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If you think that you can avoid conflict by hiding behind your keyboard, you are mistaken, Honey. If English isn’t your first language and you hide in the security of AI like Deepl and spellchecker, then this episode is for you. We’ll be talking about conflict and why you need to speak up – that’s right, you have to speak up as the English Speaking Expert, even when it feels awkward and hard.
I’m Corinne Wilhelm, an international business communication coach based in Berlin but originally from the UK, working with non-native speakers to help them secure the career that they deserve as the English Speaking Expert. I work online and outdoors, mostly with Agile teams
So, last week we were talking about mind monkeys and how the conversations that we have with ourselves can be ruthless and so damaging in terms of reaching our true potential as experts in our zone of genius.
Today, let’s get real about the opportunities that you are embracing and quite possibly ignoring. Because we as the experts simply have to get beyond those mind monkeys if we are to recognize and be brave enough to go for those opportunities.
If, like me, you love a success story in any shape or size, no doubt you will have heard many stories of how people have taken a scary step outside of their comfort zone to achieve something brilliant.
Since this is a podcast for non-native speakers, I would invite you to think very carefully about your English communication today. What are you telling yourself about your English? Are you telling yourself that you are comfortable reading and listening but you don’t really like speaking very much? It’s safer, isn’t it, to hide behind the keyboard and take the time to check mistakes, look up words and run it through your head?
But what about when the going gets tough? In any business relationship, there are always tense, difficult or awkward situations. Is a flurry of emails the best approach? As soon as you notice that there is friction, you observe that something isn’t quite right, that your colleague, client or stakeholder is behaving in a different way. That’s when you need to show up and speak up.
Communication is as much about observation and listening as it is about your words. It might be their tone of voice, they might be slow to get back to you, their choice of words could be rushed and rash.
Tune into that sense of intuition that we talked about last week, someone with your experience will instinctively know that something isn’t quite right.
There are four approaches to dealing with conflicts and we all deal with conflicts in different ways depending on the situation, especially if we’re hungry, tired or feeling sensitive but let me share them with you and I am sure that as you listen, you will sense yourself gravitating towards one of them.
And likewise you might recognize some of your colleagues in these too.
Dr John Gottman has identified four specific behaviours that often get in the way of communication and those strong collaborative relationships that we need to survive and thrive:
Firstly, there is the blaming approach. Now, this typically comes up if somebody is criticising somebody’s personality or character rather than constructively dealing with the arguments being made or complaining about the situation itself, so it makes the other person feel attacked in a way. So, if someone is taking a blaming approach, you’ll hear them saying things like: “It’s not my problem”,or pointing the finger with comments like: “It’s their fault”, or “That’s their responsibility, not mine”. The blaming approach is typical, we’ve all experienced it but as you can imagine, it is not exactly constructive in terms of finding a compromise, workaround or solution is it? . Behaviours that you might associate with blamers are things like standin g up to take up more space or infringe on your space, inadvertently often using very aggressive language and behaviour. A typical characteristic of a blamer is to use words to undermine someone, making them feel inferior or guilty. A classic case of “I’m ok, you’re not” or if you are familiar with “I’m ok, you’re ok” by Thomas Anthony Harris. Ironically, if English is not your native language and you feel self-conscious about that, then you make yourself an easy target, unfortunately.
Do you recognise yourself or lean towards blaming. If so, let’s see, who else you recognise.
The next one is stonewalling. This is when you shut yourself off where you just don’t want to have anything to do with the conflict: “Just keep me out of it”. Now, I have to confess that this can be my natural approach, but don’t worry, you can work on these. Stonewallers tend to keep a distance or resist conflict, pretend it’s not happening or turn a blind eye. As a Brit, I tend to do this a lot, just like my Mum, so I have to be careful here, if I am careful and observant I can catch myself. This stonewalling provides a disconnection which creates a pseudo-protection, stonewallers tend not to blame, or accept the blame: they just retreat or disengage. These are the kind of people that don’t return your calls, don’t accept meeting requests or cancel arrangements at the last minute. They’re also likely to resign rather than push through and find a solution. Instead of complaining for example as a customer, I just don’t go back.
In the Agile world this might be characterised by someone not coming to meetings about retrospectives when they know that they have screwed up. Stonewallers can be passive- aggressive too, so watch out for that! What might – on the surface – feel like disinterest might well be stonewalling. Sometimes it might show up as the silent treatment.
So so far we have had blaming and stonewalling.
Next we have contempt. Those acting with contempt are those that we know not to get on the bad side of.
