Episode: How to Defuse Conflict Before It Begins
Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re going to tackle a problem a lot of leaders face and most of us try to avoid: conflict.
Megan: It’s really true. This is so hard, and it can feel like there’s always some kind of conflict that’s just simmering under the surface at work or at home, and the truth is, if we’re honest, most of us don’t feel like we’re any good at handling it. Right?
Michael: No. That’s why we avoid it.
Megan: Right. And then when we do face it, it’s almost like there’s nothing we can do to get past our own instinct to be defensive, which just sets off a whole chain of events, and it goes from bad to worse quickly.
Michael: I almost feel like we sometimes go on automatic pilot. We’ve had these patterns for years, and probably generations if we look back at it, on how we handle conflict. My wife and I were talking today about this very thing about a couple we know and just about how they handle conflict in their family. Right in front of Mom, they were going through this major conflict but with no seeming self-awareness about how they were responding to each other. It’s hard to perceive in yourself, but when you see it from the inside out, it can often be ugly, unproductive, and damaging.
Megan: Yeah. It really hits that limbic part of our brain, the primitive “fight, flight, or freeze” part of our brain, and we find our fears and insecurities come out, and it’s just a mess.
Michael: Well, today, we’re going to solve these problems and more, I’m sure, with a simple technique for responding to conflict. It’s going to be a total game changer for you guys, I’m convinced, but we have to bring Larry on, because Larry guides us through these conversations.
Megan: Without Larry we couldn’t even talk to each other.
Michael: That’s right. Thank you, Larry, for being the mediator.
Larry Wilson: You’re welcome. I’d like to say two things. First, a couple of weeks ago you said, “Because Larry is the man,” and I liked that.
Megan: Also, Larry is the man.
Larry: I may start to put that into the script.
Michael: I think you should.
Larry: Secondly, I don’t want to start a fight or anything here, but are you guys conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers? It seems like everybody goes one way or the other.
Michael: I’m totally avoidant.
Megan: I’m kind of in the middle. I wouldn’t say I’m a conflict-seeker, but I would say that the biggest personal and professional mistakes I’ve made can be directly traced to my desire to avoid conflict, so over the years, I’ve really tried to push myself to lean into conflict, or difficult conversations probably is a better way to say it, because I know when I avoid them it just gets worse.
Michael: I think the reason I’m avoidant is because I used to be a conflict-seeker.
Michael: Yeah. Early in my career, I would lean into conflict. In fact, I’ll tell you a story in just a minute. It just didn’t serve me well. It never resulted in what I intended, so I backed way off.
Megan: Kind of swung the other direction.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. So now I’ve had to come back toward the middle, but years ago… This was probably 30 years ago. I was in business with a partner, and we got a letter from a client, a one-page letter, where he fired us. Basically, he accused my partner of some things. Nothing unethical but just some dropping the ball, and so forth. None of it was really true or very little of it was very true, so I said to my partner, “Look. It’s going to be much easier for me to defend you than you defend you, so I’m going to take the mantle on, and I’m going to defend you.”
By the way, to this day this is true. You can mess with me and I have a high tolerance. I won’t defend myself. It takes a lot. Eventually I will. But you start messing with my peeps, I go nuts. This guy had accused my partner unjustly, so I literally spent the next several days writing a 14-page tour de force, a total takedown. I mean, it was impeccable, irrefutable. There was no way this guy could have possibly done anything but repent when he got this letter and read it.
Megan: What could possibly go wrong?
Michael: Exactly. I was so full of myself. So, I send this letter by FedEx. This was in the early days of FedEx. That was a big deal to have to send something FedEx. I thought, “That will get his attention all by itself.” So, one day passes. I don’t get a response from the client. I’m thinking, “Okay.” A couple more days pass. I finally said to my assistant, “Call his office and make sure that FedEx delivered it.”
Megan: There was no online tracking at this point.
Michael: No online tracking at this point. There was no online at this point. Sure enough, he got the FedEx. No response. Weeks passed. Months passed. Six months passed. I never heard from the guy. All that energy was a total waste. So, I’m thinking to myself, “Conflict can lead to a lot of damaging results, and even at its best, it’s a huge waste of time.” Like you said, the pendulum swung the total opposite direction. For years, I just thought, “I’m just going to let it go,” but that’s not productive either. That’s why we have to talk about a more productive approach in this episode.
