I was speaking with a colleague recently who felt trapped in unresolved conflict. It was a key relationship, one that couldn’t be avoided, and all previous efforts had failed. As a consequence, both parties were feeling frustrated, de-energised and despondent about the future. As we explored how they had attempted to fix things in the past, it became clear they had focused on all the negatives…a long list of annoying and painful experiences from the past. Their conversations were characterised by blame and demands. It felt intractable.
The problem with such patterns of behaviour is that they create a negative expectation of the future. Both parties now felt stressed before they even spoke with each other. The stress affected their perspective and their resilience, their ability to hear and to cope. So we decided to try a different approach. How to build a positive expectation in order to create a different focus, a different conversation and, ultimately, a different relationship. It wouldn’t be easy but it felt worth a go. My colleague felt sceptical but, nevertheless, willing to give it a try.
Firstly, we agreed that next time they spoke, they would meet off site in a physical environment (e.g. café, park) that they both found positively stimulating and energising. This helped to break them away from the current environment that held such negative memories for them. Secondly, we agreed they would speak only of the positive moments in their relationship together. They found this hard at first. The negative experiences felt so overwhelming that they could hardly think of any positives. Nevertheless, they managed to remember some examples.
Thirdly, we agreed that after sharing such positive examples, they would each share future hopes for their relationship: ‘what we would like our relationship to be more like, more of the time’. They reflected each others’ hopes back to each other: ‘So you would like…’ Fourthly, we agreed they would move on to discuss ‘what it would take from me to make this work in practice’. This shifted each party’s focus from the other onto themselves. ‘This is how I would need to change…this is what it will take for me to do it…this is the help I will need.’
This kind of approach demands openness to fresh possibilities, humility, a willingness to forgive. It demands imagination and courage too, an ability to envision and embrace a new future. It’s not easy and the support of a friend, counsellor or coach can help make the journey possible. I would be interested to hear examples from others who’ve worked on conflict resolution too. What was the issue? How did you approach it? What happened as a result? What made the biggest difference? What did you learn? What would you do the same or differently next time?
Griffin & Tyrrell in their excellent book, How to Master Anxiety, talk about the ‘three pertinent Ps’ that can contribute to anxiety or depression. It’s something to do with how a person perceives events or experiences and what meaning he or she attributes to them. Using this model, the coaching task could be to help a person surface and test his or her assumptions and conclusions.
The first P is ‘personalising’. It’s about whether the person believes that what happens to and around them is a result of something he or she has done. ‘I must have done something to offend her’, ‘It’s all my fault’. It’s as if the person perceives him or herself as the cause of whatever happens. It moves beyond, ‘I may have contributed to this’ to believing, ‘I’m solely responsible for it.’
The next P is ‘pervasiveness’. It’s about whether the person believes that the impacts of an event or experience in one aspect of his or her life or work extends to all other aspects. ‘It’s all ruined’, ‘I’m hopeless at everything’. It’s as if the person perceives a single incident or experience as indicative of how everything is. It’s a case of rash generalisation from the specific.
The third P is ‘permanence’. It’s about whether the person believes that an experience or the consequences of an action will extend forever into the future. ‘It will always be the same’, ‘This will ruin my whole life.’ It’s as if the person believes a current experience is a definitive predictor of how life and work will be from now on. There is no room for alternative possibilities.
Now there are of course situations where a person may indeed be responsible for something that happens, e.g. he or she may have said or done something that upset a colleague. The person may have taken a decision or acted in a way that had wider consequences than expected. The person may have experienced something genuinely challenging or life-changing.
The ‘pertinent Ps’ are about making incorrect inferences or assumptions, attributing causal relationships where there may be none, drawing invalid conclusions and projecting a fixed view onto reality and the future that, if combined with what I would call a fourth P, ‘pessimism’, trap the person in a stressful, despondent world that could lead to anxiety or depression.
I mention the pessimistic dimension because it’s possible, for instance, that a different person could experience the same ‘pertinent Ps’ positively, e.g. attribute positive experiences to themselves, believe that success in one area means success in all areas, imagine a bright future on the basis of what’s happening now. In this case, the person may feel confident and optimistic.
The difference and potential coaching solution may lie in a fifth P, ‘perspective’. As we have noticed, it’s something to do with how a person perceives an experience or event. Albert Ellis noted this in his ABC theory of emotion. What a person feels is a consequence of what she or believes about an event or experience, rather than a direct consequence of the event or experience itself.
The tricky part in coaching is that changing perspective is sometimes easier said than done. After all, our perspectives are shaped by history, including previous relationships and experiences, and culture. They can feel so familiar, so much part of us, so intrinsic to our way of seeing and experiencing the world, that to change them can feel threatening or disorientating.
A sixth P, ‘person’, can make a difference. When a client feels authentic interest, empathy and support from a significant other, which could include the coach him or herself, he or she is more likely to feel less anxious, less defensive, and thereby more open to consider alternative perspectives. It’s as if the relationship itself allows the metaphorical cognitive dust to settle.
One final P, ‘prayer’, can draw these domains together with profound effect. Deep prayer is trusting, loving relationship, sharing intimate presence with the ultimate significant Other. It’s a here and now experience where we are drawn and inspired into see a glimpse of the broadest possible perspective. It can become a true source optimism and confidence for both client and coach.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.