suddenly I notice that I’m approaching these guys, and pointing out all the children, their dog and reason for the rules. Then I’m standing in front of them listening, and within a split second, it’s a predictably ego-driven conversation on both sides. They are laughing at me and assuring me that it’s me causing the problem, they just want to walk their dog, that I haven’t got a child at all (Me, pointing: “He’s there.”),  I’m ‘explaining’ that people don’t feel safe, and they end by not-so-subtly threatening me with violence (“Leave it alone mate, or we’ll put you out”). I let my eyes slide away, and turn my back, walking back to the towel, the bucket-and-spade and my somewhat concerned mum.

So this is not a How It’s Done story, it’s my latest failure. Those who’ve worked with us will know what that means! In retrospect it’s clear to me, even with my internal hero-narrative cheering me on, that it was my ego that was running things, rather than a high-minded need to protect others from dangerous dogs. My belief is that in the long term people with more of a sense of their value in the community don’t need dangerous fighting animals as pets at all, nor the need to strut about with them in a crowd of toddlers proving that they are literally ‘top dog’. In London where we’d lived for years, the local kids all knew me and my baby son personally – they were more like family – and confrontations were unnecessary. In fact I was properly engaged there.

So in a sense I’m confronting things properly now as I pick up the phone and get in touch with the local youth services and offer to run workshops for their difficult teens. Watch this space!

Here’s three tips:

  1. Take the Ego out of the Equation
  2. If it’s about you, you are making this personal. Really think through your motives. Discuss with someone else the perspective of the others in this situation.
  3. Take your Time
  4. If it isn’t actually an acute crisis, look into the cause of the problem, and contribute to long-term solutions, rather than a quick fix.
  5. Have lots of goes
  6. People often will tell you that you have ‘one shot’. It’s paralysing. As long as you are genuinely trying new strategies, you have the right to try again.

If anyone has alternative perspectives on the problems here please share!

June 23rd, 2014 - This post has 2 responses. - Tags: , ,

2 thoughts User Reviews

  1. Mark Stringer

    Is it worth trying some situations like this in a safe environment Alex? I tried out a “difficult conversation” around telling my boss my project was late. I imagined that it would be about status but all my attempts to change status failed miserably. What did work was clarity – being clear how late the project was and being clear about what was still unclear.

    Reply
  2. Alex

    Yes, I’m certain it’s worth it! I’ll look into it with some teenagers and get their advice on the issue and re-post here *licks wounds*

    I’d love to hear more about your problematic conversation sometime – I’m always interested in what goes wrong :-).

    Reply

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