Having Tough Talks: You Have To Resolve Conflict
“I’m not going to say that word.”
I was defiant, even at age 8. I knew what words were okay to say and which ones weren’t. My mother had a very clear way of showing what was right and wrong. Right got you stickers. Wrong got your mouth washed out with actual soap.
My dear Sunday School teacher tried to explain to me it was okay to say that word in its current form.
I was reading Numbers 22 verse 23.
“Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.”
I wasn’t falling for her crap. I don’t care where I was or that my mother wasn’t in sight. I was NOT going to say that word.
“Jenny, the word ass means donkey. You are referring to an animal”, she said getting exhausted with my stubbornness.
**FULL DISCLOSURE HERE: Do not ever call me Jen or Jenny again. I was Jenny much of my life and it transitioned to the lazy Jen as I got older. When I became a grownup, I felt that Jenny Hardy sounded about as tough of a name as the nickname of Cornell Haynes, Jr. (Nelly for those in a void). Jen always sounded like “Gin” and made me feel like it was a truck driver name. So, I’m Jennifer, nice to meet you. You can also call me Hardy.
“No. My mom says that’s a bad word. I can’t say it. Sorry. Someone else needs to read”, I insisted.
She kept talking to me and I wasn’t falling for it. That word got me a mouthful of Irish Spring. I had tested those boundaries before with bad consequences.
We all waited patiently for me to relent. We’d still be waiting if she hadn’t finally moved on.
After she explained the situation to my mother right there in the Immanuel Lutheran Church lobby, my mom looked at me. I knew I was right. My mom would back me up.
Mom did. Dad didn’t. Dad said we need to use the words of the Lord and not bring negative things into it. My mom said “Great, Jack, now she’s going to find a way to work ass-the-animal into every sentence.”
I’ve just never been afraid to stand up for myself or speak my mind. It doesn’t always come out the right way, mind you. I am a work in progress on many things, and that is one of them.
In my house, if you didn’t speak your mind you got left behind. You disappeared. Being the youngest of three strong girls in a house, I was always forced to use the bathroom last, which lead to me creating a lifelong habit of showering the night before – one habit I didn’t break until I was in my late 20’s. I always walked last in line with the family. I always was served last. Hell, at my mom’s funeral I even walked behind my sisters and their spouses, not only as the youngest but as the “single one”. It was so bad as the family filled out the pew there wasn’t room for me, and in my grief, I just stood there. I debated running out and going to the closest bar but ended up nestled into a spot next to my dad.
I had to find my voice and use it.
Middle School and High school were nightmares for me. I was 6’ tall at 12 years old. I weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. I got made fun of all the time. I wasn’t a “cool kid” but I wasn’t a lost soul either. I was somewhere in the middle, lowering my head and crouching down in photos because “Jenny, we can’t get your head in the picture.”
I had to speak up when bullies came after me. I was a leader on my softball and basketball team, the only places my height didn’t make me a freak of nature. I was damn good. Until his dying day, my dad never forgave me for giving up basketball because he saw me leading a WNBA team with my athletic prowess and honed skill sets.
Then I started working. Retail and catering were my first efforts in the world. I perfected a smile that said “I want to help you” when I wanted you to go away.
In catering, I dealt with everything from sexual harassment on behalf of drunk wedding guests, angry bridges who were impossible to please, and organizers whom Little Pig’d me on everything because the coffee was always either too hot or too cold.
I kept honing that voice.
Somewhere along the way, I developed the fine art of sarcasm, which is still misinterpreted to this day. I can banter passive-aggressive with you for hours.
Here’s the downside. I built a voice but not thick enough skin. May you learn from me, fair readers, if you are going to have a mouth, have skin like an elephant.
Getting into news helped thicken that skin. In the late 90’s, newsrooms were rude, crass, and vulgar at times. They would eat their young if you didn’t fall in line with the work ethic.
Then I became a producer, and my mouth came along for the ride. In the middle of breaking news, “Please” is a word we don’t have a lot of time for.
“Where’s the damn story?”
”Why isn’t the live shot up yet?”
“Did you call the Sherriff’s Office?”
“Who in the hell made me two minutes light? STOP CHANGING THE RUNDOWN TIMES!”
”ADLIB! The live shot is dead! JUST. KEEP. TALKING!”
There was once an unwritten rule that no matter what you said in the heat of the moment, all was forgiven. It was shrapnel in the battle of winning news. If a “Good Show, Guys!” at the end of a tough day didn’t heal all wounds, the drinks at the bar after did.
