A cure to the end of the year madness

Short days with scarce daylight followed by a short night after christmas functions, mails that need answering before the festive break and targets I still want to meet. It is a dangerous mix that adds up to a short temper and a mean tongue. 

Although I know: When in a hurry, there is all the more reason to take a break and reflect

The following poem may help you (as well as myself) to do so, especially in this lovely but hectic season.


When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice,
you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why
I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problems,
you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Perhaps that’s why prayer works for some people.

Because God is mute and he doesn’t offer advice or try to fix things.
He just listens and trusts you to work it out for yourself.

So please, just listen and hear me. And if you want to talk, wait a few minutes
for your turn and I promise I’ll listen to you.

Dr. Leo Buscaglia (1924-1998)


Conflict avoiding, me?

Do you know how you deal with tricky personal or professional situations?
This article will help conflict avoiding readers to be more honest ànd become more effective.

A couple of weeks ago I trained a creative company in Amsterdam. Together with the entire staff we discussed possible ways to deal with conflicts of interests. I was positively surprised when one of the founders of the company shared that although his ambition is to deal with conflicts constructively he realizes that he tends to dodge most problems.

Different conflict modes

To introduce the topic I use this conflict mode instrument (TKI):

tki conflict modes


The TKI instrument model displays five different conflict modes depending on how collaborative or competitive we are. And although everyone makes use of all five conflict modes we tend to lean towards one or maximum two of these modes. This is not a conscious choice but rather the result of how we have been taught (or mostly not taught) to deal with conflicts.

When being asked about your personal conflict mode most people – including myself – will give socially acceptable answers. And those people who just like myself admire assertiveness but have never learned to deal with conflicts are in denial about how conflict avoiding they really are.

Yet for anyone who is eager to learn how to deal with conflicts it is crucial to become aware of your instinctive way of dealing with them.

A short survey

Following is a short survey aimed at people who dodge every potentially difficult situation but who are not aware that they do so.

Read the following and assess whether you are one of them.

Do you in most cases tend to:

  1. Say ‘Yes’ or formally agree, but you really go your own way either way.
  2. Keep your mouth shut because you feel bringing up how you feel about it is not going to help anyone.
  3. Plan a meeting about anything that might be tricky and postpone taking a decision to a next meeting.
  4. Convince yourself that managing other people’s expectations is their problem not yours.
  5. Postpone a difficult conversation because you are really too busy right now to even think about it.
  6. Complain about problems to others who are indirectly involved secretly hoping that they will deal with it and solve your problem too.
  7. Tell people around you ‘Do let me know whenever something is bothering you’ when the truth is that you’d rather not know at all.

Do you recognize any of these ‘tactics’?

When to avoid and when not to avoid

Destructive avoiding

Very often we do not assess situations but are driven by – unacknowledged – fear or shame to avoid all difficulties and avoid without thinking. And in those case avoiding is often destructive.

Avoiding is ineffective and possibly even destructive whenever:

Your interests are at stake and are of great importance to you.

The interests of people who depend on you or are in some way important to you are at stake.

The interests at stake belong to people who you depend on.

In longlasting collaborations the above is almost always the case. So really avoiding dealing with conflicting interests within a collaboration is always ill advice. When your interests or your partners interests are not being met for a substantial time the collaboration will most certainly end or turn sour.

In real life people tend to reason the other way round and mostly non hierarchical organizations can turn really sour because too many people are turning a blind eye. In doing so tensions only grow bigger and problems will become even more threatening to the organization or company.

Effective avoiding

When you do take the time to assess the situation and you have consciously opted to avoid a person or situation you are probably doing the sensible thing.

In fact avoiding is an effective conflict mode whenever:

The stakes are not high at all.
The situation is very complex, the stakes are high and there is no time left to deal with them effectively.
There is a substantial power difference to your disadvantage and challenging the other party will only harm you.

Avoiding can also be strategic as a preliminary measure until all the facts are known to you or in the event of a heated debate to permit you to wait until the other person has cooled down and is ready to talk to you again.

When you know you should seek a confrontation but feel like hiding out

Help yourself seek a confrontation by answering the following questions:

What can you gain by speaking up?

What can people around you – directly or indirectly involved – gain if you decide to speak up?

What is the worst thing that can happen as a result of your decision to speak up?

You will know what to do now.

It might be very hard the first time but in time it will become much easier and in any case more effective!