Megan: Agreed. I think it starts with this idea of holding space.
Megan: This would be the opposite of what you did in your story. You really just filled up the space with 14 pages of your manifesto.
Michael: Oh my gosh.
Megan: The idea of holding space is kind of deciding on the front end when someone comes to you with an issue that you’re going to take a position of not resisting what they’re saying, that the purpose of your role in the conversation is to just be a container for what they want to say, to not react, to not be defensive, to not try to explain, to not do that thing we all do where someone is talking and we’re formulating our rebuttal in our head while they’re talking to the point that it’s almost like we can’t even listen. Holding space is trying your very best to stay in a neutral place. It helps if you breathe while you’re doing this. Keep your face neutral, keep your body neutral, and just let them have the floor until they’re finished.
Michael: I’ll tell you why this is important. People have a desperate need to be heard, and when people feel heard, it automatically defuses the conflict, and it solves a lot of conflict. At the time we’re recording this, we’ve just come through the Christmas holidays, and Gail and I had a conflict over something that happened.
I was very irritated, which is basically a euphemism for saying I was ticked off. I was ticked off about this thing, so I began to share with her, with a lot of emotion, why I was frustrated by this situation. Here was the cool thing. She held the space for me. She didn’t defend herself. She just listened. She was empathetic. She repeated to me what I said so I knew she caught it, and that was kind of it.
Larry: Well, we’re saying that every leader can get better at dealing with conflict by mastering these steps to holding space. I think we should probably say this is going to apply in a lot more than just a business context. This is really about relationships at home or anywhere that you happen to be in relationship. We have five steps to holding space during a difficult conversation, and to make it easier for you to remember, these five steps form an acronym for the word SPACE. Let’s get to step one. S is for stop.
Michael: When someone confronts us, it’s very natural to react. It’s just stimulus and response. We might blame that person. We might become defensive. We may even get into attack mode. I’ve certainly done that in the past myself. Or we might just get passive and shut down. We’re not really listening. We get all up in our head, and we’re thinking about ourselves instead of thinking about the conversation. We might even withdraw physically. For some people, it’s like, “I can’t handle it. I’ve got to go away. I can’t hear this.”
None of those are productive. It doesn’t resolve the conflict, and it makes either you or the other person feel terrible. In fact, oftentimes what happens is when you react, when you defend yourself, or whatever, what do they do? They intensify. They have to ramp it up to get your attention because they’re not being heard. Again, that’s not going to be productive. Aggression and passive-aggression are both unhealthy.
Megan: I think the alternative is to push “pause.” This is a learned response, because it’s not our natural response. This is something you really have to cultivate, which is why I love that we’re providing steps today. This idea of holding space does not come naturally to most of us unless you had the perfect family and probably a lot of therapy.
I love this quote from Stephen Covey from First Things First. He says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Really, we can just stop for a minute and do nothing. We don’t actually have to react immediately. As I was saying at the beginning, it’s so helpful if you take a breath. Just breathing will calm you down and slow you down long enough that you have that half a second to choose something different than the natural reaction that you’re hardwired biologically to have.
Resist the urge to interrupt. That’s the first way you’re going to go wrong. You’re going to start by interrupting, like, “But that’s not what I really meant” or “But that’s not how I think it happened” or “You’re wrong.” That’s always a winner. That usually goes well. The other thing I’ve learned… I’ve actually learned this more in business than anywhere else, but we have to be so careful not to let our mind and our emotions hijack our facial expressions. You can be having this conversation in your head about, “I need to be breathing, try not to be biased, just listen,” but if your face looks angry…
It’s easy to forget that so much of our communication is nonverbal. When our face betrays our emotions, it creates a sense of not being safe, of defensiveness in the other person, and all of a sudden, even if you’re white-knuckling it through this holding space thing, your face can give you away, so that’s where the breathing is really helpful. I will say sometimes, if I have to have a difficult HR conversation, confront someone on something, or somebody comes and talks to me, I will say, “Relax your face. Relax your face. Relax your face.” In my mental dialogue, that’s happening, and it’s so helpful.
Michael: But that takes a huge amount of self-awareness.
