Whenever conflict, large or small, comes along we are about to learn something.
—Donna Schaper, Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.
I write often about the opportunities inherent in conflict, and about the importance of practice. The concept of practice applies to any skill we want to cultivate and, without doubt, practicing new conflict and communication skills requires some risk-taking.
Yet, every conversation we engage in can be seen as a kind of practice. In the ones that go well, it may be easier to see the skills we used -- I had a clear purpose, I was centered, I asked some useful questions that helped my partner get to what was really bothering them.
Yet, in my experience, it is the challenging, difficult, risky conversations that offer the greatest learning.
When I shift my attitude from "failure" to "fascination", I gradually change my relationship to conflict. I move from resisting these conversations to connecting with what they have to teach; and from the victim question: "Why is this happening to me?" to the curiosity question, "What can I learn here?"
There are many conversations that have done this for me. A few come immediately to mind:
- My hurtful gaffe trying to help a friend in trouble.
- An assertive intervention with a couple of swimmers at my pool.
- A difficult conversation with a new colleague.
About to Learn Something
Here's the thing. I almost never learn anything when things go my way. I learn the most when I experience an unexpected outcome -- i.e., when I make a "mistake". I like to avoid that word (mistake) since it assumes I should always be perfect, and I'm fond of author and teacher Thomas Crum's "Perfection-Discovery Model", where conflict offers the opportunity to move from Perfection (how can I look good and be right) to Discovery (what am I learning?).
When I jump into Discovery, I also quiet the inner critic, as self-blame is replaced by self-awareness.
So... the next time you face the prospect of a difficult conversation with a coworker, direct report, or supervisor..... or family member, or friend, or the guy at the gym:
1) Take a chance.
Have the difficult conversation, offer the feedback, say no, express a different opinion--knowing that regardless of what happens you will learn from it. You are practicing!
2) After the interaction, do a quick self-survey
Ask: What did I do well? Find at least one thing--this is important. Otherwise, you will get lost in self-criticism.
3) Ask: What did I learn?
What will you do differently next time? Avoid self-blame, which only gets in the way of learning. Look forward.
One day a tourist stopped a New Yorker on the street and asked: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The New Yorker replied: "Practice!" An old joke, but a good one.
Change takes place gradually over time. Donna Shaper's quotation says it all. When conflict comes along, I'm about to learn something. The sooner I realize that learning is around the corner, the sooner I can drop into Discovery and enjoy the ride.
P.S. The skills to communicate in challenging conversations form a large part of my new book, Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace, available wherever books are sold.