Your best alternative

Many aspects of life are a negotiation in some form. To deal with these successfully it is crucial to consider your walk away alternative. Exploring your alternative allows you to consider how necessary it is for you to reach agreement. You might be positively surprised.

This week I spoke to clients of mine who had had their first successful meeting without me.

The first party I got a hold of sounded very relieved. She told me that for the first time during this mediation she could actually imagine reaching a sustainable solution to their problem.  When I asked her what had led to this breakthrough she said that it was her walk away alternative that had shed a new light.

In a series of individual talks I had explored the following with each one of them:

  • The most desirable outcome for their business aswell as their personal satisfaction.

  • Their best alternative to the situation at hand that did not include the other party.

By exploring their walk away alternative out loud each party had become aware of their own needs and interests. They had realised which of their interests were non negotiable to them. On the other hand they had also envisioned the opportunities that they would lose if they decided to brake off the negotiation.

This exercise had brought considerable insights aswell as a peace of mind that enabled them to finaly talk about needs and interests that may lead to joined solution.


A walk away alternative is also known as a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement): a concept developed at the Harvard Negotation Project. It is part of the techniques described by founders of the project, Roger Fisher en William Ury, in their bestseller Getting to yes to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

If the Harvard Negotiation Project has proven something it is that negotiation need not be a win-lose exercise.

Your alternative

You may be facing an important negotiation or a difficult conversation on a sensitive matter on which your interests are opposed to those of your partner. The odds are that both you and the other person are thinking of reasons and justifications for the demands. Surely non of that debate will bring you much closer.

What if you change strategies and explore your alternatives?

Let’s say you want a raise. Why not explore your options by discovering what other employers pay their employees. Make sure you look into the remuneration of employees who have the same amount of experience and expertise as you do and whose job subscription is comparable with yours.

Are you instead looking to buy a house or rent office space, then take the time to realise what it really is that you are looking for. Surely location, price and square meters are important criteria but what is truely important to you? Once you have figured that out, you should visit and negotiate more than one premise to avoid tunnelvision or power play.

Your needs and interests

At the same time consider your underlying needs and interests. In case of a negotiation about a raise you might want to wonder why you want that raise. What is it that you are hoping to get?

Could there be other needs at heart than pure financial ones? You may in fact be looking for recognition, or independence or status. What is it that really triggers you?

If you know that you can start thinking of options that fulfill those needs. And you can think of alternatives that meet your interests that do not involve the other party.

You may realise that a structural and significant raise is not the only option. A new title can help you gain status too and a different job subscription may help your career in the long run. If you have worked a lot of overtime you may decide to stop doing so after claiming a long holiday or a bonus compensating for the extra hours you have put in and gain more than you would have with a raise.

And it doesn’t stop there. Maybe a change in your private life may prove just as effective.

Taking the time to consider your real needs aswell as your best alternative without the other person will offer you a new perspective.

One that frees you from desperation and will lead to an actual solution.



”No offense, but..”

Insults are not always clear cut. In a boardroom or staff meeting insults may sound different because people claim to be professional. There is a way to tackle hidden powerstruggles though. One strategy is to be more aware of relational messages.

In the Netherlands and in Flanders a common way to open your arguments these days is by saying ‘Met alle respect, maar..‘ which means as much as:

– ‘With all due respect, but ..
– ‘If I may, I’ll point out to you that..
– ‘No offense, but..‘.
– ‘Surely you’ll allow me to say that..’

Met alle respect, maar..‘ became a much used expression in Dutch politics and on television and has also been embraced by the corporate world.

  • Your competitor may say: ‘No offense, but that new program you’re developing is ridiculously similar to what we launched last year.’
  • Your business associate calls you saying: ‘I read your e-mail concerning new business opportunities and – with all due respect – these ideas of yours are pretty naive and outdated.
  • A colleague blurts out to you: ‘Your clients seem to be getting more impatient by the day, and if I may point out, I’m really not surprised, seeing how you tackle their requests.

These people claim they respect you, but do they?

Not a sign of respect but an exercise of power

Since these expressions are used in such a contradictory way one starts to wonder why they’re being used at all.

Paul Watzlawick offers an explanation. He developed five axioms (regularities) on which all communication is based. His Second Axiom describes accurately what comments like ‘Met alle respect, maar‘ or ‘No offense but ..‘ really imply.

Axiom II

Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication. 


It boils down to the fact that all communication includes more information than purely the literal message. What it also contains is information on 1) how the speaker wants to be understood and 2) how he sees his relation to the receiver of information. This is the Relationship Message.

