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Conflicting ideas

Publishing Date : 25 September, 2018

Stuart White
The World in Black-N-White


Conflict is drama.  Think of any action movie or television series you have watched or any exciting book you have read and you will see that without conflict between the main protagonists there would be no story.  Nor, were that conflict not to be resolved by fair means or foul, would there be any satisfactory ending.  In other words, a dramatic tale needs a conflict arising at the beginning followed by the plot action where the conflict is carried out and at the conclusion, a settlement of one sort or another.  THE END.


And whilst fiction is always exaggerated drama and larger-than-life situations, this is only a heightened realism because we all deal with conflict, in our private lives and in the workplace, on a daily basis;  ,”and how people deal with conflict shows you the kind of people they are”, according to Stephen Moyer .If you asked me where I feel I am the weakest as a leader I would have to answer that it is in such conflict and drama situations.


It is something that I absolutely hate, which is not surprising because most people would describe conflict in negative terms.   Of course, professionally I don’t mind others’ conflict situations, in fact i love helping resolve them whether it’s an industrial relations issue or a pay dispute but when it comes to something embroiling me and involving me directly - I sometimes feel reduced to a little boy in the playground who is being shouted down and bullied.


This is hardly a good feeling to have if I consider that I have had more business conflicts to deal with in the last 2 years than at any time before but, as someone close to me remarked, maybe that is because you are now prepared to deal with them. Like most of us faced with conflict our psyche seeks to resolve it. We either avoid it or conclude it, any which way we can and as quickly as possible, often to our detriment. We act in haste to stop the feeling of it hanging over our head like the fabled Damoclean sword.


Why in certain conflict situations do I experience my heart rate increasing, throat closing and my mouth becoming drier than Ghandhi’s flip-flops and how can I stop this?  Let me give you a recent example of a client who simply didn’t want to pay her bill. Did you ever buy something and then regret it because it really wasn’t what you wanted or needed or was ready for? If you can relate to that then you have the basis for this story.


The client had browsed our service options, made her selection, was delivered of her choice of services and was duly invoiced.  A problem then arose.  She decided she no longer valued the services but of course a service is not something that can be returned like a pair of ill-fitting shoes.  She has had her cake and eaten it and now she owes me money for the gateau but refuses to pay.  Ergo, we are in conflict.


The reasons given for non-payment are endless (and ever changing);  the run around we have been given will go down in our client history file as legendary and simply put this is someone who feels that we should have done work for them for free – and of course the world of work does not work like this.


From our company side we have maintained professionalism, have played by the book and in no way have done anything wrong (even though the client feels they got “diddly squat” – charming I know). With this client I have been reasonable, yet the client has been far from so – broken promises, lack of communication, arrogantly expecting our labour for nothing. I know that I am in the right and yet, even with this belief in my moral position, I feel tormented that we are in dispute and on the back foot as I feel my panic rising when I must argue for payment.


According to an HBR article this could be attributed to some stage in my life or career, when I may have got burned by conflict, and felt humiliated or criticized. Due to this, I may choose to accommodate the other party so that I don’t have to feel this way again and this is why I may choose safety, amity, and harmony over the difficult conversation, speaking up or standing my ground.


When the author Amy Jen Su asked her clients why they don’t want to have difficult conversations, she said it usually comes down to fear of experiencing those emotions again, even though their careers and life stages have advanced exponentially since those salad days. “Many have an “a-ha” moment when they realize they’re no longer that younger version of themselves; they’re now a more seasoned, experienced person with new skills and know-how.  As one client recently put it, “I’m still behaving as if I’m that second-year associate who got shouted-down by the senior partner for pushing back. But I’m now the general counsel of this organization.” 


With this in mind I realise that when I think of nice guy Stuart having to handle this, I am a prisoner of my own insecurity and background but when I put my impersonal CEO hat on and play that role I feel immediately able to think more clearer without contaminating my thoughts with what may have happened to me before. I realise that when I avoid conflict it is because I am putting the focus on me and with this narrow perspective I realise that my concern is about how others will perceive me. 


William James said that “whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”  So I need to remind myself that it is not about me – it’s business, pure and simple!
When I take away my fear, concentrate on what the business needs and put my best CEO hat on I have miraculously removed my worst self from the situation and brought forward my best self.


I am then left to answer such questions as “What would the organisation, clientele or shareholders say about this situation, and what does the business need?  Now I can answer objectively and with clarity.  When I say she owes me money I realise that this is inaccurate and unhelpful because I put the sensitive and defensive me in it instead of the inanimate object - in truth she owes the business money. When I deal with it from a business and professional perspective there is no baggage – just business rules and moral guidelines.  And reneging on a legitimate debt breaches all those rules and ethics.  Lady, I’m not the problem here – you are!

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