Why do some conflicts hook you? Why is it difficult to take the advice not to take things personally? How do you free yourself of the drama and suffering that can come with some types of conflicts involving certain people? Is it possible to behave in ways to reduce the number or even prevent conflicts in your life? When interpersonal conflict occurs, how can you lower the heat and pivot toward a calmer, more productive way of handling it?
Tammy Lenski’s hot-off-the-presses book The Conflict Pivot: Turning Conflict into Peace of Mind answers all these questions in an accessible, easy to implement format.
I’ve been reading Tammy’s blog for over a year and have been impressed by her grace and wisdom. When she announced the publication of this book, I was excited. A quick download to my Kindle, ice tea on the patio, reading glasses on and I dove right in.
My expectations were happily fulfilled–Tammy’s writing, life experience and depth of understanding as a conflict professional shine through. Many lessons I learned the hard way over the years are encapsulated here. If I’d read this book in my twenties, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache.
The good news is that it’s never too late. Perhaps like you, I can still get hooked. Sometimes I make up stories about others or a conflict and believe they are THE truth. Tammy reminds us they are not. I can get stuck in the past and allow it to inform my present. That’s not the way to peace of mind. Tammy shows us other pathways.
You’ll have to read the book for the details (I recommend you do) but meanwhile, I’m delighted to introduce you to Tammy via this interview.
Meet Tammy Lenski
Tammy Lenski helps people turn conflict into healthy business and personal relationships. Founder of the New Hampshire-based conflict resolution firm Myriaccord LLC, she’s guided thousands of organizations, couples, and individuals worldwide as an executive coach, speaker, master mediator, educator, and author. Dr. Lenski is a member of the Academy of Advanced Practitioners in the Association for Conflict Resolution, and a recipient of the Association’s Mary Parker Follett award for innovative and pioneering work in the conflict resolution field.
She began her career in higher education, serving as a dean, vice president, and professor, then later as a founding faculty member of the graduate program in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies at Champlain College. Tammy has been featured in media outlets as diverse as Inc., Bloomberg, BusinessWeek, Redbook, and Working Mother. She’s addressed audiences across the U.S. and her work has been published in textbooks and academic journals.
How did you come to choose a career as a conflict professional?
What made you willing on a regular basis to put yourself in the middle of situations many people would just as soon avoid or minimize? Was there a person, triggering event or particular experiences that inspired or propelled you into this field?
I began mediating when I was a dean of students and faculty member at a private college in 1990s, as a necessary part of my work. At the time I had a doctorate under my belt but no formal education or training in conflict resolution.
As I started to get more requests for help from other sectors of the campus and from my president, then from other institutions, I realized I had a knack for conflict resolution and decided to take a course in mediation. That basic mediation course ultimately led to me resigning what was by then a vice presidency, enrolling full-time in a year-long, 500-hour certificate in mediation and conflict management, and using that year also to begin building my private practice.
What surprised you the most about engaging with conflict as a mediator in the early days? What moved you then?
I wouldn’t say that much about engaging conflict surprised me, maybe because I’d done work for years by then that involved working with people at their best, at their worst, and everywhere in between.
What surprised me most was how much of an odd duck I was in my own field. I didn’t do divorce work, I wasn’t an attorney, I didn’t have a great deal of interest in mediating legal disputes (though I did do a fair amount of probate mediation for a few years). My focus from the beginning was in working with people who were going to be in ongoing relationship…people like business partners, work colleagues, board members, and couples.
You’ve been mediating and teaching conflict management skills for many years now (no need to say just how many) and are considered a luminary in these disciplines, having won the Association of Conflict Resolution’s Mary Parker Follett Award for innovation in the field. Given your depth of experience, what is it about human behavior and interaction that still surprises you, moves you or perhaps makes (self-named) “bad Tammy” want to scream?
I’m regularly thrilled that people are so rich and different and complicated and wonderful. I love working with people to untangle things that have gotten them stuck.
The thing that probably challenges me most in this work is when someone seems to be very well defended and not very interested in taking a hard look inward. These circumstances probably challenge me because I think taking a hard look inward is so interesting and so rich with wonder! I have to remind myself in these moments to be über-patient and slow down and build greater trust with that person, then see what unfolds over time.
One of the things I appreciate about your book is how you use yourself in some of the examples (this is where we meet “bad Tammy”) to illustrate how you’ve applied the principles. For example, you include personal stories about conflicts you’ve had with your husband. Some readers may wonder, as did I, how you got your husband to agree to this and how he feels about being a “character” in the book?
