Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Dealing with the doubters

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • Coronavirus is being blown out of proportion.
  • The flu kills more people every year. This social distancing is over the top.
  • If I get coronavirus, I get it – nothing much I can do about it. I’m at low-risk anyway.
  • A virus isn’t going to stop me enjoying life and seeing my friends.

Maybe there are people in your family or social circle who express these views. In this post, I offer some practical guidelines for respectful disagreement over how to respond to a public health emergency.

(If you’re one of the “doubters” yourself – keep reading. I won’t refer to what the experts say about protecting yourself and others, and I won’t scold. My guidelines can help with any strong disagreement, regardless of your position.)

If you’re trying to protect yourself and your family during a public health emergency, interacting with people who don’t share your sense of the risk, or who refuse to follow public health measures, is extremely frustrating. How to respond to your neighbour who wants to send her child over for a playdate at your place? What about your parents who refuse to cancel the weekly family dinners?­­

The single most important factor to get through this kind of conflict is to adjust your own mindset. The key is to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you cannot control. A moment’s reflection will tell you that “other people” is at the top of the list of things you cannot control. The sooner you understand this, and the sooner you are at peace with it, the better.

The next thing you have to come to grips with is that (generally speaking) a better understanding of facts does not change people’s behaviour. For example, smokers tend to be equally informed about the health risks of smoking as non-smokers. The knowledge doesn’t help them quit. Most people who are overweight are fully aware that they should eat less and exercise more. Explaining the health risks of carrying on as normal under coronavirus is probably a waste of time. The risks and possible consequences have been repeated frequently.

Understanding that you can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, you must focus on what you can control – namely, your own thoughts and actions. Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Decide on the measures you will take to protect yourself and your family. What boundaries will you observe?
  2. Do not get into arguments with people who have different boundaries. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it will make it harder for them to back down eventually if they change their views.
  3. If you are challenged or drawn into a discussion of your boundaries, it is fine to simply state your position and keep it at that.
  4. How much of an explanation you offer for your position will depend on your relationship to the person you’re speaking with. What you say to close family members who disagree will differ from what you say to casual acquaintances.
    • To the father of your child’s friend who suggests a playdate: “We’re keeping the kids at home, and we’ve told them no visitors.”
    • To your client who wants an in-person meeting: “As long as the public health advisory is in force, I am holding all meetings by video conference.”
    • To your parents who want the whole gang to come over for dinner: “We love you and miss you – and we don’t want anyone to get sick. As soon as the danger has passed we’ll get back to our regular dinners. Think of how we would feel if you got the virus because of one of us.”

What all of these responses have in common is that they are respectful, they do not attempt to persuade, and they do not invite further discussion.

  1. If someone “won’t take no for an answer” or tries to draw you into an argument, simply say, “It looks like we see things differently” (or some equivalent) and either change the subject or end the conversation.
  2. Whatever boundaries you set need to be clear and consistent. They are your boundaries – you don’t need anyone else’s approval and you don’t have to justify them or convince anyone else that you’re right.

(What I have said about the importance of mindset draws on my understanding of Stoic philosophy, and in particular The Handbook by Epictetus.)

About the image: Salvador Dali walking his pet anteater in Paris. Source: Open Culture

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Sharing space when you’re working from home

A classic cause of conflict is competition for scarce resources – be it sources of fuel, arable land, or access to fresh water. Today, as many of us adjust to the challenge of working from home, the “scarce resources” are more likely to be peace and quiet.

Like most conflicts over scarce resources, conflicts over how to share living and workspace can be resolved through negotiation. (Mediation is just negotiation facilitated by a neutral third party.)

Sit down with your family or housemates and decide the following:

  • Who will work where?
  • How will you handle it if one needs quiet and the other has to attend virtual meetings?
  • What will you do if one person needs to make a confidential call?
  • Will you eat lunch together?
  • What if one of you is working at the kitchen table and the other decides to make a smoothie using the fancy blender that is louder than a jackhammer?
  • How will you share childcare?

Look for creative solutions and be prepared to make trade-offs. If you need to take a call while your housemate is working quietly, can you step outside or onto the balcony? Can you attend that video conference from your car?