During the few times you’d actually need to talk something out – you did. Neither party had an issue with “We need to talk”. Yes, I promise you, those words used to NEVER spark fear in a newsroom worker.
But times have changed. Or people have changed. Or something changed.
SPEAK, DON’T TWEET
I blame the advent of social media for a growing inability to resolve conflict. We will text things we wouldn’t say in person, and we Tweet passive-aggressively to feel better about handling a situation. We wait until the “Blow-up” to address the situation we could have prevented.
“THIS JUST KEEPS HAPPENING AND I’M FED UP!”
I hear this phrase all the time. It goes something like this.
EMPLOYEE: “I’m just so sick of this equipment. It always breaks and it’s dangerous. Look at how this sharp edge could hurt someone! Plus, when I need it to work it doesn’t!!!”
ME: “That sucks. Whom have you talked to about it?”
EMPLOYEE: “I’m talking to you now.”
ME: ”How long has this been going on??”
EMPLOYEE: “6 months!”
ME: “Why didn’t you talk to me about this earlier? Or bring it to engineering?”
EMPLOYEE: “EVERYONE KNOWS!”
ME: “Has anyone reported it?”
EMPLOYEE: “I don’t know.”
**I check the help desk log for the past year**
ME: “This has never been reported. And you are right, that is dangerous. Let’s get it fixed. When things like this happen, you have to talk to me or report it!”
EMPLOYEE: “I don’t want to be seen as a complainer.”
People, find your words. Use them. Speak up. If something is A. Dangerous B. Not Working C. Slow D. Broken By You, REPORT IT.
TAME THE TATTLE TALK
Another phrase I wish I could banish from the English language.
“I don’t want to tattle”.
“It’s a problem, but I didn’t want to be a tattletale”
“I think you need to know about this, so I need to tattle.”
So, I looked up the word “Tattle” in the dictionary. It can mean “Report another’s wrongdoing”, but we’ve used it so much it also has a meaning of “Gossip. Idle Talk.”
We’ve turned a word that can helpful into a word of shame.
You aren’t tattling if you are helping fix a problem.
Louder for the people in the back.
YOU AREN’T TATTLING IF YOU ARE HELPING FIX A PROBLEM.
When the only thing standing between you and a better work life is the word Tattle, why does tattle win so much?
I get it, there is the fear of being shamed by colleagues. “Why did you tattle on me?”
When you’ve got a mouth on you, (points finger at self), you say “Because now a camera is broken and needs to get fixed, and you’ve broken three other things. It’s frustrating because you want no blame but then complain all day long about the problems here!”
When you don’t, you tweet to a co-worker “The bull-in-a-china-shop just busted up another good microphone!” while smiling pleasantly at the said bull.
Let’s change the meaning of Tattle. I hereby propose the formal gathering of CLUB TATTLE “Talk About Troubles Timely, Logically, and Efficiently.”
You guys, come on. As journalists, you walk into the home of mothers who just lost their children and interview them. You spit out questions at a news conference calling the governor on his misinformation like a machine gun. You press for answers that the PIO isn’t willing to give. You HAVE a voice, you just use it sparingly.
Now in this first committee meeting of TATTLE, let’s make our own Bill of Rights.
1. I will speak my mind when problems happen, either directly to the source of a problem, or to a manager who can resolve the conflict.
2. I will not start any sentence with “I’m sorry, but..”. You aren’t sorry. You are cushioning. Leave the cushions for binge-watching on the couch after a hard days’ work.
3. I will not make everything about “me”. You will decipher between something that is just annoying to you (for example, I can’t stand the sound of a ringing phone. Answer the damn thing. But that’s MY issue), and something that is getting in the way of workflow.
4. I will understand that my issues come with my perspective and will respect the perspective of the other person or people impacted by such issues.
5. I will apologize ONLY if I don’t choose the best words or don’t show my best self.
6. I will accept an apology from others when they have not chosen their best words or their best self. (No “She said she was sorry, but CLEARLY, she was not” is allowed in TATTLE)
7. I will not get involved in a discussion about complaints unless it also involved a discussion about resolution.
8. I accept that not saying anything and listening to another person is silent agreement.
9. You will not engage in any social media or group texts about topics where you do not have full information from all sides. (See Rule #1 of “What Happens When You Assume” for clarity on this).
10. I will offer to be part of the resolution of an issue or conflict, not just toss the problem at someone else and walk away.
