Photo by Topich on Unsplash

Photo by Topich on Unsplash

A friend recently reminded me of the work of Kerry Patterson and the defining work "Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high," a good general introduction for those who have not been accustomed to working in environments where high emotion and the need for good communication commingle.

This is the environment however that you work in every day if you have engaged with individuals and groups as a human systems consultant. Whether it is a family-based business, a non-profit, or a conflict resolution situation the emotion can make having productive communication very difficult. People "walk on egg shells," avoid conversations, or try and use external controls to prevent further damage. Seldom does it work.

At its core, there is often one of two factors at play. One is a paralyzation due to the fear of losing the relationship. The other is an attempt to control the situation to prevent further damage. Neither one helps the core relationship to grow and strengthen. 

A classic example of the fear motivation is the old story of the "emperor's new clothes." You know the story, the emperor is bamboozled into walking around naked having been "sold" and invisible suit. everyone praises the suit, afraid to tell the emperor the truth until, a child, states the obvious and ends the embarrassing charade.

Many people walk in fear of being truthful. 

The second, is attempting to control a situation to prevent harm. I am always reminded on the executive who refused to leave the room when the executive council wanted to talk about his job performance or wages stating, "Nothing good ever happens when I am out of the room!" His attempt to control a situation which had caused a lot of hurt only exacerbated the problem. Frequently people in relationships struggles ask me--often in subtle ways--"How can I get in control of  this situation?" Often the truthful answer is simply, "You can't."

In my example, the goal was clear, the attempt was to control the team to enable trust and prevent further conflict. It wasn't working. I pointed out that the behavior was sending a strong message of his lack of trust for his team and one that may have been a strong indicator that his influence was already heavily damaged.

There is a "siren's call" to give into fear and control. They both, in their own ways, seem like a path to safety. In reality, they have a negative effect on relationships. Fear breeds mistrust, impulsive, reactionary responses to perceived threats. Control breeds resentment, suspicion, rebellion, antagonism, and conflict.

Honest, relationship building, conversations only happen in a safe environment where one or both parties can maintain a non-anxious presence and humbly work toward a solution or mutual respect in disagreement. Anything less is likely to be a bandaid on a festering wound.