None of this is rocket science.  However it can require adjustment if you’re not used to sharing working space with another person.

More important than the details of whatever arrangement you decide upon is making a mental adjustment to the new reality. No one knows when things will be back to “normal” or what the new normal will look like. Assume that you’ll have to share space for the foreseeable future and make a long-term plan.

About the image: Husband and Wife. Source: Lorenzo Lotto, Wikimedia Commons

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Managing your own emotions

“Secure your own oxygen mask first, before helping others.”

This phrase started out as a straight-forward instruction to airplane passengers and has become a cliché of self-care. And despite being a cliché, it is pretty good advice. If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t have the capacity to look after others.

A large part of self-care during these very uncertain times is managing one’s own emotions and coping with the generalized anxiety that seems to hover in the air. People are fearful about their health, the health of their loved ones, and the economic fallout from the pandemic. While this is all understandable, it doesn’t make the negative emotion any easier to manage. At the same time, we’re getting used to many new realities: staying at home, perhaps looking after children who miss their routines and their friends, gyms, shops, and places of worship closed. We’re both in closer proximity with some people and separated farther from others.

A lot of people are on edge. Managing one’s own emotions is crucial. Conflicts can be sparked by trivial matters. It is important not the allow small disagreements to escalate.

A number of philosophical and religious traditions from around the world stress the importance of our attitude to events. The tradition I’m most familiar with is Stoicism. To the Stoics, the key to happiness is to have the right mindset. What this means now is to recognize that while many people are under extreme stress, you have power over your own thoughts and attitudes. You can care for others without taking on their anxiety. You can focus on what is going well in your own life and on doing what you can to improve things in the moment.

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Being honest about your fears will help you keep them in perspective. Have at least one person in your life you can be honest with.
  2. You also need one person in your life whom you can vent to about daily annoyances. (If possible, this should not be someone you live with.) But keep it brief. Limit a “gripe session” to five minutes. Going on and on isn’t good for you, or for the person who has to listen to you.
  3. One sure way to get out of your own head is to ask yourself what you can do for others. Remember to reciprocate, and give your “venting partner” an opportunity to share his or her anxieties with you. (Again, limit this to 5 minutes or so.)

Taking the time and effort to manage your own emotions in a stressful time is one of the most effective ways to practice self-care and ensure that you have the emotional capacity to care for those around you.

About the image: Royal Australian Air Force Leading Aircraftswoman gives a safety brief to passengers. Source: photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, Flickr

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Bullying in the virtual workplace

In the course of a recent workplace intervention, one of the employees I interviewed described a pattern of harassment via text message. While this woman was on vacation, one of her co-workers sent her a stream of angry messages berating her for (allegedly) leaving her files in a mess and letting everybody down.

Apparently thousands of miles isn’t far enough to eliminate workplace harassment.

Based on my experience there will be many people who are relieved to work at home and avoid having to face a feared supervisor or dreaded colleague in person. (This is one “silver lining” in these difficult times.)  At the same time, I also know that workplace bullying will continue in new forms, and that more than ever, leaders must insist on respectful behaviour.

Managers have to observe a delicate balance. On the one hand, everyone is under stress and we are all capable of less-than-gracious behaviour. Being forgiving in these trying circumstances is humane. At the same time I have been in too many organizations where poor behaviour is never addressed. The cost – in terms of morale, lowered productivity, and human emotion – is enormous. Leaders need to set clear boundaries and expectations around acceptable behaviour.

Here is what managers can do to ensure open dialogue and respectful behaviour during virtual meetings:

