Critical Questions for Perspective Taking in Conflict Coaching – Part 1
Today, I would like to discuss asking critical questions of yourself as a conflict coach and asking the same questions of your client. In Jennifer Brown’s (2019) book, How to be an inclusive leader: Your role in creating cultures of belonging where everyone can thrive, she lays out some questions leaders can ask in groups, pairs, or individually to get a better understanding of a person’s background. I have applied those questions to the conflict coaching situation so that the coach can have a better understanding their own perspectives and backgrounds and to better understand the client’s worldviews that are often obscured from public view.
Here are some of the questions with some of my own that could be used in the preliminary meeting between the coach and the client, as the sessions progress, or after the sessions have ended and there is some follow up. What I will do is lay out how it would assist the conflict coach in asking the questions to themselves and then discuss what it could do for the client. I will add additional questions and statements for discussion in future posts.
What was your life like growing up?
For the conflict coach: Often, as conflict coaches (and mediators, for that matter), we have little understanding of what it is like growing up without privilege of some kind so it is important to ask ourselves what our lives were like as we matured from children to youth to adults. This self-questioning assists us in remembering our own upbringings and, germane to the reason the client is there, how much conflict was in our lives and how the conflict was dealt with throughout our formative years. To be clear, not experiencing hardships while growing up does not mean that we cannot understand what others felt like but being able to approximate their perspective could help immensely in the conflict coaching sessions. I also hasten to add that if the client reveals clear trauma in answering the question, if the conflict coach has no experience or expertise in trauma, the client should be referred to someone who can help. In truth, many conflict coaches have training in trauma but it is always best to leave it to experts.
For me, I grew up in poverty for most of my teenage years but I did not really understand that we were living at or below the national poverty line. My parents ensured that we had food and clothing when we needed them but I always understood that we struggled for rent so there would not be a great deal of extras in my life. My life was full of conflict as my father was an alcoholic and could get verbally and physically abusive. Having this background helps me immensely in working through the client’s conflict.
For the client: Many times, the client has never been asked about their lives prior to the conflict or conflicts that brought them to the coach so providing the opportunity to say more about their pre-conflict lives could open up a great deal more with which the coach can work. As conflict coaches, we tend to stick to the ABCs: what was going on before the present conflict occurred (antecedent), what happened with the conflict (behaviour), and what was the fallout from the conflict (consequences). This question allows much more detail to be shared and might be the first time that the client has been asked to say something about their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood experiences. For instance, in answering the question, the client might reveal that they grew up in a household rife with conflict and they learned it was best to avoid or be averse towards conflict. They could also share some of the negative or positive experiences that they had growing up that become a starting or jumping-off point for the conflict coach in their subsequent sessions and could be brought back to unpack later in the sessions.
What hardship (if any), not shared by some of your peers, did you experience in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood?
For the conflict coach: The conflict coach should reflect on their experiences with hardship as it can be a good pathway for empathy in coaching the client through conflict. If the coach, for instance, had to deal with bullying or persecution in adolescence, they can relate to their clients who have experienced bullying or persecution in the upbringings. The important point for coach and client is that the hardship was not experienced by some or all of their peers so it means that they would have had fewer people with whom to share their experiences given how strong our attachment is to our social circles. That level of perspective-taking would assist the conflict coach in sorting through some of the issues that might have led to the client coming to the coaching sessions.
For me, most-memorable hardship seems trivial now but was very significant to me. I decided, as a White male in the late-1970s in a small town, to get my ear pierced. I believed that it would be cool and trendsetting but mainly did it because I wanted to be different. The bullying and teasing were relentless and I got in many altercations at the time as I was the only male in a school of 800 students who had a pierced ear. I reflect on that experience a great deal because I stuck to my principles and did not take the easy way out and remove it so my resiliency floats to the top for me but I also use it when I want to coach someone who is in conflict because they are trying to be different from the pack.
For the client: Asking the client to reflect on a hardship or hardships that they experienced in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood becomes a consciousness-raising experience on which they can draw to form resilience in their conflict lives. To be sure, a hardship is a conflict—internal or external—so having them relay their memories of hardships opens a door to discussing how they dealt with conflict then and how they deal with it now. As they reflect on what the hardship was and how they got through it, they begin to see the conflicts can be overcome and there are effective and ineffective ways to deal with conflict. Together, client and coach can unpack some those strategies based on what the client shares about their hardship.
What is an example of feeling the sting of exclusion in your life?
For the conflict coach: For the coach, the definitive word in this question is the “sting” of exclusion as it is important that they remember how much it hurt to be excluded in their personal and professional lives. It is also imperative that the coach think through how they navigated through the feelings that they had based on that exclusion. The beauty of this self-reflection is that almost everyone has felt the sting of exclusion whether it was being picked last for teams in school or in the office or not receiving an email to attend a meeting when every person in the department was invited to not being asked to go on a family walk with the dog and the children. Keeping that feeling at the forefront and remembering how they navigated through the exclusions will make a coach better at their job.
For me, I remember what it felt like to be excluded from an interview when I was just as qualified as all of the other candidates who were interviewed and I still feel that sting over a decade later. At the time, I was angry, cheated, disappointed, and betrayed but, as weeks went by, I managed to come to the conclusion that the candidate who received the offer for employment would do a better job and my taking the job would have meant uprooting my family to move to another location.
For the client: Many conflicts involve the client being excluded in some manner at some point in their lives (usually professionally) so having them reflect on a clear example from their lives illuminates their feelings and how they felt at the time. How that sting felt to them is worth pursuing in the coaching sessions, to be sure, but it is also important that the client gets into the actual feelings they had at the time and to “name it to tame it” in that they want to use descriptive words in their relaying of what that sting felts like (i.e., “hurt” versus “devastated”). In this manner, the client can be armed with insightful words to describe how they feel so that they can be re-explored in present conflicts.
Critical reflection and critical self-reflection are key components to conflict coach. Both the coach and the client need to think back on what their experiences were like with conflict as they matured into adulthood. For the coach, understanding another’s perspective and digging deeper into a client’s background experiences will enhance and enrich the conflict coaching situation. For the client, understanding that the conflict coach has a genuine interest and deep curiosity into their life before the coaching allows them to trust the conflict coach much more easily than if the coach does not attempt to dig into the background for fear of prying. These questions and statements are a good starting point for finding out about yourself and your client and might never have been asked of both parties.
Next week, I will present some more questions and statements to be explored by the conflict coach and the client.
Brown, J. (2019). How to be an inclusive leader: Your role in creating cultures of belonging where everyone can thrive. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.