According to Watzlawick – and given my experience as a mediator I agree with him – relationship messages are always the most important element in communication.

So what is the relationship message when you start your phrase with ‘No offense but..‘? Its message is that the speaker does not wish to be contradicted (you ‘can not’ be offended) because he or she sees him or herself as the more significant party.

In other words it is a disguised form of power play.

How to address this particular form of disguised power play

Relational messages in the form of ‘civilised’ insults can really harm relationships if they are not addressed,

If a business associate, a client, a colleague or a supplier is putting you down with nasty comments starting with ‘No offense but..‘ it may seem difficult to tackle. To deal with these comments effectively you will have to address the relational message.

As a rule of thumb wait for three signs of power play. The first time the speaker may have explained himself badly, the second time you may have misinterpreted what you heard, but the third time it is high time to act on it.

These are examples of replies aimed at addressing the relational message:

  • Do you realise that that is in fact a nasty comment?
  • What are you implying?
  • Why do you feel you can say that to me?

Addressing the relational message opens up a dialogue about the core issue.

By replying with a question about the relational message you leave room for a dialogue. If the speaker was not conscious about insulting you or realises that in fact he or she is not in a position to criticise you, you are leaving room for the speaker to correct himself.

In any case, following one of these replies, the speaker will be educated about the fact that you do not agree that he or she holds any power over you. Also the speaker will have to back up the criticism.

It may seem like a lot of effort but in an ongoing collaboration these interventions are well worth the effort. Not tackling power play will cause miscommunications that escalate into conflicts. Addressing the relational issue will set a collaboration straight and rebost your energy levels!


How to use non-violent communication

A lot of conflicts arise, and are fueled, by the process of blame. None of it is effective. Non-violent communication is. Here you’ll read how to apply non-violent communication towards your business partners, colleagues or suppliers to obtain what you need and to reduce your frustrations aswell as theirs.


When the going gets tough we tend to blame who ever else is involved. It is as natural as it is human to place the cause of our worries and concerns outside of ourselves and blame others for it. And you can rest assured that the other person involved in turn will blame us.The result of this mechanism sadly is that the going gets even more tough.

Recently this mechanism imposed itself upon me on a personal level. I am in the process of renegotiating my mortgage with my bank. In the course of this negotiation my husband and I had a meeting planned with a financial adviser at our current bank. On the morning of the apointment I received an e-mail from the adviser informing me that due to an internal program all meetings with clients would be rescheduled, without offering a date or possible dates for a new meeting. Not a good start. Within minutes after reading this ‘notice’ my idle prejudice – that banks don’t serve the interests of entrepreneurs well – had reinforced itself.

In fact I felt so mistreated that I called my bank and insisted on a meeting that same day at the end of the day and would not accept ‘no’ as an answer. As a result my husband and I were received that same day by a pretty stressed out adviser. During the conversation neither she (the adviser) nor I managed to let go of our indignation. It was only at the end of the meeting that I realised that I was the losing party, since I was the one who wants a service from them and I had now let my frustrations undermine my position in the negotation,

I had done exactly the opposite of what I advise my clients as a facilitator of negotations and as a mediator. My natural instinct had taken over, for the worst.

The better approach: non-violent communication

Here is what does work when you are in a professional relationship with someone and you feel ill treated. You’ll have to stay away from moral judgement and you want to focus on your needs instead of fueling angry feelings and venting them.

To communicate your needs and make sure that they are heard, and possibly met, you best turn to non-violent communication. It was developed by Marshall Rosenberg and is based on these four principles:


That providers don’t serve your interests well is a much heard frustration amoung professionals and entrepreneurs. If your work/assignment/company is suffering from that behaviour you will unconsciously label both the behaviour as your provider as a person.

It is not only providers who lose sight of your interests sometimes, it may aswell concern your colleague, your business partner or your boss. As soon as you are caught up in frustration your assumptions and prejudices will fuel your anger.

You can wait until these mechnisms poison the collaboration or you can decide to communicate your needs to the other person in an effective way leading to actual change.

  1. Observation

Reproduce and share exactly and objectively what occurred.

In the event that your boss, colleague or business partner is only available when he or she needs something from you, your objective account of the matter may be as such:
Whenever I call you, I reach your voicemail. By the time you call me back you’ll be in your car or your partner/children/other colleagues …are with you.’

  1. Feeling

Explain how this comes across on your end.

