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Denying emotions keeps us in conflict…but emotions are the ecosystem where healing happens

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

I’ve been reading and learning a lot about conflict these last few months, and it’s like lights have been turned on in the dark places of my brain. I have felt both challenged and energized by the content and see a lot of possibilities for applying this learning in my work as a housing operator. I’m excited. This blog is riffing off of content created by Credence & Co. consulting, and class materials from the Conflict Management and Mediation courses I’ve been taking. I hope to regularly bring back some of my learning and ideas to this online community, in hopes that it might light up a few areas in your work and practice.

Being able to identify difficult feelings/emotions is an important part of ‘doing the work’, and it takes practice. It’s been said that when meeting with someone about something difficult, or mediating a conflict, the conversation will ONLY go as well as our interior condition is. If you deny what’s going on for you, you are unable to assess your interior condition. And it’s not just about having all the facts or logical arguments figured out. It’s about tapping into what is going on for us in the moment and then identifying any emotions that we’ve attached to the situation. Are there specific actions or words that have hooked us into a difficult emotion?

Whether it’s when I have a conversation that has left me feeling frustrated or a tenant or staff person sends me an email that had ‘tone’ which was difficult to read – unacknowledged emotion can hurt me over time in three ways:

  1. At the time – original discomfort (e.g., reading the email the first time)

  2. For a time – ongoing pain that can take a hold of my thoughts – like a spin cycle!

  3. In future times – recurring pain that can impact future emails and interactions

Oof. Isn’t that rough?!?

When I’m holding strong emotions without realizing it – meetings with colleagues or tenants can often go sideways, and resolving or transforming the conflict becomes less possible. It impacts my present thoughts and my future relationships. So what can we do about it? I’m switching to the royal ‘we’ here and going forward. (Truth be told – I’m FEELING a little too exposed:)

The first step is to figure out what we’re feeling and own it. Feelings are information – not facts. Acknowledge and get curious about our feelings, explore and write about them, talk to a trusted friend about them. All big things come from small beginnings, so if we’re unsure of the big feeling… try to get particular about the small feelings or make observations that lead us to that big feeling.

It’s not by accident that people avoid conflict or avoid doing trust-building work. Identifying difficult feelings and talking about them with others takes practice. And as I’ve written before – this practice it’s iterative and non-linear, and it can get complicated.

When I first started to drive, my hands were on the wheel at 10 & 2 all the time. I did extra shoulder checks and made sure the radio was off so I wouldn’t get distracted. It felt like a lot of work to drive a short distance because it WAS a lot of work. My brain was grinding it all out, and I remember feeling exhausted afterwards. But over time, driving began to feel less stressful – less like work and more natural. Talking about difficult feelings or supporting the transformation of conflict takes practice. It takes time, and you won’t have to hold tight to “10 & 2” forever. That is to say – it becomes less awkward.

So is it worth it? Is it worth all the hard work? I think so. I’m actually quite certain that it is worth it. Check out this conflict continuum below:

In his book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, Patrick Lencioni, suggests that 80% of workspaces live in the place of artificial harmony and that this place can lead to serious negative consequences.

When people believe they have to be inauthentic to get along at all costs and act like everything is OK, they avoid dealing with misunderstandings. It may work for a while if the misunderstandings are small. But those same misunderstandings can develop into serious problems. Unaddressed, conflict grows, and in some cases can develop into mean personal attacks. At first, those personal jabs or attacks might happen privately around a lunch table with a few close colleagues, but it won’t take long for those personal attacks to make their way into the larger public area – at a staff meeting, a town hall, or social gathering amongst neighbours.

This is incredibly toxic and harmful for everyone.

When we work hard to co-create communities of care – where tenants and staff can flourish and feel free to be themselves – we need to be reminded to own our emotions and not deny them. Rather, when we acknowledge them, get curious, and begin to address them, we can be in a place of healing and hope.

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