If someone constantly interrupts rudely or undermines other people when they are speaking, that’s contempt for you. This behaviour shows up when you experience someone engaging in that nasty gossip. We should all know better but conflict can make us act in unreasonable ways. Watch out too for a negatively sarcastic tone or that bitter irony. Their language can be disrespectful to the point of being shockingly rude and, of course, those tell-tale gestures of demeaning communication – you know: rolling the eyes, expressing impatience through tapping of finger nails or a pencil -, this kind of thing. This can be direct or indirect communication, pay attention! This is a danger zone.
Finally, there is defensiveness. This is the polar opposite of blaming. Watch out for people refusing to take responsibility or the blame, they’ll be adamant about the fact that it is not their fault and watch out as they often feel victimised. Rarely are people in defensive mode open to any kind of conversation, perhaps now is not the right time or place.
It comes as no surprise that in a conflict situation, you need to engage in conversation, open and honest conversation. Not in email, not in Slack, not by WhatsApp. Don’t worry if you are working remotely: You do not have a cop out or an excuse, oh no! A conflict can be resolved online but it needs to be in real time, via screen or face to face.
Sure, conflict is awkward, uncomfortable and stressful but if you are genuinely open to an uncomfortable conversation, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. If it still feels terribly dark in there and disastrous, maybe you need a mediator or a third party to help you get closer to that light. Your bosses would prefer that to losing one of you – so reach out to HR and reap the rewards of working through your conflict later. The result is often an even closer relationship than before, with a better understanding of what each person needs. And sometimes you will discover that you are actually more similar than you realised.
Communication is the key, an honest and open conversation isn’t easy but always the way forward. Be respectful, choose your words and actions well and embrace a new beginning based on more knowledge and understanding. If you are a non native speaker, it’s helpful to make some notes beforehand and practice them, so that it feels more comfortable in your head and in your heart.
That’s why it pays to start speaking up more in international teams. Clearly, language and culture go hand in hand, but conflicts, even smaller ones, will be resolved faster with a more personal approach.The sooner the better and don’t let it brew. It’s a bit like standing on a bridge, the longer you look down at the water, the less courage you have.
The trick is to be brave.
Be aware of the typical conflict behaviours that I mentioned before, blaming, stonewalling, contempt and defensiveness. Do not let yourself be drawn in too emotionally. Try to genuinely find out what is at the root of this problem, are you really talking about the root or real problem, because your performance and promotion prospects or business profitability depends on your ability to establish strong, solid relationships at work.
It’s tempting to turn a blind eye or stick your head in the sand, and hope that it will go away – but stonewalling is a popular role to take here, I am not alone. I hate to break it to you, these things rarely resolve themselves.
Even if someone decides to resign, that isn’t really a solution, is it? More of a retreat or defensiveness.
The earlier you confront the problem, the easier it will be and the faster it will be to get back on track again. You will need to listen despite the voices in your head and the pound of your heart and after a long discussion, your brain might be running on empty, too, but if you are to claim your spot as a leader you need to exercise professionalism in situations like this.
And having worked in international teams in many countries, I know how hard this can be but getting back on track requires speaking in English to these people.
So here are some useful phrases for you to use when you are feeling a little out of your depth because, let’s face it, it can be difficult to think in your own language, let alone a foreign language when you are under pressure:
1. Let’s give ourselves some time to think about this we can calm down, then talk about it later.What do you think?
2. Thank you for being so honest and open, I appreciate that.
3. Help me understand where you’re coming from.
4. When you said/did that, I felt…
5. Sorry. (the simplest but the most difficult, just one word)
5. What do you suggest we do about this?
6. Let’s see how we can prevent this from happening in the future.
Can you see how being honest about your reluctance to actually speak in English might be adding fuel to the fire of conflict?
And please be aware, one of the biggest sources of international conflicts is the clash between indirect and direct communication, there will be a separate episode on that in about three weeks time but for now, try mirroring. If they want to chat, chat back, if they want to get to the point, keep things tight.
This week’s Communication Challenge is to reflect honestly about your relationships at work and ask yourself whether you would be able to improve a relationship by speaking to them on the phone, in person on in an online call. The first one might feel awkward, they might even wonder why you are calling all of a sudden, they might even panic that you have some bad news or some disaster to tell them about, but push through it and start forming a connection through conversation. Let me know how it goes.
“Which is more important: to avoid making a mistake in English or to avoid making a connection?”
I sincerely hope that you see my point. Making a connection is so much more important than making a silly mistake in English. Actually if you know your stuff and you are able to communicate effectively, then they won’t be listening to those mistakes, they’ll be hanging on every word.
Next week we’ll be staying with the topic of conflicts at work and I’ll be providing you with some strategies to help you get back on track.
Until then, have a fabulous week and remember:
Be intentional about your communication and be the very best communicator that you can be!
Take care now!
It’s Corinne Wilhelm from English Speaking Experts.