  1. Tone at the top is more important than ever. Participants will take their cues regarding behaviour from the leader. So set a good example.
  1. Begin each meeting with a quick “check in” to ask people how they are doing. This is more important than ever as employees are likely to be under a great deal of stress. A check-in gives people permission to speak personally, but doesn’t oblige them to. (Sometimes clients ask me – doesn’t this take up valuable time? On the contrary, my experience is that check-ins are a good use of time because they help everyone to focus. People will often mention something that has been preoccupying them and saying it out loud to others allows them to let go of it.)
  1. As the leader, you should start the check-in. How you answer will set the tone for how others respond.
  1. If you notice disrespectful behaviour during a video meeting – snide remarks, audible sighs, eye-rolling, or a sarcastic tone – you need to address it. However do this privately, in a separate call or video meeting. Public shaming – even of individuals who may “deserve” it – is not good for workplace culture.
  1. When addressing disrespectful behaviour, be matter-of-fact and name the behaviour that you found disrespectful. You can say something like, “You seemed on edge during the meeting. I noticed that you rolled your eyes and sighed deeply when Sally was sharing her ideas. Whether you meant it or not, your actions came over as disrespectful.  Please share your perspective in a way that doesn’t involve…”
  1. End the meeting with a “check out.” Depending on your workplace culture and the type of organization, you might ask participants to share something that they learned, something they appreciate about a co-worker, or one action they will take based on the meeting. Again, the leader should go first and how he/she speaks will set the tone for the others.

Stay tuned for a future post on maintaining a positive culture when you’re back to interacting in person.

About the image: Excluded from the Group. Source: Stuart Miles, StockVault

Why we can’t get along: Intent/impact assumption

It is a cliche that “poor communication” is at the root of much conflict. One particular form of poor communication that I often see is the “intent/impact” assumption.

What this means is that when a person’s actions have an impact on us, we tend to assume that they intended their actions to have that impact. If we feel disrespected, we assume that actions were intentionally disrespectful. If we are inconvenienced, we assume that the other person intended the inconvenience, or at the very least didn’t care that we were inconvenienced.

Luckily, there is a way to overcome the intent/impact assumption and I discuss it in the video.


Why we can’t get along: Confirmation Bias

Why is it sometimes so hard for people to get along?

I don’t have all of the answers, but something I see again and again in my work is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms beliefs we already hold, and to disregard or even suppress information that conflicts with our beliefs. I explain it in the video above.

There are lots of examples. People tend to chose the news outlets and columnists whose worldview echoes their own. We’ve all heard of cases where the police fixed on a suspect and marshaled evidence for a conviction, only to later learn that someone else has confessed to the crime.

I see it happening in workplaces where one employee or manager comes to be seen as “the problem.” It is very hard for them to overcome the label.

How to escape confirmation bias? Suspend judgement. Keep an open mind, and consider accepting an olive branch if one is offered.

Unrepresented Parties in Mediation

The other day a young man called to ask if I could mediate a dispute between him and a developer over the return of his deposit on a pre-construction condominium. He desperately needed the money back. When I asked if he had a lawyer, he told me in frustration that he was an engineer, and he felt he could get this resolved without a lawyer. My heart sank, as I realized there was little chance he could be successful without the help of a lawyer.

By the time a party in a dispute gets to the stage of a mediation, he or she will have experienced enough of the legal system to feel demoralized and extremely frustrated. No doubt their dignity will have taken a hit at some point. Many unrepresented litigants report having been treated poorly. The mediation process should not be a further affront. As the mediator, control the process to ensure that it is fair and respectful.

  1. The ADRIC Code of Conduct 3.4 states that, “the Mediator shall, where appropriate, advise unrepresented parties to obtain independent legal advice.” I always suggest that parties without a lawyer get legal advice, and I keep a list of lawyers whom I feel are both effective and good with people. Parties in mediation should know that it isn’t too late to work with a lawyer. You can also suggest that they contact the Law Society of Ontario Referral Service for a referral and a free half-hour consultation.
  2. If you have stereotypes about the kind of people who forgo legal help, forget them now. A recent Ontario survey found that over half of the people attempting to represent themselves in court had a university education.
  3. Make sure that unrepresented parties understand that they will be responsible for half of the cost of mediation, including the mediator’s fees and any fees for renting space. If a lawyer on the other side offers to hold the mediator in his or her office to save on costs, make sure that the unrepresented party is comfortable with this.
  4. I explain to unrepresented parties before the mediation that we will probably start off with a joint session and later move to separate rooms, and that I will be going between the rooms. Therefore they might end up spending a lot of time alone, and if they want, it is OK to bring a friend or support person.
  5. Unrepresented parties often see the mediation session as a hurdle to jump over so that they can get in front of a judge. One of the mediator’s challenges is to get them to take the process seriously and as a real chance to resolve their dispute.
  6. Some lawyers, facing an unrepresented party on the other side of the table, go out of their way to be patient and respectful. Others, unfortunately, will struggle to work with someone who lacks expert knowledge. If you find a lawyer cannot hide her irritation and impatience towards an unrepresented party, take her aside and give her an opportunity to vent. Then make it clear that you expect a professional demeanor.
  7. It can also help to contextualize a lawyer’s behaviour. I have found many parties in mediation, whether they have their own lawyer or not, become convinced that the other party’s lawyer “doesn’t like them” and this is why the case won’t settle. I try to help parties understand that the lawyer’s job is to advocate forcefully for his or her client. The lawyer’s personal feelings rarely enter into it.