‘’This makes me feel that you are not actually interested in what I have to say or what I may need from you.’’

  1. Need

Think of what it is you need and ask for it. ’I need to feel that this is a partnership that serves not only your interests but mine aswell.’

  1. Request

Think of a way in which the other person can meet your need. For instance: ‘Next time you call me back, can you do so from a place where you are alone and can focus on our conversation?’

By focusing on your need instead of blaming and  by calling on a concrete, positive action you are a real team player and you serve your business interests well.

In other words, focus on your needs and aim for progress instead of on being right.




The (mis)use of subtext

Subtext are cryptic comments. People in long-term relationships, such as long-term business partners, use it a lot. This is partially functional. Over the years they have learned about each others’ allergies and sensitivities and they know that certain matters should not be dealt with directly. It can harm relationships though.

Think of two founding partners of a legal office. One partner is at the office almost daily while the other partner, who lives at quite a stretch from the office, is gradually making less effort to travel there and instead works from home. When he does come into the office both partners do not discuss this, not wishing to revive the heated debates they had at the time when they decided on the location of the office. The partner who does live nearby and comes in every day is nevertheless frustrated that he has to manage the office by himself. At the end of one of these rare days when they have both been at the office the usually absent partner is about to leave and says: ”I’m off. I’ll keep in touch about when I’ll be here next”, to which his frustrated partner replies: ”Sure that’s fine. See you next month.”

This covert way of communicating is one way to ventilate your dissatisfaction. It is saying something without really saying it. That’s why subtext can also be given without using words. In fiction this is a technique known as ‘Showing, not telling’. Leaving an empty chair between you and the colleague who irritates you when attending the monday morning meeting is just as meaningful.

The risk of subtext is dual. To start with, the habit of using subtext can become so ingrained that you are no longer conscious about using it. The second risk is that issues that should be dealt with directly are so caught up in subtext that it feels impossible to actually have a conversation about them.

This is particularly clear while dealing with conflicts. In the business context I operate in, people will talk about everything except the real issue. And while it is often deniability on their part it is also true that people simply are not conscious of the real issue. As a mediator my first mission is to help conflicting parties get clarity on their issues and address them. That is a difficult but necessary task. Parties can not start thinking about a solution as long as there is no real clarity on the underlying issue.

That’s why one of my tools to get to the heart of a conflict is to pay close attention to subtext. The facial expression or body language of the person who is speaking or of the person who is being spoken to tells me that there is a hidden meaning to look out for. My intervention consists of asking clarity on the real meaning by asking:

What exactly do you mean?
Why did you chose to use that word?

If that doesn’t work I will have to confront them. I’ll explain that even though they are saying one thing I get the impression that they are really implying something else. Or I’ll say: you speak in a neutral manner, but I get the impression that you do not feel neutral. Could it be that you are in fact annoyed /frustrated/angry/furious/upset/distressed/…?

And then my question will be:

What is it that is really troubling you?

Confronting the person who spoke with the subtext of his words can make people acknowledge the underlying problem to each other and open up a conversation about it.

To heal, restore or reinforce any type of relationship confrontation is not only useful but necessary.

10 best practices

Are you caught up in a troubling situation or a tiresome collaboration? Not to worry, you can turn the tide. At least if you use the right de-escalation techniques. They needn’t be complicated. These 10 best practices will do the trick.

As soon as irritation kicks in we generaly react in one of these natural ways:

Beat back – this is precisely when a disagreement escalates into a conflict.
Give in – this might save the (business) relationship but in most cases it does not meet your interests.
End the collaboration – this should be a last resort as a breach alomost always has (financial) consequences.

Whatever automatic reaction you or I give in to, none of it serves our interests well.

Here are ten proven techniques to reduce friction and tension while keeping your eyes on your interests too.

