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I was working with a team recently that was made up of some strong personalities. Conflict had been festering for a while between certain individuals in the team. When one person stated a different point of view than someone else, people got triggered. By triggered, I mean people had an emotional reaction (in this case frustration) that seemed far more intense than it should have been. Logically, it was just disagreeing on a single idea, psychologically, it was much more than that.

When was the last time you observed someone who had an emotional reaction that seemed like an out of proportion response or like someone was really struggling to stay calm? We have all observed this and for most of us we’ve felt ourselves going there at some point in our life. So, why do we react this way and what impact does it have at work?

Human beings sometimes get to a point where emotions become Maladaptive. Maladaptive emotions are those that make a person feel stuck in them. These are emotions which are difficult, deep, often distressing and they do not change easily even with changing circumstances.

One way Maladaptive emotions can build up is like this: A colleague at work behaves in a way that doesn’t quite gel with you. You get a little confused at why they behaved that way, maybe you raise an eyebrow, but let it go. A week goes by and you experience a similar behaviour again. You feel mildly irritated but don’t say anything. Another couple of weeks and you see that behaviour again. Now you start to feel frustrated. Still you don’t mention anything to that person. Sure enough, weeks later there is that same behaviour again. This time you get angry. This time you react and say something in the heat of the moment. It doesn’t come out quite the way you wanted it to because you’re upset. The other person see’s your extreme frustration, maybe receives some blunt words from you or a sarcastic comment. You leave the room struggling to calm down and they walk out scratching their head about what’s got you fired up today. And they are none the wiser about their own behaviour.

Does the above pattern seem familiar? It’s a pretty common one in organisations. It’s also a very human response. We hold back from saying to someone directly and clearly how their behaviour has triggered us to feel. Why do we do this if we know the result is two or more very dissatisfied people? It is often because we don’t want to rock the boat or we have a concern for how the other person might feel if we are straight forward with them. Will it damage the relationship? Will this person just react defensively, will it come back and bite me if I say something? These are all thoughts we have often unconsciously that cause us to not say anything or at least not until we’ve reached a breaking point.

We reach that breaking point precisely because we failed to say something in a calm way, when we first experienced the other person’s behaviour. This emotional build up creates a trigger for us which gets bigger and bigger with each situation. Then eventually if we haven’t found a way to let that emotion go it clouds our judgement. Our brains begin to filter the behaviour we see in that person and pick out all the negative things. We can start to make assumptions about their intent. At this point you now have a relationship problem. And chances are that person is blissfully unaware of the impact of their behaviour. What they might do, however, is notice a change in how you treat them (because you are feeling frustrated). In their minds, they then start to attribute non-constructive behaviour to you. They don’t feel good, and believe it’s your fault!

The key here is when the first glimpses of non-constructive behaviour emerge. Having a calm exploratory conversation at that point can release the frustration you feel and diffuse the conflict before it gains legs. So how can you have a conversation in a way that feels safe and less difficult?

A couple of years ago I got introduced to the concept of left hand column conversations. It’s a simple concept yet very powerful. A left hand column conversation represents the conversation you are having internally in your own head (what you are thinking and feeling). A right hand column conversation is what you actually say out loud to someone. An example might be:

Left hand column (my thinking at the time) – “I can’t believe what John just did. Doesn’t he realise he just cut me off and dismissed my idea”

Right hand column (what I said out loud) – “OK I guess I can see where you are coming from..”

Where there is a real difference between what is felt, and what is said, there is a left hand column/right hand column gap. This is when frustration, impatience or disappointment are likely to arise. If the left hand column remains unemptied, eventually this will lead to resentment.

Sharing the simple concept of left hand column vs right hand column conversations, with colleagues can be very useful. Then in the future declaring ‘there is something in my left hand column I want to share’ provides a degree of psychological safety to have the type of conversation we sometimes find difficult. An example of emptying the left hand column in the moment (or immediately after the meeting one-on-one) with the above experience could then look something like:

Left hand column emptying – “John, there’s something in my left hand column I want to explore with you. I’m curious if you were aware that you were interrupting me in that meeting when I was talking? I felt like my idea didn’t get heard as a result. How conscious were you of this?”

Keeping the left hand column sharing to what specific behaviour you observed – “interrupting me whilst I was talking” and how it made you personally feel – “I felt like my idea didn’t get heard” also minimises the chance of a defensive response.

I encourage you to explain the concept of a left hand column conversation with someone and then practice emptying your left hand column more regularly. It’s likely you will feel happier and less frustrated. You will also become better at heading unhealthy conflict off at the pass, before it grows legs.

Scott Erskine

Scott Erskine

Scott has successfully delivered leadership and performance solutions for management across a number of industries including retail, resources, construction, government and finance and has worked with organistions such as BHP Billiton, Woodside, Rio Tinto, Veolia, Western Power, GESB, Ramsay Healthcare, Police & Nurses Mutual Banking, Flight Centre, and the Australian Defence Forces.