Imagine how many lives, workplaces, social circles, dog park adventures, family vacations, job interviews, etc. we could make BETTER by following the TATTLE Bill of Rights.
Now that the first convention of TATTLE is underway, let’s talk about HOW to do it.
PRACTICE YOUR VOICE
Not all of you came from the Hardy house where a mouth was as important as a brain. I understand.
Not all of you are outgoing people like you think I am. (I am not, I’m an Extroverted Introvert, fwiw.)
The best advice I can give you is – Practice.
I’ve fired my poor dogs many times. I’ve told my stove that it has a bad attitude, only to realize that a bad attitude can’t be measured or body checked and needed to get more specific. I’ve sent more “Can you read over this?” emails to trusted friends than Nicholas Sparks has sent novels to an editor.
You need to hear yourself say the words you want to say. Even when it tastes like dog doo-doo coming out of your mouth. You’ll hear where you are off base, and you’ll know when you are about to hit an emotional breaking point. (We’ll talk about crying in a bit). You’ll feel in your gut the parts where you are being too tough and where you need to toughen up. You’ll at least have said it once correctly so you know you can say it again correctly. It might take 2 times or 20 times, but practice what you want to say with a trusted person, pet, or inanimate object.
For what it’s worth, you’ll also sleep better that night because your brain feels you’ve had a discussion about it, lessening the weight as you lay down to close some mental tabs.
SCHEDULE A TIME
Schedule the time to talk so you can’t back out.
“I’m going to talk to him tomorrow about this because enough is enough”, and then waking up the next morning too scared to do it is an easy out. When you know you want to talk about it, schedule a time. But pick the right time. Not in the heat of the moment or when you are super emotional. Maybe schedule a coffee two days from now, or at the end of a shift say you want to walk with someone to their car to talk.
DO. IT. IN. PERSON.
I can’t stress this point enough. It’s not that an e-mail or text can make you seen wimpy. It can, but that’s just a side effect. Sending a text or email is less about what you send, but what stage of the day or mental point the RECIEVER is at when they read it.
Here’s an example.
Yesterday, I was coming off a long work week that bled into my Saturday. I’m very stressed right now and have a lot of pressure on me with a built-in guilt system that drives me to overperform. I am spent in every way a person can be spent, but I can’t just hole up and not address things.
Someone sent me a text, and I am sure they felt they were just giving me information about where they are at with a certain thing. What I read was “I have no respect for your time or in general for you as a person.” I had to stop myself from texting back.
I knew I wasn’t in a good “receiving mode”.
When you read an email or text, you always read it in YOUR voice, with your day weighing on you. If you had a good day, you are going to read it well. If you had a crap day, you are going to read it with a “tone”.
C’mon, tell me when you read an email or text to someone, you don’t do it in a certain voice or with a certain accent. You interpret words that you didn’t create. This is dangerous.
You never know what world that email or text is going to end up in, and it’s better to do it when you know the person is ready to hear information.
I have a dear friend and we agreed to always discuss if you had “Mental Space” for a discussion or concern BEFORE bringing up the concern.
Instead of “I am so sick of this situation and I need to talk about it. Do you have time to talk?”
Say “Do you have mental space to discuss a frustration with me?”
That way the person isn’t weighted down right away.
Never start with “I just need 10 minutes” if you know you’re going to need 30.
When you talk to someone you can HEAR, not interpret, tone. You can SEE, and not assume, body language. You can WATCH, instead of wonder why it’s taking so long for a response. Because let’s be honest, waiting for a response back from a conflict-addressing message is more painful than the conflict itself.
DON’T LET STATUS SCARE YOU
I hear it so often, “My boss won’t listen to me”, or “You are always so busy, so I don’t bring things to you.” Your boss WILL listen to you and no matter how busy I am, I will find time for you. People wonder why I’m so busy all the time and I wonder why they aren’t busier? We’ve got a lot to do! But we can still be there for each other.
No matter if you need to talk to the President of the Planet or the HR person or the manager of a restaurant that keeps messing up your food, don’t be scared of who THEY are. Be confident in who YOU are.
YOU HAVE CHOSEN WISELY
Choose the words wisely (see the section on “practice”).
Don’t ever start a conflict resolution with these words:
1. “This probably isn’t a big deal, but..”
2. “I hate to bring this to you, however..”
3. “You’ve got more important things on your plate, but..”
4. “I hope this doesn’t impact our work relationship..”
5. “I didn’t want to say anything about this, but I need to..”