Megan: You really have to self-talk yourself through this, and then just listen. Don’t watch the clock. Don’t wait for your opportunity to interrupt. Just shut up and wait.
Michael: I want to go back to this self-awareness. If there’s one upside of Instagram and selfies, it’s being more aware of our facial expressions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done an Insta- story and reviewed it before I posted it and went, “Why wasn’t I smiling?” I looked either bored or angry, and that wasn’t my heart. It’s just that I had a lack of self-awareness.
Megan: Maybe you were concentrating or something.
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Megan: People really take their cues from our nonverbals.
Larry: This holding space, this pause or stop, the first step, really produces some benefits in the conversation. I think, first, it gives the other person a feeling of safety, that they’re not going to get trampled on. That’s especially true (like you mentioned HR issues, Megan) where there’s a power differential. You have a boss and an employee or a teacher and a student or some other relationship. It really lets the person know they’re free to speak their mind and they’re not going to be punished for that. I think it also puts you in a position to learn. They may actually have a point. That happens occasionally.
Michael: I know you’re being kind of facetious, but there’s always something to learn. There’s some grain of truth in their perception. I learned years ago that even if the other person is only 10 percent right, take that 10 percent to heart and try to improve and forget the 90 percent. This is not something where we’re playing a game where whoever wins by the most percentage points wins some prize, but what you win is by listening carefully and taking to heart the part of it that’s true and discarding the rest.
Megan: The more defensive you feel is often an indicator of how true what the other person is bringing to you is.
Megan: I wish that was not true, but personally, speaking for myself, I feel the most defensive (and this is the hardest work) when somebody is bringing something to me where I know I really screwed up and I really don’t want to have screwed up. I mean, I’m having to have that reckoning in real time of… Usually it’s something I didn’t know I did.
Like, a couple of months ago, one of my direct reports brought something to me and shared a way I had unintentionally undermined him. It was totally unintentional. My motivations were good, but I had really screwed up. My first instinct was to defend myself, because it wasn’t my intention, but as I tell my kids all the time, nobody cares about your intention; they care about what you actually communicated. What you intended to communicate does not matter.
Larry: There’s a teeny little lawyer that lives inside every one of our heads and is always ready to argue. The first step in holding space is to stop. I’m reminded of the old saying, “Nothing is often the right thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”
Megan: That’s great.
Michael: I like that.
Larry: Well, let’s go to step two in holding space. P is for probe.
Megan: This is really important, because when the person finishes talking… They’ve probably marshaled all their bravery. They’ve shared the vulnerable thing. Now it’s our turn to respond, and this is the moment of truth where what you do next will be determinative not just of the conversation but, in many cases, the relationship itself.
Michael: I think you have to communicate that, if you were a catcher on a baseball team, you’ve caught the ball. When they’ve said what they’re going to say, you should maybe count to five and kind of connect with it emotionally and let them know you’ve heard them and then respond. If you’re too fast to respond, then what it communicates is, “I actually wasn’t really listening to you. I was just waiting for you to finish so I could give my pre-prepared speech that I’ve been thinking about the whole time you were talking.”
Megan: This is where you can do a couple of things. You can use reflective listening. You can repeat back in your own words. It’s important that you don’t do this as a parrot, because that’s not affirming. You don’t want to literally say what they’ve said, but if you repeat back in your own words the way you’ve understood what they’ve said and then ask, “Is there anything else? Did I leave anything out? Did I get anything wrong? Is there anything you want to correct?” that can be really helpful.
But then your goal ought to be in this context to understand their perspective, because the more you understand, the better you can ultimately resolve the situation. You can use questions to probe and try to get at, “Well, tell me more about that. Why was that so problematic for you?” When you do that, first of all, it communicates that you really care. It also enables you to get more clarity about what the issue behind the issue is, because so often there’s something behind it.
It wasn’t just that you said or did that thing. It was what it meant to them or it was connected to something else from the past. The more you understand that… If they say something like, “Well, I always felt like… And these other times you did the same thing,” well, then you’re like, “Oh, shoot. I have this pattern that they perceive of whatever it is.” That can be so helpful, but so often, we use questions and probing as a way to… We really weaponize those things.
Megan: Yeah. It’s not really a question; it’s a statement with a question mark at the end of it that is intended to shut them down or undermine their position. It’s not helpful.
