Handling difficult situations: do you “manage” it or do you have skills to work through it?

Cheese is a delicious short-term fix but isn’t the best way to solve a problem.

When we get into a difficult situation, it’s common to just want the problem to go away. Who wouldn’t?

The way we deal with challenging situations is the key to any conflict. For those times when we don’t handle conflict well, it’s most likely because we never learned the skills to know how to navigate constructively out of it.

At the recent seminar by Suzanne Clothier, my new dog-training hero, she talked about methods to help resolve dog behavior issues. One is “management,” which is basically trying to desensitize or counter condition the behavior, such as averting attention from a bad thing to a better thing.

This isn’t a great picture but it shows a time when I was trying to distract Grace with a treat. She’s alert to me, but she still has a look of concern on her face. It may help reduce her anxiety of the situation momentarily, but it doesn’t solve the bigger problem.

There are times when this helps. However, there is a big downside. It leaves the dog vulnerable when you aren’t around to play manager. An example of this for Grace is that when she hears or sees kids walking down the street, she gets very nervous (understatement). I’ll lure her into the kitchen with a fresh handful of cheese and have her go through rounds of ‘sit’ and ‘down’ to distract her while the kids pass by. She knows they are there but she’s more interested in the block of cheddar. But when I’m not home and the kids go by, she’s just as freaked out as she always has been, with nothing to do except stay within her fear, an unpleasant place to be.

The second option Suzanne discussed is to help the dog build skills to deal with the challenging situation. With Grace’s level of fear, it’s a multi-prong approach, but there are things to do. The skills Suzanne teaches require that the dog uses her brain to make choices on her own. This is the best option because it allows the dog to always be in control of how she reacts, even in the most challenging situations and when she’s facing it alone.

One of my clients has a stated expectation that the employees will self-manage themselves (which despite the inclusion of the word manage, is more like having the skills). The work flow is set up with a team structure versus a traditional manager-employee model. It works well for the employees and the business because it forces everyone to think about the impact they are having on each other; they work through those situations directly and collaboratively, using their minds to problem-solve versus being told what to do. Simple things like vacations aren’t approved or disapproved by a manager; they are decided by the team based on who needs to be there to get the work done. It requires that you have the skills to work through a conflict when multiple people want the same day off, which can happen during the summer or holiday seasons.

In situations of conflict in the organization, lots of time people will bury their head in the sand. Somehow they think that ignoring it will make it go away. They offer a treat of cheese without dealing with the root cause of the fear that exists from the kids walking the street.

Just as Suzanne teaches a variety of methods for building skills, there are lots of skills humans can employ in the workplace to work through a stressful, challenging, or difficult situation. One basic skill is to simply have the conversation. Don’t ignore the problem. It will not go away just because you want it to. Set aside time to talk directly with the others involved. Be respectful. Share ideas for resolution. And don’t think you have to solve it all at once. Ongoing, open dialogue is the foundation for healthy relationships. And with mutual trust, you can solve anything.

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