Conflict is never a fun experience, but it becomes just a little more hostile when it involves those with whom you are close. Donna Carlson, 4word: Colorado Springs leader and 360º Life Strategies coach, has advice she’s gleaned personally for handling conflict in your relationships that doesn’t involve harsh words and hurt feelings.
Tell us a little about yourself!
Donna: Everyone has a life, but few have a strategy. 360º Life Strategies coaches individuals, teams and focused mastermind groups. I have two signature programs: a Life Strategy Design coaching program and a related workshop on how to cultivate Your Life & Leadership 360º, created from 20 years of research in holistic design, global leader development and applied neuroscience in a business performance context. The 360º approach is based on the wholistic philosophy that you cannot be the best at work, at home or at any endeavor without bringing your whole life.
On the personal side of my whole-life journey, I have a husband of 24 years and three truly amazing daughters – 20, 17 and 15 – who exceed me in every way. I can’t leave out my dog, Riley, who teaches me daily about the love of God. Not that my husband and kids don’t teach me about God. The ones we love the most are often the ones God uses the most to shape and form us, even in conflict.
Why do relationships tend to be so prone to conflict/confrontation? Do you have any examples of conflicts in relationships in your life and how you dealt with them?
Donna: The only reason I can say I’m qualified to teach healthy conflict management and feedback skills is because I’ve made all the mistakes in the book. All of us experience conflict with people at work, and much of that conflict stems from failing to acknowledge our differences as humans.
I used to clash wits often with the only other woman in my department. Surrounded by men, we both combatted stereotypes, but my female colleague had a dominant personality like many of our male comrades. In the face of a strong, Type A, dominant leader, I used to lose confidence and stand down. The problem this created for the team is that they did not benefit from the balance of perspective I added to the team because I didn’t know how to confront a strong personality. When we did a personality assessment, they learned that they needed my softer, more intuitive personality type to succeed in influencing the whole team. That day changed the way I valued my role on diverse teams.
It was still a challenge at home, though. Because I practiced standing up for myself at work, I brought a more dominant personality home. The first time my husband looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t work for you,” I knew that I need to learn to shift gears.
One of my mentors told a story that impacted me deeply. She is the CEO of her company and her husband works for her. “But when I come home, he’s the king,” she says. I love the balance of authority and submission in her life. When I approach my husband and my teen children with respect, love and grace (even when my daughter brought home a car with a big scrape down the side) what I get in return from them is respect, love, and grace.
We all make mistakes, but unfortunately many of us get caught up in the whirlpool of shame and fail to make opportunities out of our failure. As a member of the John Maxwell Team, we talk about Failing Forward (a Maxwell book) quite a bit. Maxwell teaches that we have to make failure our friend, which requires changing our mindset. This is why I believe God has called me to cultivate bigger minds, happier people and greater impact in organizations through coaching.
What role can boundaries play in conflict?
Donna: Boundaries are fundamental to healthy conflict. Take my story of my colleague, for example. When that dominant woman used to force her opinion on me, I would either recoil and pout, or lash out in anger. Neither was conducive to a successful resolution. This is where feedback comes into the picture. A healthy response would say, “You bring up some good points, but when you delivered your opinion to me, I felt threatened. I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but I’d like to have a more open dialogue about a reasonable outcome we can both agree on.”
The healthy feedback method doesn’t assume who’s right; it just states what my reaction was. She can’t tell me my feelings are not valid. Once we establish there is a miscommunication, we can approach the subject without assumption or blaming and solve the problem.
This might sound simplistic, but we have an edge over everyone else in our organization. We have the guidance of the Holy Spirit to let us know if we’re speaking out of love or out of ego.
What are some simple and quick steps you can take in a conflict situation with a spouse? A family member? A friend? A coworker?
Donna: I’ve used that same feedback method at home. I used to walk in to a messy kitchen and yell, “Who made this mess?” Now I will walk in, see the mess, head to my daughter’s room and ask, “How was your day?” If I see her pouring over her physics homework in a panic, I might even skip that question and ask, “Would it be helpful if I ask your sister to take on the kitchen tonight?”
Another good example happened this week. With all of us home for the summer, there is no excuse for the dog to have an accident in the house. There are plenty of people to open doors. When I found his “special delivery” in my office, I signaled for the girls to come upstairs and I said, “I need your help in solving a problem. It’s nobody’s fault, but with all of us at home, there’s no reason we should find Riley’s poop in the house. Would you help me clean this up because I have an appointment?” They had no problem helping out. And there have been no accidents since.
When Paul was gently teaching the Ephesians (4:2) he mentioned that to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” I try to treat others in conflict in a way that believes their best intention, because I want people to believe the best about mine.
Even though conflict is unavoidable, how can we safeguard ourselves and our relationships against unnecessary conflicts in the future?
Donna: First, don’t make assumptions. If you are tempted to even think the words, “I assume…” then stop and ask a question, like, “What prompted that thought?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” Avoid loaded phrases like, “Help me understand…” Anything that sounds condescending, is condescending. That leads me to my second safeguard: use love as the litmus test. The most important thing Jesus prayed before He went to the cross was that we would be one as the Father, Son and Spirit are one. We are made in God’s image, little trinities walking around reflecting them in our spirit, soul and body. That leads me to the third safeguard. We have the love of God already in us. We just need to tune our senses to hear and respond to it.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Donna: I found it helpful years ago to approach my job as if I’m an ambassador. I’m not there to represent or defend my interests. I’m there to represent my King. Scripture clearly says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” He is using our response to critical or difficult situations to show His nature to the world. When I consider whether Jesus is watching my conversation, I want to imagine he will catch me later and say, “Good job! Well done!” I have realized over the years that if I don’t master this conflict challenge, God will give me all the opportunities I need to master His love and grace. I’m determined to get it right the first time.
How have you been responding to conflict recently? Has it been geared toward coming to a fruitful resolution, or have you been responding out of fear or frustration? We’re so thankful for Donna’s focused advice for being an ambassador for ending conflict in your relationships in a way that leaves everyone feeling understood.