Michael: Like when you say, “What were you thinking?” or “Don’t you know me better than that? How could you jump to that conclusion?” That kind of thing is not going to communicate what we’re talking about in probing, because you’re really not after more information; you’re basically making an accusation disguised as a question.
Larry: It’s really an attempt to control the situation. It moves away from the listening posture.
Michael: You’re really trying to make sure they’ve gotten everything out. My guess is in most of those situations people are not saying everything. They’re trying to modulate and hold back some.
Megan: It’s risky.
Michael: It’s risky, and they’re maybe more conscious of your feelings or concerned about your feelings than maybe you are of theirs, but they’re holding back, so I think it’s important to just get it all out there. People need to get it all out there. You need to have them get it all out there, because if they don’t, they’re not going to feel like they were heard. You don’t want anything left unsaid.
Megan: Some open-ended questions that could be helpful are things like, “Can you say more about that?” Then you just pause, be quiet, and wait. Or “How did it make you feel when [fill in the blank]?” Or “Would you help me understand what happened when [fill in the blank]?” These questions are coming from a place of a desire to understand.
It’s important, again, that you manage your tone of voice, that you’re breathing, that your facial expressions are soft and not hard, and that you don’t react negatively when they answer, even with your face, because you’re trying to encourage vulnerability, and the most important thing to do when you’re trying to get someone to be vulnerable is to create a safe space. If you look threatening or sound threatening, it’s going to shut that down.
Larry: This takes a lot of grace to do, because it actually puts you in a vulnerable position. You go from saying, “Please tell me more about how great I am” to “Yeah, I really screwed up. Tell me more about that.” That’s hard to hear.
Michael: It’s humbling.
Larry: Step three: A is for acknowledge. Acknowledge what?
Michael: I think we have to go back to something we said just a moment ago, and that is to recognize the fact that it’s really difficult to share hard things. When somebody comes to you to confront you with a conflict, with something you’ve done to offend them or hurt them, or whatever, that takes a great degree of courage. I know when I’ve been in those situations, I can’t sleep the night before. It may have taken me several days to screw up the courage. I may have had to have a really hard talk with my therapist who encouraged me to do it. I mean, who knows what was in the background that preceded that.
It’s important that we recognize that and honor it. We have to continue this process of healing by acknowledging that difficulty and affirming the other person. There’s huge healing power in doing that. Treat that person like they’ve shared a gift. As hard as it was for them to share it and as difficult as it probably was for you to hear it, it’s one of the best things you could ever hear. If you think about the times when you’ve really grown, when you’ve really improved, it’s not usually when somebody gives you an “attaboy” or an “attagirl.”
It’s not the praise but the criticism, where in a blinding moment of self-awareness or self-reflection you go, “Wow! This is a gift, because if they hadn’t pointed this out, no telling how much damage I would have done in other people’s lives who didn’t have the courage. If this person didn’t have the courage to step up to the plate and confront me with this, what would happen in the other relationships I’m party to?”
So I think it’s important to acknowledge them by saying something like, “Thank you so much for sharing this with me, Megan. I know it probably wasn’t easy to come to me, but I’m grateful that you did, and I honestly consider it a gift.”
Megan: This is even more important if you’re a leader. Certainly, this applies in every context, personal or professional. However, if you’re a leader, one of the biggest dangers is that you’re going to be insulated from the truth. People feel like it’s too risky. They’re not going to share the places where you make mistakes or you’re in your own way, and they increasingly tell you what you want to hear, so your access to the truth is dramatically diminished more and more all the time.
So, if you want to build a culture where you’re getting good two-way communication, where you know if you have problems in your organization, you know if you have problems in your leadership that are going to cost you and your team time, money, all kinds of things, then you have to build a culture that creates freedom for people to share hard things with you. If you don’t intentionally acknowledge it…
This is more than just not being defensive. Like you said, it’s literally thanking people out loud. “Thank you for coming to me. I want you to know that you can always do this. I will not react negatively. I’m committed to that.” That’s one of the things I’ve intentionally tried to do in my own leadership as I make more mistakes, and these things happen frequently, is to try to affirm that.
It’s always unnatural, because the truth is I’m like, “That was painful,” but I also know that if I’m not willing to acknowledge it and thank them for it and make it feel safe to come back and do it again and make it basically a positive experience, I’m not going to get the information I need to continue to grow as a leader, and that’s going to be terrible.
