Conflict….it’s just a difference of opinion. Really.

I grew up with a family who love a great debate. There was always some kind of debate going on in our house that we were encouraged to stick our oar into. My Dad would drop little one liners about things to see what our reaction was. He almost always got a rise out of me!

I have never been one to shy away from conflict. In fact growing up in my family it was expected. I have very direct extroverted parents who were always making it clear, usually loudly, how they felt about a certain …..anything. I am sure the phrase argument for arguments sake was invented by my parents, although their own personal arguments were few, they never hid them from us believing that we would learn to deal with that as we would any other experience.

In our house, conflict was one of those things we just did really well. We still do.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother making a very pointed comment to a friend of my father’s. Dad came in late one night after work, a little drunk and with this friend in tow. The poor guy in question happened to have a pencil thin moustache. My mother was not a fan. So, she told him in a very pointed way that “she hates men with moustaches”. True story.

She felt it was important for him to know as the cause of my father’s overt “friendliness” just how she felt. After she made her point, he offered to leave, but in my true family style, he was welcomed, warmly, with laughter, food and made feel like a member of the family. One of the best lessons I ever learned from my mother was to say your piece and move on! She always moved on quite quickly, something we couldn’t understand as kids, because we never got to hold a grudge!

I was probably about seven at the time and remember it vividly. Not least because my mortified father liked to drag that story out every opportunity he got! In the later years of course it was a great joke, but I am more than sure he felt the sting of it then. Of course my mother still doesn’t think she did anything wrong, he deserved it!

Maybe she didn’t, and maybe he did. Maybe he was just one of those poor souls who is too sensitive (as my family like to think!). I am sure it is about sensitivity and as I get older, I also know that we need to apply some filters. As I tell my nieces and nephews, just because it is in your head doesn’t mean it has to come out of your mouth. Mum was a bit of a slow learner at times.

As they say, it is all in the delivery.

I am brutally aware that my way of dealing with conflict is unique, which has tended to make communication difficult at times. I am also aware that when I am not on my game, it is the one thing that deserts me. When I am not confident, or I am tired from too much struggle, I have chosen not to challenge when I should have. I know then I am not being my authentic self.

I think that poor old conflict gets a bit of a rough deal. Conflict doesn’t always have to be bad and I am quite serious when I say that I truly believe it is just a difference of opinion.

The conflict part comes from emotion, judgement, defensiveness and self-righteousness.

Thankfully life is all about growing and learning. I used to think there was something wrong with someone else if they didn’t like what I said, I truly didn’t think it reflected on me at all. Sounds pretty horrid – and I would agree. I was not always the evolved soul who writes now (she says smirking into her wine…).

So why am I revealing all this horrid stuff about myself, and why would you care (other than to use me as an example in your psychotherapy classes!)? Because the way we deal with conflict is one of those lessons we inherit from our family. It shapes who we are, what we believe, the way we form relationships and even the way we do business. I wrote recently about the importance of relationships in business. The way we deal with conflict affects honesty and trust in all of our relationships.

One of the best lessons we can teach our children is that conflict doesn’t have to be difficult. It also doesn’t have to be avoided. If we can make it clear that listening to a difference of opinion creates an open mind and greater respect for people and their differences, we can encourage them to debunk the myth too.

What happens to you when you disagree with your boss – what do you do? More poignantly, what do you say? Are you encouraged to say anything? Saying nothing implies that you agree, or even worse, support their ideas. Some of the most important coaching and mentoring I have done is on how to handle this kind of conflict – or this difference of opinion. It is called managing up. It is important certainly to not respond in anger, but to collect your thoughts calmly and then have a conversation.

We all know people who have different beliefs to us on important issues. My particular favourites are things like racism, sexism and homophobia. It is always far easier to agree with them isn’t it? I mean who wants to be the one who publicly disapproves rather than going along with the joke, or the thought or the intent. Some would argue that we could stop racism, sexism and homophobia right there, if we only all just learned to say: “Oh, really, how interesting, I don’t necessarily see it like that”. Then just engage in conversation without being self righteous, without emotion, without judgement and without being defensive. (Thanks go to the wonderful Susan De Campo who taught me this insight and saved my sanity just recently!)

I do believe if we start to de-mystify this whole topic and treat conflict like a difference of opinion, problems would be resolved, issues would cease to be and we would all feel stronger and more confident rather than walking away disheartened wishing we had the courage to say what we thought.

