When I was twenty five, I bought three pieces of brand new furniture from Ethan Allen. A couch and two comfy chairs destined for my living room became the symbol of all that I had achieved. This was quality furniture. Over the years, it has followed me from apartment to apartment, through two states, into one marriage and the addition of three kids. I thought these pieces would live forever.
And then my kids discovered markers.
The first piece to take a hit was my canary yellow, modified wingback chair. For years it was in my bedroom, quietly avoiding dirt, grime, food, basically all things "children-y." The upholstery had a waffle pattern, small raised boxes that give the fabric texture and interest. Apparently, the boxes aren't just interesting; they also make great tic tac toe squares, especially if you play with a black sharpie.
The next casualty was my couch. Someone decided to declare love by way of a LARGE pink heart drawn almost to the center of the seat cushion. I asked my daughter if she knew how it got there. You know that look of someone who is trying to communicate, "I have no idea how you could possibly think it was me because certainly someone like me would have told you if someone like me had done it?" Total innocence. Only, this was my daughter who drew hearts everywhere, who loved pink, and who also loved to draw on all things not made of paper.
Maybe she was hedging that no one would see this giant pink monstrosity on the seat of my couch or that we wouldn't conceive that it could be her. Maybe, and most likely, she knew I would not like it and that there would be a consequence. After the tic tac toe incident, I was suspicious but not inclined to create a confrontation by assigning blame. But this time, I went full-on Jack Nicholson. I wanted the truth.
I wanted to recognize the problem and establish accountability between the two of us to fix it and not let it happen again. Without the fixing, there couldn't really be trust between us and trust is important in an environment where furniture and markers abound.
Nobody likes conflict, whether we are four or forty. Sometimes we would rather fake like everything is fine rather than fix the situation. Conflict can be hard and messy but it can also be insidious. A miscommunication at work that isn't addressed begins to fester, sometimes growing to impact team morale. An unspoken expectation or concern that is not met ends up damaging a friendship. We think sometimes it's better to fake it while we try to rationalize our way to peace with the situation when all the time, what started as a small hole in the boat turns into the cause of the water that sinks it.
How do you fix it before it breaks beyond repair? First of all, you must gather up your confidence and leave the blame behind. Then, when you are ready to fix things, there are four phrases you can use and three you should try to avoid if you want to strengthen trust and maintain a relationship while solving the problem.
Try these phrases on for size:
- I feel - "I feel really sad when you color on my couch." "I feel confused because the paint we told you to use is not the color on the wall." "I feel like I am making most of the effort on this project." Save the "you make me feel," for a real knock-down drag-out. I've never met anyone who likes to be blamed for making someone else feel anything.
- Help me - "Can you help me understand why I heard you take credit for the work we both did/why you stopped calling/why you didn't follow my directions/why you colored on my couch?" Again, "help me understand why you did such a dumb thing" is not in your best interest for a diplomatic conversation. Try to stay away from judgmental statements.
- I need - "I need to know that we can work together/trust each other/not draw on furniture." This has to be about you, not the other person. You must be able to convey what it is that you need out of the situation in order to mend the relationship or fix the situation going forward. After all, telling other people what they need to do implies we have some kind of direct control over their actions. And we don't. Really. Stop trying.
- I want for - "I want for you to feel comfortable working with me/know that you can be honest with me/not to be afraid to bring me bad news/ask me for paper when you want to color." This is a handy statement that can be used in conjunction with your "I need" statements or all on its own. Watch out, though. You need to be sincere - don't just say this to placate. Your insincerity will sell you out every time.
While you are practicing folding these helpful phrases into your conversations (you can practice them in ANY situation, conflict or not) be sure to avoid the common pit falls that will fan the flames of resentment and break down relationships instead of strengthening them:
- You never -"You never share credit/call me for meetings/follow my directions/color on paper."
- You always - "You always take credit for work that we both do/leave me out/do your own thing/color on furniture instead of paper."
- You need - "You need to... cut it out!"
Controlling all aspects of a conversation that may lead to conflict is impossible. You can't control the reaction of the other party involved, but you can approach the conflict with grace and diplomacy. Doing so might just lead you to a stronger relationship than you had before, whether that relationship is in the office, in the neighborhood or in the home - with your four-year-old and her obsession with markers.
Tara is a speaker, coach and writer who works with companies and individuals to define what success means to them and helps them map a practical path to achieving it. You can follow her at taralynnfoster.com, on linkedin, twitter or Facebook.
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