Larry: There’s an interesting dynamic here, too. You can really only do that if you acknowledge that you do have some power in the relationship. Otherwise, you’re just a sitting duck getting chewed up, but when you can say, “Wow. Thank you for bringing that to me,” it acknowledges, “I can do something with that. I can respond to that. I still have some agency, and I’m not getting called into the principal’s office and just getting yelled at.”
Michael: That’s a good insight. And I’m not a victim.
Megan: I remember hearing from a parenting expert years ago. She was talking about the need to share power with your kids, to allow them to make choices where maybe you can make the choices, but you let them make some of those choices. She was saying a lot of parents don’t want to give up control because they feel like they’re losing power, but the truth is the only way you can share power is if you had power to begin with. When you act with humility and cede some of your power in this moment, it’s really, in a funny way, affirming your position of authority, not undermining it. I think that’s important for people who feel uncomfortable with this.
Michael: It’s important to recognize this as the gift it is, but I think there’s another part of this when we’re stopping to acknowledge that we have to continue with. We have to repeat back to the person what we heard so they know we’ve received it. Say something like, “Let me repeat to you what I heard,” and then just, in humility, ask the question, “Did I get it right?” and give them a chance to add anything to it. “Did I miss anything?” By the way, don’t be surprised if you did. There may be more to come. You may have to go through a few iterations of this. That’s fine. Again, you want it all out.
Larry: Well, A is for acknowledge. This acknowledgment that the person has done you a service by bringing this problem to your attention and sharing with you puts you on common ground. You both understand at least what their perception of the problem is. That brings us to the fourth step: C is for confess.
Megan: This is a tough one. This is where the rubber meets the road, whether you’re a spouse or a friend or a leader or a parent. This is the part where you have to acknowledge and affirm, really confess, what it is you’ve done that was wrong. This is really unpopular in our culture. We’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of being able to admit when we’re wrong. The more of a power differential there is, as you said earlier in our conversation, the more difficult this can be, but if you don’t do this step, you will not get resolution.
There is a wonderful book, Dad, that you and I read years ago called Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink all about taking ownership of your mistakes and the results that happen, particularly in your business. It’s through the lens of a Navy SEAL. One of our core values at Michael Hyatt & Company is total ownership. We believe that, as individuals, it’s our job to take total ownership for the outcomes we create in our business and in our personal lives.
That means being willing to say, “I am so sorry that I did [fill in the blank].” You’ve just repeated back what they understand to be the problem. This is where you own your contribution to that. It does not help you to diminish it or to make it smaller or to try to save face. That will only hurt you. This is the moment where you either build or undermine trust in a relationship.
Michael: One insight I got on this word confess was, frankly, from the Bible. The Greek word from which we get the English word confess means, literally, the same word. That’s the transliteration. So, to say the same word as somebody else, to agree with them. Again, maybe we disagree with 90 percent of it. This is not the time to correct their impression or to say, “Oh, you totally misunderstood me,” or whatever. No. It’s to agree with those things we can agree with and to literally ask forgiveness.
It might sound like this: “Megan, I’m so sorry that I did…” And then literally state it. “I’m so sorry I did [this].” Again, I think it’s important to use the same words inasmuch as you can. Use the same words they use so they feel like you’re confessing to the actual thing they’re charging you with.
Megan: Don’t pick a lesser word.
Michael: “I’m sorry I made that mistake,” when it was a flat-out violation of a boundary.
Megan: I also think… I do this with my kids a lot when they’re asking each other forgiveness. I always want them to state this, and then I want them to state with empathy how they know it made the other person feel that they’ve communicated.
My kids might say, “I know when I told you you were stupid and you were bad at soccer that that made you feel ashamed or that made you feel like you weren’t a good athlete, and that’s not a good feeling.” I really want them to communicate empathy. I think this completely applies to adults. We need to communicate that we understand the impact of our actions, not just that we understand what we did. It’s really, really important.
Larry: So many leaders are unwilling to do that because they think it weakens them. I think really it makes you stronger.
Larry: So often, people just want that acknowledgment.
Michael: Now I think we need to talk about non-apology apologies.
Megan: This is where you can go wrong.
