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  • Dean Williamson

Frustration and conflict at work: Coat-hangers and non-linear curves

I thought I had mostly left interpersonal and performance coaching behind me to pursue the more systematic field of organisational development. However, I always seem to find myself being the voice for the uncomfortable conversations that no one wants to have. If you've listened to her, Lisa Gill calls these "moose heads on the table". Quite literally, last week I stopped a leadership team meeting because "something felt weird." It turned out two of the members had had a conflict which was un-resolved, and was affecting their ability to work together as a team. Guess what that meeting turned into? Surfacing conflict...

I'm going to explain a metaphor that I have for explaining conflict and tension between people - I call them "coat hangers".

Coat hangers

Coat hangers are just a metaphor for focused attention or awareness. Let's say that I tell you that your (life) partner tends to sound unsure because they say "um" a lot. Previously you may not have noticed, but you're sure going to notice now. The first time I tell you, you're putting a coat hanger in your cupboard. After that, you start hanging clothes on it every time that you hear an "um". After a while, that coat hanger gets REALLY heavy...

The frustration curve

Frustration is not a linear curve

Eventually you'll probably get to a point where you want to scream "stop saying um!" That's because frustration is non-linear, and gets almost exponential past a certain point. The first instances of something happening frustration starts low, only adding a little at a time. But the frustration added gets greater with each instance, until the curve is exponential - you end up being unable to tolerate even ONE MORE INSTANCE!

This has roots in negativity bias

This has its roots nestled somewhere in what psychologists know as negativity bias - or our evolutionary proclivity to give greater weight to negative events than positive ones. Think about it - when was the last time that you were driven to express overwhelming gratitude from a positive coat hanger? When did you last say "I just can't take it any more, your personal hygiene is just THE best?"

Dealing with coat hangers and frustration

This is really hard - once you have coat hangers focusing your attention, they are really hard to let go of. But in order to have healthy relationships, everyone needs to learn how to let go of their coat hangers in order to see and believe the best of each other. These are very mature relationship skills which take a lot of work.

Here's some tips that I've picked up along the way:

  1. Develop a practice (and then a culture) of starting early, rather than late: One of the key issues with coat hangers is how they escalate over time. People need to be aware of when they're beginning to harbour ill-feelings towards someone, and be committed to working through it in order to come closer together. This conflict can be positively transformational for both people, but usually not if it's left too late.

  2. Focus on the relationship, not the issues: So many issues are "chicken-and-egg". Someone did something, but was that the first instance, or was in in response to something else? Playing this game is a lost cause - what really matters is that people care about each other, and are committed enough to the relationship to stop trying to be "right". If you're committed, you'll acknowledge that you had an impact on the other person and say "sorry", and you'll be willing to cut them a break in order to start building upwards together.

  3. Prime for more positive coat hangers: Although our innate negativity bias means that we're far more likely to develop (and quickly escalate) coat hangers about negative behaviours or impacts, I think that it's important to do some cognitive restructuring so that these are weighed against at least some positive coat hangers. Here, being able to honestly discuss strengths AND weaknesses in positive, pressure-free environments is really important. This effectively primes people to begin to notice each other's positive behaviours, not just their negatives.

With our clients, these moves usually start as one-off instances of conflict resolution, but we generally shift them towards wider practices and on into a culture of relational capacity. For example, one of our clients now has a practice of "catch-up's", where leaders check in quickly and often with all of their staff in order to surface tensions and then facilitate their quick resolutions. This is also being supported by team workshops to help them discuss individual and team strengths and weaknesses, supported by Clifton Strengths.

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