I have had many friends and family on Facebook vehemently disagree with the comments I have put up there, or pictures I have taken – and I welcome it, openly! I want to know what people think, I want to incite discussion and debate. In a world where it sometimes feels like we are free to write what we like, that isn’t always the case. I recently read two very different blogs on the value of SEO and it appeared that there were more comments on the blog in support of the argument than not. One particular blog was almost nasty in content and was a little vitriolic. I would have thought that would create some fairly sharp responses. There were a few on there, but not many. Very few people actually wrote that they disagreed with the content. Are we continuing this move away from conflict in these forums too? All this user generated content surely will incite some great debate and discussion, but I am not really seeing it, I wonder why?

I so often hear “I like to keep the peace” and my all time favourite, “I don’t want to rock the boat”. Well, as the un-husband says: Real boats rock.

The key to learning how to deal with conflict is practice. Practice using the phrase, “I don’t necessarily see it like that”. Practice it without emotion, without judgement, without being defensive and without being self-righteous. It is quite amazing what happens when you re-frame it.

After all, it is only a matter of opinion.

Building Relationships in Business

I was recently invited to attend a Business Networking function. I wasn’t completely in love with the idea of trekking to North London, but thought – you know, I’m starting my own business, I can meet people, rhubarb, rhubarb….

I was just managing to successfully talk myself out of being cross about the long trek, when I learned that the “interesting” workshop I had signed up for, wasn’t going to be a workshop at all, it was now the Keynote speech, starting at 7.40pm. Watch check: 3.30pm, this could be a long evening!

They did give me two drinks vouchers and as I am only human, I stayed.

I signed up for the first workshop (or rather man standing at front of room sprouting death by PowerPoint). It didn’t start all that well; firstly the presenter was late, then the audio didn’t work. The PowerPoint slides had been set up for another version so they jumped all over the screen. Very professional so far. I couldn’t actually see the screen, because the sunshine was coming in through the windows……. apart from that, I was impressed that I was about to learn all about “Winning Business in a Recession, Sales and Networking” from a presenter who looked roughly 12 years old.  At this point I am feeling quite self-righteous and congratulating myself for staying!

The wine was helping.

Once ‘Youthful Presenter’ (YP) managed to get the audio working, I was kind of looking forward to something promising. The workshop was going to teach me how to build my business, how to create a USP (unique selling proposition) and ultimately make me a mega-successful business woman.  I was all ears!

Then I felt the strangest urge, almost physical. I was thrust back into 1984! I know I put that wine down somewhere…

Then YP started sharing information that not only had I heard a few hundred times before, but it annoyed me all those years ago, when I heard it first and was actually working in sales. I should have spotted it straight away when he asked the question “Who here is in sales?”  Of course the answer should have been everyone….so lost points to those who thought they were in business!

I won’t bore you with the details, because it got more and more corny; people buy benefits not products or services, turn to the next person and in 5 words or less tell them what it is you do……

Oh, where did I put that glass???

I’m still working really hard not to be negative or get annoyed. I got out of sales because of this. You see, I don’t really fit in flogging stuff to people who don’t need it. I have these pesky things called values and oddly, I believe in sustainable business relationships.

I just don’t get the hard sell. I never have, and I hope I never will. Most people are smarter than that. I have no desire to participate in “Speed Networking” or “Time for Action” sessions where I have to tell the next person all about my business in two minutes.

Oh…was that me snoring, sorry!

I thought I would pass.  I answered all the questions the right way; yes I have a business, yes I want it to be successful, yes I would like to roam the world with no financial worries and buy small children like Madonna (OK, maybe not the last one).

I just believe there are other ways to do it.

In sales for some very large multi-national organisations, people bought stuff from me. Me. Yes, the big company names helped and some would argue made it very easy, but it was me. I left organisations and people moved with me.

As a Manager and HR Manager, I was always thrilled when I got the opportunity to make a difference to people’s lives. I was responsible for having a positive affect on another human being – WOW!! That is still one of the best natural highs I can get! I used to get that feeling when I sold something to a customer I knew needed it.

So, I guess I failed this course.

My USP was me. Yes, it was the fact that I provide a “whole of business social media strategy for my clients”. But anyone can do that. It’s all over the internet. Google it and see what you find. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to plagiarise anything and pretend you know what you are talking about, then pretend you mean it.