Michael: This happens all the time. People think they’re confessing. They think they’re asking forgiveness, but here’s what it sounds like. You say something like, “I’m sorry if what I said upset you.”
Megan: Can I be honest? When someone says this to me, I want to punch them in the face. Now, to be fair, I have never punched anyone in the face, but I have…
Michael: But you felt like it.
Megan: But I have felt like it.
Michael: I hear you. I feel you.
Megan: This is so condescending and so avoidant. It’s literally maddening.
Michael: You can’t make it about them. Stick to what you can admit or agree to what was your part in it. Here are a couple of other versions of that same thing. “I’m sorry if you misunderstood me (because you’re such a moron).”
Megan: I was going to say, the problem with saying, “I’m sorry if what I said upset you” is it’s basically saying, “Obviously, you have a problem. There’s something wrong with you, and I’m so sorry there’s something wrong with you.” That is the antithesis of what we’re trying to do here.
Michael: Here’s another one: “I’m sorry if you misinterpreted my actions.” I mean, again. I hope this is ringing in the ears of people who are listening to this next time they’re tempted to say this. Here’s another one: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” These are fake apologies. They’re worthless. You might as well not even do it.
Megan: It’s actually worse than not apologizing.
Michael: It is. It’s going to set you back. By the way, it will tick off the other person. It will destroy trust.
Megan: You might even get punched in the face.
Michael: You might even get punched in the face. Don’t try it with us, is all I’m saying.
Larry: The benefit of confession or acknowledging or agreeing with what the other person has said that is true is that it defuses that anger and puts you in a place where some sort of progress or reconciliation is possible.
Michael: That’s true, but I want to hasten to say, Larry, this is not for the purpose of… Because it can sound like manipulation. “I’m just going to try to say this because I learned this technique on this podcast that I can defuse conflict if I give this confession, even if I don’t feel it.” We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about a heartfelt acknowledgment and confession.
I think it’s important to acknowledge what your words or your actions did but then to go one step further, and this is going to be hard. This is one of the most difficult parts of this, but to literally ask for forgiveness. “Megan, I’m so sorry I did that. I’m sure that must have hurt you. Would you please forgive me?” And then pause. Wait for a response.
Now, I can tell you there have been situations I’ve been in where the other person has said, “I’m not sure; I need some time,” and that’s okay. That has only happened maybe twice in my career. You can’t force it. First of all, you can’t demand it. Forgiveness is something that has to be freely given. You can ask for it, but if they won’t give it readily, you just say, “Hey, that’s fair. Take all the time you need.”
What it does give is the other person an opportunity to release you, and that’s what forgiveness means: to release that other person from whatever consequences of what they’ve done are, to say, “Yes, I do forgive you.” Again, it does help defuse the anger, as you were saying, Larry, but that’s not the primary reason we’re doing it. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do in the moment.
Larry: So, let’s review the steps we’ve learned so far. Step one: stop. Step two: probe. Step three: acknowledge. Step four: confess. That brings us to the fifth and final step in holding space. Step five: E for explain.
Megan: This is really important. We told you not to be defensive at the beginning and that you really have to avoid that. We have gone through four steps that have nothing to do with you explaining anything. It’s really not about you at all. However, it is sometimes important to clear up misunderstandings, because sometimes people have a legitimate misunderstanding. Maybe they thought they heard something one way or they interpreted your actions as meaning one thing but it was literally the opposite and you know their unfortunate misunderstanding is hurting them.
This is your opportunity to correct those things, but you have to do it without sounding defensive, without blaming. This is not about making yourself right; this is just about providing clarity. It could also be best to wait until later, depending on how heated the conversation is. You may need to come back and do this later. However, sometimes it really does eliminate the hurt when you realize what happened.
For example, maybe you missed a meeting with someone that was really, really important, and it was actually your executive assistant had the time zone wrong or he or she just didn’t see the email with the new schedule and didn’t get it on the calendar. You weren’t standing them up. It wasn’t because you don’t think the relationship is important. It was a legitimate logistical dropping of the ball that actually didn’t mean anything, but from their perspective, it felt like a statement about the relationship. That’s important for them to know.