My husband is used to being fodder for my stories in my blog (I’ve been blogging about conflict resolution since 2002) and in my classes and trainings. We’ve been together for 25 years, so there are lots of stories! He’s a good guy and knows I try to paint the picture with love and I’m more likely to portray how I mishandled something as I am to gently chide his handling of something. He was an early reader of my latest book and I gave him complete freedom to nix a story involving him if he wished. He didn’t nix a single one.
In the book, you turn the advice about not taking things personally on the side. You suggest it may be necessary to take things more personally at first because conflict can be very personal. Would you explain what you mean by that?
Telling someone not to take things personally is not terrible advice. It’s just not very doable advice in the midst of conflict. If I’m in throes of frustration and someone says, “Oh, don’t take it so personally,” I rarely can magically just do that. In fact, it may actually increase my frustration and I’ve seen that in my mediation work as well.
So, telling someone not to take things personally during conflict is premature advice—there’s something people need to do before they can pull it off successfully. Conflict is very personal – we feel it in our guts, we feel it in our hearts, we see how it snags our attention. To pretend otherwise is to distract us from attending properly to it.
Before we can stop taking something personally, we first have to take it more personally. We have to step closer to what’s bothering us and get a good grasp on why. I wrote The Conflict Pivot, in part, to walk readers through the experience of doing just that.
You offer three “pivots” in the book
- Pivot away from your stuck story about the conflict toward its message
- Pivot away from the other person’s behavior toward your hooks
- Pivot away from the past toward the now
As you say, these three pivots are easier to remember than a lengthy sequence of conflict resolution steps when someone is caught up in the drama of a conflict. A reader could take each one at face value, and by answering the worksheet questions you provide, much improve their experiences around conflict. Someone could also choose to peel back the onion and go deeper with each pivot, increasing self-awareness not just for handling a current conflict but also for transforming how she or he engages with people in general to the point of eliminating preventable conflict. What advice would you give a person embarking on such a journey of self-discovery for the first time?
When I’ve introduced the three pivots to clients or to my graduate students, and walked them through the worksheet, I’ve found that almost everyone dives in enthusiastically. They enjoy getting a different understanding of a conflict that’s been eating at them, and enjoy the sense of renewal and hope that comes from seeing something in a new way. They also enjoy the idea of learning something about themselves that they can use to change future conflicts, even prevent some of them.
So, I’d say, slow down, take the time to ponder, don’t rush through the worksheet or the pivots the first time. It’s not a race. Allowing yourself the freedom and space to ponder along the way gives you the chance to notice something that you rushed past before.
The emphasis in this book is on increasing self-awareness in order to make more conscious choices about which path to take before being swept up in conflict. You make the case that applying the principles described works for conflicts at work or at home. How does introspection help address work conflict that on the surface at least does not present as interpersonal, and for which there truly are non-personal issues of substance at stake?
The Conflict Pivot is a book about reducing conflict in your life with three simple practices a person can do on their own, anytime, anywhere. It’s a book about dissolving chronic tension and conflict in ongoing personal and business relationships.
So if someone is experiencing tension or conflict with someone they work with every day, for instance, or with whom they have a business relationship, I think they recognize that there are some elements of the conflict that have little to do with the substantive issues on which they disagree.
In other words, I don’t think people miss that there’s personal tension when there’s personal tension. I think they may have been taught to ignore it or try to work around it, but I don’t think they miss noticing it.
In a similar vein, leaders are expected to make sure workplace conflict is dealt with so it won’t negatively affect performance. Could a leader apply any of the three pivots you describe when the conflict is not one he or she is directly involved in and if so, how?
Conflict pivots are thought processes persons have to take on their own. No one can pivot for you, anymore than a coach should try to walk out onto the basketball court and spin his or her player around during a game.
There is a significant role leaders and managers can take in helping their people perform optimally in conflict situations. I’ve taught CEOs and HR managers about pivots and taught them how to coach their employees in using them. This is eminently learnable stuff, fortunately!
Even more importantly, leaders can set an example of engaging conflict in healthy ways by not squelching disagreement in the name of teamwork, by raising up conflict as a normal part of any healthy team, by knowing the difference between constructive conflict and destructive conflict, and so on. When I work with leaders who want to change the culture of conflict in their teams or in their organizations, these are the kinds of habits I encourage them to foster, habits that go beyond a technique or a specific process.
What question do you wish I’d asked and how would you answer it?
You asked great questions, Jagoda. I can tell you’re a conflict management professional because of your good questions!
I would like to say that your readers who want to know more about the book can visit ConflictPivot.com for information and downloadable resources. The book is available everywhere books are sold, both online and from your local independent bookstore.
What do you get hooked by in a conflict? What have you done to unhook yourself? How do you find peace of mind after a conflict?