  1. Avoid coalitions or choose them wisely.
    Coalitions enforce onesided opinions and will alienate you. Avoid the existing coalitions or make sure you build them across parties.
  2. Be clear about what to expect from eachother.
  3. Keep your head down until the storm is over.
    When someone is really angry, the worst strategy is to defend yourself. You’ll only pick a fight. If you manage to listen instead and even ask questions, the storm will blow over.
  4. Shine a light on dirty tricks.
    Someone you’re doing business with may pressure you by calling on non existing deadlines, using bluff or hidden agenda’s. If you realise that you are being manipulated, make clear that it has no effect on you. It will make the other person refrain from using these tricks with you in the future.
  5. Inform the other side about your position and about your interests.
    If you don’t, the collaboration can never be succesful.
  6. Explain intentions and resources.
    If everyone is clear on their intentions and their resources neither one of you will lose time and energy.
  7. Express whatever is working for you.
    It is important to be clear about things that are not working for you, but doing so will prove easier if you also compliment whenever you are pleased with certain services or outcomes.
  8. Bring the heat down.
    Whenever budgets are tight or time is limited and stakes are high people stop being effective. That goes for you aswell as for the other side. In these situations call on a coffee break whenever you can and make sure people actually leave the room for a couple of minutes. You can simply state that you need a break or you can say that you want to call someone on your end before making a decision. Equally effective is postponing an answer or e-mail until the next day.
  9. Recognise the position of the other person.
    Recognising that a situation is stressful, not only for you, but also for others involved, will earn you goodwill without giving in on your position.
  10. Speak your mind but always remain respectful. 
    Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip (W. Churchill).

These ten interventions are highly effective to reduce friction and restore difficult conversations or collaborations. In fact they all boil down to biting your tongue and doing what’s effective instead.

And since we are alle human and all have expectations, hopes, allergies and pride their effectivity is not limited to the business situation. So do feel free to try these at home.

Ring the alarm

An effective way to avoid the escalation of a conflict is to detect any problem in an early stage. It sounds fairly easy and yet many companies and organisations fail to do so. Does that sound familiar? The next examples may encourage you to immediately call on a problem next time one arises before your eyes.

What the Japanese can teach us

In 2008 Toyota reached a worlwide number one position in terms of carsales. Toyota managed to produce better and cheaper cars with the use of less resources. How is that possible? An important part of their strategy was to hang a bell on the production floor and encourage all employees to ring it as soon as they detected a problem. Once the bell was rung all production stopped until the problem was truely solved.

Toyota brought the world what is called lean manufacturing: here the focus is with the reduction of muda (work that adds no valua), muri  (overload) and mura (variation that leads to the waist of resources).

Toyota encouraged employees to challenge their workroutines. Also heads of units created the safety that is necessary for teammembers to speak up and share their concerns. Both elements resulted in impressive progress.

If you ask me Toyota’s success is due to the whole new outlook they have on permanent improvement through permanent feedback. It is the enhancement of communication that made teams speak up and had different units working together. In an company that is truely Lean, the opinions of all employees are valued. And management is as involved in change as the employees are. That come to that point leadership must be encouraging and not imposing and teams must have the freedom to work autonomously and share responsibilities. To make room for feedback to leading to the enhancement of services or production employees must feel they know why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Applications in Amsterdam and Deurne

Last week I held an expert session for the founders of start-ups at Rockstart Accelerator Programma in Amsterdam. This programs facilitates start-ups during an intensive period of 150 days. Time is ticking for the founders and so the changes and challenges during that time are huge and sometimes overwhelming. No wonder that for some of them the pressure causes fall outs between co-founders.

While speaking to them about the Toyota story (and trying vainly to scetch a bell on the flip over) the group reacted immediately. From the head nots and comments it was clear that the story about the difficulty of allowing problems to be detected and discussed in an effective way proves a problem for companies of all sizes.

At the end of the session one of the founders approached me saying that the Toyota story I had shared with them inspired him to organise weekly team meeting in which he will ask his team to share one of two concerns they have for themselves or the company. And to encourage them to actually do so he wanted to start by sharing his own concerns.

Later that afternoon I came across a blog on lean and healthcare and I read how a general practice in Deurne (Belgium) has two glass containers on the counter. One has white marbles that are thrown in everyime a patient compliments the practice or expresses gratitude and the second container hols orange marbles thrown in at every complaint received from patients. It proves to work as a stimulus for the practice to evaluate both compliments and complaints two weekly and to the patients the marbles symbolise the imprtance of patient centeredness to the pratice.

Detecting problems and resolving the issues

As a start try to think of ways in which your colleagues or team members can detect and express problems. But don’t forget that it is equally important to think of schemes on how to also solve the problems that arise (and get to the root of the problem). That takes extra fast decision making and room (read: time and money) for experiments. And it goes for big projects as much as it does for every day problem solving: it is crucial that management sets an example by getting involved and speaking up.

Do you want to facilitate your team but do you struggle to overcome reserves and resistance? Get in touch with me for advice of sign up for one of my workshops on conflictmanagement.

A new year free of cynism?

