What if George Carlin had been a mediator instead of a comedian?
I’d like to think he’d have challenged some of the conventions and sacred cows of the conflict resolution world, just like he pushed the envelope with the media.
So I’ll do it instead, though admittedly no George Carlin. While there’s no FCC monitor to bleep you if you utter them, these phrases are dirty words in my lexicon and when I hear them, particularly the first one, I cringe inwardly (and sometimes outwardly).
Phrases like these are traps and black holes for engaging conflict effectively. They complexify conflict even while they purport to simplify it. And they may be giving mediators, mediation and conflict coaches a bad name.
- Let’s compromise. Compromise is the dirtiest word of conflict resolution, because compromise isn’t the goal, it’s the fallback if nothing better can be achieved. When you start with compromise, you’re tacitly inviting everyone to give up something important in order to reach resolution. That’s no place to begin because there are other highly effective ways to approach problem-solving that have little to do with compromise. A good mediator or conflict coach will have a deep enough toolbox to help you explore the conflict using those other paths. If you resolve conflict in personal and professional relationships primarily by compromise, you create a negotiation pattern that’s all about giving up and horse-trading…not the greatest foundation to build the relationship for the long run.
- Don’t take it personally. I consider this one of the most useless pieces of advice for effective conflict resolution, and I know saying so is anathema to some. Conflict gets tricky because it reaches into us very personally…into our identities, our values, our beings. Ordering someone to ignore this may be asking the impossible and can actually distract the conversation from the deeper issues that need attention. When have you simply gotten over something because someone told you to? Taking a conflict personally helps you figure out why it’s eating at you, what’s pressing against you, and how to address it. Go for it.
- He’s a difficult person. If anyone’s in a position to say how many difficult people there are out there, it’s a professional mediator and conflict coach like me. And in my literally thousands of cases and clients, I’ve run into very few people who seem generally difficult. Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler once said this about dealing with difficult people: “Every person you fight with has many other people in his life with whom he gets along quite well. You cannot look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself.” Enough said.
- She can’t handle change. That’s just utter nonsense. People change all the time – their hair color, their homes, their jobs, their careers, their towns, even their partners and spouses. That’s a lot of change in a lifetime. Chalking up someone’s resistance as dislike of or inability to change causes you not to look any deeper for more meaningful information – like unhappiness with the way the change is happening, fear caused by lack of concrete information about the way the change will affect them, or dissatisfaction with genuine opportunities for their voice to be heard in the change process.
- Be respectful. No one seeks to be treated disrespectfully, but telling someone to be respectful is like saying nothing at all. To make this point in a workshop once, I asked 20 people to describe what disrespect looked like to them. Not surprisingly, I got 20 different answers. Instead of regulating respect, make your request in simple behavioral terms like this: “Please let me finish my sentences.”
- Control yourself. While it’s reasonable and fair to expect basic anger management from your family, friends and colleagues, smoothing over disagreements because of your own discomfort with conflict – and demanding others to do the same – may prevent the real issues from getting aired and addressed. Anger is a signal that there’s something important eating at us, and quashing it unduly ignores signals that something’s in need of attention.
- I don’t have a Number 7. I couldn’t think of another one that I find as irritating and ineffective as those above. So I’m asking you…what should go here?
Thanks, George Carlin, for the laughs, the wit, and the inspiration. And thanks, Ann Michael, for encouraging me to write about this when we chatted at SOBCon and before we knew George would be leaving us.