Keeping It Cool in the Face of Hot Conversations

In our many years in the work world, we have received more questions about how to deal with conflict and its consequences than anything else. With Emotional Intelligence now a very legitimate part of the conceptual and behavioral background wherever we work, these questions multiply and in this election year, you can only imagine. Maybe you are also a part of conflicts connected to political, personal or other topics that create stress and frustration.

We offer a five-step process that helps you manage conflict in a constructive way. Feedback from clients tells us that this process is helpful both at work and at home. The five steps will be introduced with an example from my 6 year-old great nephew, Jaden, because it is both elegantly simple and very real. When I tell this in workshops it always strikes a huge chord.

1. Identify
The first step in helping you manage emotionally tough situations is for you to identify your feelings. They need to be labeled and acknowledged. That critical first step is what will allow you to go forward. In Jaden’s case, the 6 year-old big brother was witnessing his 4 year old sister in the middle of her birthday celebration. Everything was about Mara … the energy, the conversation and love, the games and mostly the gifts. He was upset and what he did do was go up to his Bubbie (Yiddish for grandma) and said, “Bubbie, I know I should not feel this way but I am very jealous.” “Mara is getting all the attention and all the presents.” In addition to feeling jealous he felt sad, bad and left out.

2. Understand
Step 2 requires increased understanding about the dynamics. His grandmother had a good conversation with him so he could understand that it was reasonable to feel left out when his sister was the entire center of attention. She acknowledged that this is not fun. She also helped him see that when his birthday comes next month, he would be enjoying attention and gifts.

3. Manage
As a result of acknowledging his feelings and gaining understanding by talking to an adult he trusted, he was then able to manage the negative feelings. He turned his disappointment around and become a loving brother who could participate in the party. That management was all about adapting his behavior from something pouty and resentful to something loving and supportive.

4. Communicate
Part of managing his behavior productively led to Step 4. He had to step up as a good brother and host. That meant he engaged with people at the party like he was really happy for his sister and happy to be there. His interactions with others added fun, connection and festivity to the event.

5. Apply
The final step in this process is application. If it is to be a helpful process, it needs to make a positive difference in mitigating potential future heated exchanges. Jaden has learned from his emotional reaction over a siblings birthday. He is better at naming his emotions and being introspective. He can go through those steps very productively with the help of a loving adult who helps him understand what is going on at any moment. People in our classes love this story because almost everyone can relate and the steps are clear and easy to use. In one class, a parent came back the next day telling us how she used it with her own son that night.

Dealing With Multiple Languages in a Health Care Setting
But most of your work issues are far more complex than this. We will share an example from health care where multiple languages in the work place posed conflicts and hard feelings. At a particular hospital, the stated policy was that employees must always speak English in front of patients and it was in fact desired that people speak English at work all the time. There were a very significant number of nurses at this hospital from the Philippines whose first, and most comfortable language, was Tagalog.

Identify: Step one is identifying the feelings. The sharp feelings of resentment from native English speakers was due in part to the fact that some employees didn’t follow policy, but there were also feelings of anger when feelings of exclusion that kicked in. They thought they were being talked about.

The nurses from the Philippines acknowledged their anger at feeling forced, even when having lunch with friends and nowhere near patients, to feel and be restricted in their language usage. It was harder and more stressful because English was less familiar, and the restrictions did not seem necessary in every situation.

Understand: The US born nurses who did not speak Tagalog understood that while they felt excluded and talked about, they also knew they could be totally wrong. They did want to feel connection and belonging, and language barriers got in the way. The Philippine nurses felt disadvantaged and misunderstood, or not at all understood and not valued. The stress on them to speak English all day was tiring and they wanted some empathy and understanding.

Manage: In this case, there was no real attempt by hospital management to deal with these feelings of upset on both sides. There was just an expectation to have the language policy followed no matter how much resentment was under the surface. Finally, it came to a head in a big meeting one afternoon and here is where rich communication began because one person decided to use steps 1 and 2 to begin a conversation in order to manage the situation.

Communicate: In the midst of a meeting with nursing employees that was heated, polarizing and more about stating one’s own point of view than listening to others, a nurse manager from the Philippines stood up and said she wanted to speak. She began by acknowledging the English only policy and validating its importance, especially in front of patients and families. She reiterated that she expects all of her nurses to follow it.

Then she said that as a person whose first language is Tagalog, she will always be most comfortable speaking in that language. She talked about the demands and pressure of the job and how she appreciates the stress alleviation of being able to have lunch with colleagues where she can talk in that tongue. She wanted others to understand what it means to be able to slide back into the comfort of your mother tongue for a while … the ease and feeling of relaxation.

Her ability to communicate both sides of this reality in such a clear, easy to understand and respectful way, caused a sea change in that environment. There was empathy, understanding and a desire to find something that works for everyone. 

Apply: The last step, application, would be the follow up after this meeting. There had to be answers that were not either/or, but rather both/and, answers that would help and include and honor the needs of everyone.

Whether you are looking at the very real feelings of slight from a 6 year old whose sister was the center of attention, or a group of nurses dealing with very real language issues in the workplace, what’s clear is that as humans we never get too old or too whole to avoid feeling excluded, displaced, not special, unnecessary, or a host of other feelings that disconnect and disturb us. The feelings are natural, human and real. With these five steps — Identify, Understand, Manage, Communicate and Apply you have a process that will help the hurt by understanding your emotions as you move forward a step at a time. Take charge, starting with step 1. Begin with acknowledging and labeling those feelings and then keep moving. It is doable! Try it and let us know how it works.