Social Media is no different to real communication with real people. Say what you think, what you mean. Do it politely, do it with grace and share information that makes people trust that you know what you are talking about. It can be hard to build relationships with people in business, so make sure you learn how to be good at it. Yes, some of that is innate. Personality is innate, as a grumpy beautician told me the other day when she was tearing the hairs and skin right off me, grumbling all the time that the new young girls just don’t seem to have the ability to engage with their clients. Clearly not as much as she did, wax, hairs and bad attitude in hand.

Everything we do is about relationships. Even the daily transaction in your local shop. Be the person that smiles, says hello, makes their day. You never know what your sharing can bring. Get to know your customers and their business. What makes them work? What are their objectives for the business? How can Social Media help? Remember it is just another tool in your arsenal for communication. Open communication builds relationships. Relationships build strong customer bases and more sales.

Nothing else could possibly matter when you are in a business based on your reputation. Isn’t that all of us??

Incremental Change, in life, HR and Social Media

When I arrived in London in November last year, I walked into the coldest winter and the hardest recession to hit the world in 20 years. Not quite the welcome I was expecting. It took me some time, months in fact to adapt to not only the weather and the media hype about the recession, but to the changes that had occurred to me physiologically and psychologically.

I come from a country that doesn’t take things too seriously, except getting an early morning surf in before work, over-indulging our children and eating too much. Most Australians are pretty laid back and although they will always give you a piece of their mind, they won’t act on much at all, not even a worldwide recession!

In spite of this environment, I still thought I was prepared for whatever this country could throw at me, the winter being the biggest issue or so I thought. Having lived in London 20 years earlier, I thought I would cope perfectly well. I refused to believe the media “beat-up” about the recession. I certainly enjoyed the change in climate it, it was a novelty all this cold weather business. Where I’m from, the coldest it gets is either inside the 5-below-zero Vodka bar, or occasionally at The Valley pool when you’re swimming in the middle of winter. No need to worry there though, a warm shower, trip to Merlo for coffee and walk to work will get you well sorted.

Change is one of those things that you sometimes don’t notice until it has happened – and sometimes even then, not until someone has pointed it out to you! An interesting thought for me, given I have spent the past 10 years managing and instigating change as my job, career and life.

Funny then, how change can just sneak up on you, tap you on the shoulder and shout obscenities in your face.

When I decided to emigrate to the UK, I thought myself very fortunate and blessed and still do. Not once did I imagine it would be a tough gig! They speak English there…, I’m employable – it can’t be that different!  Well, yes as true as all of those things are, there are some variations. Yes, they do speak English here. It may take a while to determine, but once you get your ear in, you can almost make out, that it is in fact English. Certainly a few words like “wot-eva” and innit”, repeated at 30 second intervals helped clear up my doubts. Teenage speak is similar the world over.

We all know language is interesting wherever you go. Having heard the type of English here and trying to get my ear in, I found even when I thought I was speaking English, I was asked to repeat myself. Not only the impact of my Australian twang (which of course I thought I didn’t have!) but my constant mistaken use of words and phrases. For example when walking in the summer I tended to take my “thongs” in my bag with me as my feet always tended to get too hot and too sore in heels. I gathered quite a few strange looks and offended more than one person when I felt the need to share my strange underwear fetish with them (thong here is used in the same way the Americans do, not what I wear on my feet to the beach).

I still can’t bring myself to call them flip flops……

I learned whole new names for vegetables – courgettes, peppers and aubergines instead of zucchini, capsicum and eggplant. That an Oyster was not necessarily found in rivers and Nectar not necessarily something derived from flowers! I became very intimate with a whole bunch of people I would not normally meet, usually on the tube or bus but sometimes the Tesco delivery guys and the people who came to read the electric and gas meter, inside your house, at 7am on a Saturday, (meters are only ever outside in Oz).

I missed not being able to order a long black or a flat white, with soy (not soya) and no, thank you I don’t want milk with my Americano (Does that not defeat the purpose of a black coffee??).

I have learned to avoid the post office at any time; Tesco on a Friday night, the tube in rush hour, riding anywhere on the route to Heathrow, wearing stiletto heels, and ever leaving home without my portable “Do Not Disturb” sign (iPod).

Even after my years of experience instigating and implementing change, it took me a while to understand that this incremental change was having an impact on me.