You are starting a conversation with the wrong message in all of these examples. People will either be immediately put on guard, start tuning you out, or stop listening because they are thinking of a million reasons why you might be there. Start the conversation with a positive, resolving tone.
Get right to the point.
1. “I want to address a problem that is making it hard for me to meet deadlines..”
2. “There is an ongoing issue with a piece of equipment, and I think we can easily fix it..”
3. “I have a conflict with another employee, and I want to resolve it..”
4. “There is tension between us, and I would like to clear the air..”
5. “I need to talk to you about sexual harassment I’m experiencing..”
See how that starts with more “Here’s my point and I want to help fix it”?
Just dive right in like a kid the first day the pool opens for summer.
THE ONE THING YOU SHOULDN’T SAY
“But it’s not faaaaaiiiirrrrr!”
It’s Not Fair has become the rallying cry for people who aren’t getting their way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again, FAIR does not mean EQUAL. They are NOT synonymous. It’s one thing to not meet expectations, it’s another thing to think it’s not “Fair” someone gets an assignment you wanted, a desk you like, or a shift you want. Like any team manager, a News Director or other manager puts the best players in the best position on the field. Do you think the backup quarterback for the Buccaneers says “It’s not FAAAIIIRRR that Tom always gets to start.”? No, they don’t. They hope to be as good as Tom so someday they can play every game. When they get the chance to start, they are prepared to shine.
When you start a conversation with “It’s not fair”, it signals this is an issue only about you. You would never say “It’s not fair I’m being sexually harassed/bullied/stalked, etc.”, because those are serious issues. Bring up serious issues and let the “ME-ness” stay in your brain.
Let’s role play.
You are on the morning shift and you have seen two new hires go to the day shift. A shift you want. And you’ve said that before.
If you start the conversation with “It’s not fair they get to work dayside and I have to work this morning shift. I want a life.” Do you see how it’s all about YOU?
Instead, try “I am on the morning shift and you know I have interest in the day shift. Can I ask why you keep hiring for the day shift and don’t move me? My contract is up in a year, and I need to make decisions in that timeframe about what is best for me. Is there a chance I can go to dayside (and here’s how I can benefit that cause) or will I stay on mornings?”
You might hear “The morning show is the number one show we have, and your speed and efficiency make you ideal for that. Plus, you do so many community events you’d miss part of your shift during the week.” Or “You were hired as a morning reporter and that’s where we want to keep you. I know you want the day shift and I appreciate you reminding me, but you knew it was a two-year deal on the morning shift and you agreed to it. We can’t mess up the team dynamics right now.”
Either way, you are getting an answer. Then YOU make decisions based on that information.
REPEAT FOR RESOLUTION
At the end of the conversation, repeat what you’ve agreed to so everyone is on the same page and there isn’t a gray area.
“So, there isn’t a chance I’ll get off the morning shift, I understand that. Thank you. I need you to know that means I won’t be staying at the end of my contract.”
“Thanks so much for talking with me. It’s good to know you are going to get that camera fixed by the end of the quarter.”
“I really appreciate the time to talk with me. I know it’s not easy to have these kinds of conversations, but I think if we both take turns answering the ringing phone it will help both of us.”
“I will type up a formal complaint about that situation and send it to HR by the end of the week. You said I’ll hear back by the end of next week, correct?”
DON’T REPEAT THE CONVERSATION UNLESS IT’S CRITICAL
You aren’t going to win every battle. You might go to your boss to complain about the breakroom not having Diet Coke and then get mad when Diet Coke isn’t there in a month. You might complain about a difficult employee and not get a resolution for a few weeks or months, as the investigation goes on and witnesses/accused are giving their input. You might say you don’t want to work that shift forever and be mad 6 months later when you are still on it (forever isn’t over, mind you.).
Bringing a conflict to the level of awareness doesn’t always mean you’ll get your way. I once had an employee complain several times about a situation that only impacted them. First I got a nice response, second the person went to my boss to complain about the same thing (I had already informed him of conversation #1), and then called me a third time to complain about it again. This was in addition to the laundry list of people who had come in and told me this person was complaining about it to anyone who would listen. I even had someone from another station in town tell me “Do you know this person is complaining about this?”
Choose if you are willing to die on a certain hill. Determine if an issue is serious enough to elevate it. Learn that the word “No” lives in the same dictionary as “raise”, “promotion” and “Yes.”.
“No” is not less of a word because you don’t like hearing it.
**A caveat here – if you are complaining about some kind of legally protected discrimination or behavior, take that to the highest level and let your voice be heard.