If you decide that you want to correct a misunderstanding, here’s how it’s helpful to start. Say something like, “Would you mind if I share a little bit from my perspective? Not as an excuse.” Just stop there. “Not as an excuse. I fully own what I said or did and how that negatively impacted you,” and you can restate what you’ve already said at that point. “But just by way of explanation, because I think this could be helpful for you as you process the situation.” Then you want to ask for permission. “Is it okay if I share this with you?”
Michael: It’s their meeting.
Megan: It’s their meeting. Then you just, again, shut up. If you see a theme through all of these steps, it’s sometimes you say something, and then you shut up. There’s a lot of pausing and waiting.
Michael: And wait for their permission. This has to be consensual.
Megan: And you need to be careful about what you say, because they may not be ready to hear what you have to say. You have to use your wisdom in the situation. This could be lengthy. They may never agree with your version of the story. The point is not to re-up the argument about what happened in this situation, but like I said, there are so many situations where people interpret or ascribe meaning to something that was completely something else that it can be helpful to understand. I think about my own kids. I haven’t yet had the part where my adult kids come and tell me things they’ve discovered.
Michael: Just wait.
Megan: Or conclusions they’ve come to in therapy, but I have five kids, and I know it’ll happen. That’s a great opportunity to say, after you own everything, “Let me tell you what was happening in our lives at that point. This is not an excuse, but there was this other thing that, as a kid, you were totally unaware of that was behind the scenes.” That can be so helpful. Whether that’s in your business or your marriage or your relationship with your kids, there’s always something else going on, and if you say it in a way that’s humble, it can really give color and context.
Kind of that example of adult children. As children become adults… I’ve had this experience myself. Becoming a parent is super humbling. You realize, “Oh my gosh! I’m just trying to figure this out in real time in a super intense season, and I know I’m making mistakes, but I don’t want to.” You all of a sudden have empathy for your parents that you didn’t have because you know how hard it is.
Michael: That’s the part I love. But seriously. A lot of times there are extenuating circumstances. It really wasn’t because we were malicious or were trying to hurt that other person, but maybe we were preoccupied. Maybe something else bad had happened in our lives. It’s kind of the old thing where people say, “My boss chewed me out, but what I didn’t know was the dog bit him before he showed up to the meeting,” or something. There was something that led to that.
Again, it doesn’t excuse any behavior, but it helps you see, if you’re the person who was offended, that it really wasn’t as malicious or it wasn’t really about you like maybe you thought. It might be a little bit easier for you to process and extend forgiveness.
Megan: It’s almost always not about you. What people do and how they react negatively is usually about something else that’s going on. This is your opportunity to explain that, so hopefully, the negative consequences are de-personalized a little bit for the other person.
Larry: You raised an important point, Megan, saying that they may not accept your explanation, and, Michael, you said they may not grant forgiveness when you ask for it. A big word we’ve been using here is control. This whole process is kind of recognizing that you don’t have much in this situation, because you can’t control what another person thinks, feels, or does.
Michael: But you can always do the right thing, and you can always hold space for that other person.
Larry: Well, today we’ve learned that every leader can get better at dealing with conflict by mastering these five steps to holding space. They form an acronym for that word SPACE: stop, probe, acknowledge, confess, and explain. Any final thoughts for our listeners today?
Megan: Conflict is unavoidable. If you have important relationships in your life, especially if you’re a leader… The more important relationships you have, the more authority you have, the more likely you are to have conflict and the more mistakes you’re likely to make. So my advice would be to make friends with conflict. Don’t avoid it. Don’t run at it like you’re in battle, but just embrace it as a very powerful teacher, because some of your best lessons will come on the other side of conflict.
Michael: The thing I would say is if you’ve not been good at this in the past, fear not. You will have plenty more opportunities in the future to get it right. This is a journey. This is not something where you can hear a podcast and, suddenly, you’re going to be brilliant at this. It’s something that I continue to grow in and continue to blow from time to time, and I just have to keep reminding myself of this SPACE acronym. If I can do the first step right, if I can just stop, take a deep breath, and not react, the rest of it will usually go pretty well, but if I don’t get that right, then bad things happen.
Larry: Good insights here today. This is something I know I can use in my life, and I think a lot of our listeners are going to benefit from it in a big way.
Michael: Thanks, Larry. Thank you, Megan. And thank you guys for listening to us today. We’ll be right here next week. Until then, lead to win.