I have met mediators who refuse to work with unrepresented parties. No doubt, it is more challenging to convene a fair process when one party is at a strong disadvantage. Yet unrepresented parties are not going away. Mediators, like other parts of the legal system, must adapt to the challenge.

“Pillars of Justice” by Edwina Sandys. Photo by author.

Myth of the “toxic” Manager

At a recent presentation, someone asked me about “toxic” managers. You can see my response in this video.

Here’s what I didn’t have time to say:  I don’t like the term “toxic manager” or “toxic employee.” My work is all about helping people resolve their differences respectfully. Coming into a conflict with a mindset that one of the parties is “toxic” is simply not helpful.

More importantly, calling someone “toxic” puts the emphasis on individuals when the problem is usually organizational structure or culture. People in an organization are “toxic” only when they are allowed to be this way – when their behaviour is ignored, tolerated or (I hate to say this – but it can be true) encouraged.

So let’s stop calling people names and try instead to understand the underlying factors that contribute to disrespectful conduct.

(I say more about this in an old blog post on bullying.)

Condo Law Digest – October 2019

Lin v. Brookfield Homes (Ontario) Limited, 2019 ONCA 706
Decision Date: Sept 9, 2019

This appeal of a Superior Court decision hinges on what counts as a “material change” to a pre-construction condominium. Ms. Lin agreed to purchase a detached condominium unit from Brookfield Homes for about $1.6 million with a closing date in December 2017. Shortly before closing, Ms. Lin’s lawyer wrote to Brookfield advising that the planned parkette and entrance gates had not been constructed, and that in the event the intention was not to construct them, Ms. Lin would reserve the right to rescind the agreement and would seek return of her deposit (about $130,000). Brookfield’s lawyers replied that there would be no material changes to the condominium and that if Ms. Lin did not complete the transaction, Brookfield would terminate the agreement and keep Ms. Lin’s deposit.

Ms. Lin commenced a court application against Brookfield seeking return of her deposit. Brookfield counter-sued, seeking a declaration that Ms. Lin had breached the Agreement of Purchase and Sale, and seeking damages. (Brookflield sold the property in June 2018 for about $300,000 less than Ms. Lin had agreed to pay.) Justice Sachs found in favour of Brookfield and ordered a trial with regard to the quantum of damages over and above the forfeited deposit.

In this appeal, Ms. Lin claims that Justice Sachs erred by finding that the parkette and gates were “amenities” rather than essential features of the condominium. The appeal judges disagreed. They found that the parkette and gates were common elements of the condominium, and that in the Agreement Ms. Lin signed, it stated that failure to complete the common elements before the occupancy date would not be considered a failure to complete the unit.

Comment: According to the Toronto Real Estate Board, the average price of a detached home in Toronto hit its high point around the first quarter of 2017 (a few months after Ms. Lin purchased her unit), dropped sharply, and had levelled off by the third quarter of 2018 (when Brookfield sold the unit.)

About the image: New condo construction site in Toronto

Workplace Harassment v. Bullying

At a recent question-and-answer, someone asked me about the difference between workplace “harassment” and “bullying.”

“Harassment” is conduct that is bothersome or unwelcome. It can be one single, very bad incident or a number of smaller, less significant acts. Shouting at someone is harassment, as is name-calling, cracking jokes at their expense, and making sexually suggestive remarks.

“Bullying” is simply prolonged harassment.