Incremental change can affect people as much as if the change happened all at once. I went from driving everywhere to catching public transport whilst reading a map. From a place where 35 degrees on Christmas day can be a little bit too uncomfortable, to a place where 4 degrees is the best it will ever get for Christmas lunch.

I have coped by realising that I have been undergoing incremental change (not without help I will admit!) and by learning to respect and appreciate that these changes abound and are sometimes sent to challenge us. We grow from them, learn from them and understand that one is not better than the other – just different.

I know I am not unique in this experience nor even in sharing it.  I have done my share of major change as well, changing careers, homes and family situations. What I learned is that change of any nature, can be challenging to say the least, even when you instigate it. I sincerely feel for those who never seek out change and then when it happens to them, are grossly affected by it, to the point where they no longer feel able to cope with life.

The two links I want to make about incremental change are around two of my passions, HR and Social Media. Change in HR is inevitable and is usually driven by us, the HR team! We enforce it as part of our strategic business plans in line with what is best for the business. We then try and steer the people in the right direction with as many tools for learning how to cope as possible. Sometimes we fail miserably, sometimes we succeed astonishingly.

Change in the form of new technology, including Social Media can be even more threatening. Something else we don’t understand, another thing we don’t have time for, something we don’t know how to use, something that we aren’t even sure is going to be of any benefit at all to staff and the business as a whole.

If you approach the use of Social Media in your life, be it for business or pleasure, then think about how it will change you and your routine, incrementally. It has the potential to change the way you do things, change the way you receive information, change the way you react to information, change your business processes and procedures and change the way your staff listen and react to you. It can be welcoming or it can be destructive, and like all change, it is how you react to it that determines how powerful it will be in either being part of another tool that you use to help you, or a distracting nuisance.

Whatever the impact, I hope you learn as I have, that it isn’t all bad, just different.

Productivity and Social Media

You know, the amount of times I hear organisational managers say that they have banned Social Media in the workplace still astounds me. I know there are various reasons for it; the main argument usually is about productivity and how badly it is affected if managers and organisations let their staff use Facebook or Twitter during the course of their business day.

I think productivity is one of those innate blessings. Either you are or you aren’t – and any number of “tools” or applications available will make no difference to the most productive of your staff. Of course it will have an impact on the least productive of your staff, but they don’t need Social Media to distract them from their work, any old thing will do!

It’s important that we debunk the myth that Social Media in the workplace reduces productivity. As a HR and Business Manager, I have seen productivity in all its forms. I have had many staff who would use any opportunity or any excuse to be unproductive. I once had a staff member try and take the company car to the shop to buy everyone coffee because it was “smoko” – the 15 minute morning tea break. The fact that it took him 30 minutes to drive there, buy the things, bring them back and socialise was lost on him!

It is our jobs as people managers to “manage” this behaviour; recognise it and call it for what it is. Preventing access to Social Media sites in the workplace can send a message that you may not be keen to listen to your staff, or keen to hear what conversations are going on around your business. It can also indicate that you don’t trust them to be productive, and probably means that you, as manager and leader don’t understand Social Media (which of course may very well be true!)

It is far too easy to assume the worst of someone and punish everyone for the sins of a few lazy team members, but most people want to do a good job; most people want to be responsible and make a good impression.

The introduction of a Social Media platform into your business could increase productivity, increase revenue and certainly retain customers. Like anything, the introduction of Social Media into the business could be done by a trial, and could be done with some fun, so that everyone can learn at the same pace, or at least at the same time.

Great research has been done on the positive effect of fun in the workplace, you only need look as far as Google to see how they are revered as an appealing place to work. Why not make the introduction of Social Media a fun project and assign tasks to people to create the accounts, write content, take photos and generally allow their creativity to influence the way you do business.

I am sure as a manager of people, you know who the un-productive members of your staff are already, why not use them as leaders in a project to devise the guidelines of how you manage your Social Media policy in the workplace? Like any policy, without guidelines or standards it will be pushed to the limits very quickly!

So, are your staff un-productive already? If they are, then take the opportunity to have a conversation with them about that, set some standards on what you expect if you haven’t already and start measuring them. Once you decide that the organisation would like to be part of this irresistible Social Media wave, then the unproductive ones will already have a clear message that what they are doing is being watched. It isn’t Social Media that you need to pay attention to, it is your people; how they contribute, how they are measured and then how they can positively influence the communication within your organisation. People really are creative and when given the opportunity, will give you all the answers and ideas you want.