LEARN FROM IT
Each time you address conflict directly, you’ll get better at it. Sure, you’ll make some missteps along the way. Learn from those as well. With any craft, you’ll get better the more you do it. You’ll be more comfortable doing it. People will know you don’t take any guff and they won’t test your boundaries, leading to fewer conversations.
LET’S GET EMOTIONAL
So, you’re a crier. It’s okay. So am I. I cry when I’m overly happy, proud, sad, and mad. I wouldn’t recommend crying during conversations, but if it happens, let it happen. There’s a reason we always have a box of tissues ready in our office and it’s not because of allergies. If you get to a point where the emotions are out of control, say you’d like to clean yourself and revisit the topic later.
To be honest, I wish I wouldn’t cry so easily. But I care so dang much. I had a boss who never showed emotion. Everything I said to him, whether it was “the building is on fire!” or “We are out of water at the cooler” was greeted with a stone face and silence. I sometimes wondered if he had a hearing problem. I would repeat myself but still be talking to Mount Rushmore.
I guess I’d rather have emotions than be void of them. Few people perfect it right down the middle.
As a manager, you have an obligation to not have a conversation when you are emotional. There are times “I literally can’t right now..” with an employee I am frustrated with. The issues that need to be addressed IMMEDIATELY are few and far between. We need to get in a good mental space to have that discussion that is nested in resolution and accountability, not emotion and frustration.
SHUT THE EFF UP ABOUT IT
After the conversation is done, don’t replay it like The Golden Girls. Not everyone needs to know what was said (in your interpretation) and how it went. As news people, we work hard on the “right to know”, but that applies to stories and the public, not the newsroom and your tribe.
Don’t go passive-aggressive GIF’ing about it. It will be picked up and twisted.
Let me give you an example of twisting something.
I was a new manager at a new job. I don’t friend people I supervise on Facebook. It’s just a line I don’t want to cross for this very reason. This story helped punctuate that point.
Before I got there, as good journalists do, they dug into me and who I was.
One employee found a picture of me. This is it:
It was copied (without my permission) and re-pasted several places saying “Look at our new fearless leader. She looks like fun, doesn’t she?”
Let me tell you about that picture. It was the summer of 2008. My mom died in July of that year, taking away my best friend and it wrecked me. My birthday was in September and it was a day she always made so special, and she wasn’t going to be here this year. My dad and my sister came to visit me. We went to a big party on The Strip for a media night of a Hawaiian Tropic opening. We got all dressed up. For me, it was the first time I put on a party dress and makeup since she had died. I wanted to celebrate a special birthday in her honor, not have a depressing birthday holed up in bed.
As the party went on, we were all drinking what we thought were “adult” drinks mixed with Hawaiian Tropic. About two hours into it, I asked a friend if she felt buzzed because I wasn’t. Turns out – the drink was LITERALLY just Hawaiian Punch and there was no booze anywhere (you had to pay for that, apparently).
We took funny pictures about how we were all dressed to the 9’s and out on The Strip and drinking something that was reminiscent of a 10-year-old’s birthday party, not a grown adult. THAT is what that picture stood for. NOT what it was twisted into by a colleague looking to drag me down.
Back to the point – if you share information, even with just one person, they will share that information with one person before everyone knows your version of events. You are creating more conflict instead of resolving the conflict itself.
If you REALLY feel you need to talk about it, bring that up in the conversation.
“You said we are getting new cameras next year, is that information I can share with colleagues? I know it’s a big hot button issue.”
Not only should you not replay the conversation like a theatre show to your friends – you should not replay it over and over again in your head like a Taylor Swift song.
These skills will not only help in every facet of your life, but they’ll also make you a better journalist. Instead of always complaining about that PIO who is unhelpful, find out what her lot in life is – what limitations he/she has. They might be just as frustrated with you. You might be breaking “protocol” with how you ask for information. (See my article about how PIO’s Are Not Sources to work around this). Instead of “assuming” the Governor won’t talk to you, ask via email, call and Twitter. Then you can say “We tried to reach out to him/her through email, social media, and a call and we have not gotten answers, but we’re going to keep trying.”
You’ll be a better spouse, friend, and advocate if you speak up when warranted. Yes, you might lose some people along the way. Notice I said people and not friends. Friends don’t mind when you speak up. Who really cares if they lose the Regina George in their life?
You learn lesson after lesson by being vocal. Just look at me! Don’t be an ASS, speak up.
This hereby ends the first convention of TATTLE. All rights reserved.