I’m not even close to a burn-out, I think.  And I’m not the kind of person who needs cynism or sarcasm to hide my anxiety either. But then again, isn’t that what everybody thinks? What are the odds?

Two days before New Year a media hype shook Belgium awake. Studies by WIV, research unit iVox and Servstudy made it clear that half of the working population may be facing a burn-out. Results that are in line with a study published by the EU last year announcing that by 2020 mental health issues will be the biggest cost on our health systems.

Workrelated stress and burn-out

The causes are: being crazy-busy and no clear distinction between work and privat life aswell as mounting financial pressure. Does it sound familiar?

To me it does. Having to answer calls at any time, a busy schedule and not much routine. It leads to multitasking which causes stress and weighs in on my productivity and overall satisfaction.

In my work as a mediator I’ve noticed how professionals struggle with a string of combined symptoms such as physical complaints, loss of joy, insecurity, panic attacks, trouble concentrating, anxiety and sleepless nights.

When I started researching these symptoms online it directed me to burn-out. Reading into it I discovered there are three major signs:

  1. Physical and mental exhaustion.
  2. Cynism: an emotional distance to work and colleagues.
  3. Low selfesteem.

The link between cynism, workrelated conflicts and burn-out 

It was mostly the cynism that struck me. I see it all the time. Professionals who seem to have checked out mentally and claim to no longer care. In my workshop on conflictmanagement I recently shared the experience i have with people who deny that they have a conflict (or stress for that matter) and use cynism to keep everyone at bay, aswell as fool themselves that they are in control and ok. I tell the participants in my workshop that it is in fact a signal for me that a situation has escalated or is about to escalate. After giving my very first workshop a female participant emailed me saying:

Looking back I am really happy to hear your vison on irony and sarcasm. In fact, I have used it extensively the last couple of years (a sense of humour can be the last ressort when life proves difficult) and I realise now that I’ve taken my reliance on it too far.

I had no idea that my cases and vision on the link between humour and mental state had struck a cord with her. I’m grateful that it helped her gain insight and change her life for the better because cynism doesn’t get you anywhere. It estranges you from your co-workers where in fact it is often a cry for help.

The American professor, author and TED-sensation Brené Brown calls ‘cynism, criticism, cool and cruelty’ a shield used to protect ourselves from vulnerability and shame that is widely spread in our corporate culture. She effectively explains that shutting out painful situations by using this shield leads us to lose the connection with ourself and with others. Apparently you can’t shut out the dark without shutting out the light aswell.

As President Obama pointed out in his speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service cynism really isn’t the way out:

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you. […]

There are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

Maybe it will help us if we realise that being crazy busy in rapid, changing times and not allowing feelings can lead to cynism and that cynism estranges you from yourself and from the people around you.


It is always better to prevent conflicts than to cure. And this goes for a burn-out too. So it may be a good start to answer these questions for yourself:

Do you use humour as a way to avoid speaking about feelings or difficult topics at work?
What have you done today to really relax and detach yourself from work that gave you a feeling of joy and energy?


How to turn a tiger into a vegetarian?

Threats, passive agression and emotional blackmailing aren’t always as clear cut as you’d expect it to be. And when you do realise that someone is playing dirty tricks on you, you may be puzzled what the most appropriate response is.

Here are some thoughts on how to turn a hungry tiger into a manageable cat.

A writer I know well contacted me concerning her latest book. The collaboration is not going well. After a first popular book the writer was paid to write a sequel around a new theme. For the new theme she contacted a specialist in the field to deliver content. And it’s this specialist who is causing trouble.

The specialist has missed a couple of deadlines allready which has cost my client time and energy. And now this specialist has demanded the writer to change the outlooks of one of the characters in the book. Given the fact that this book is a sequel, changing characters is not that simple. Persuaded by some strong arguments the writer is nevertheless convinced that giving in to this demand makes sense. The publisher, though, is not convinced and argues that the alteration will confuse readers.

My client is in the midst of all of this. As a writer she cares about the experience of her readers and reconsiders the alteration of the character. After notifying the specialist she receives an e-mail from him insisting that the alteration is ‘essential’ adding that the original character is ‘in conflict with his values and moral compass’. The specialist requests the writer to pressure the publisher into another point of view.

The writer knows that that won’t work and urges the specialist to let go. Instead she receives a following e-mail saying:

Collaborating on this book is my Life Work, for which reason I can not concede. If the alteration is not granted then I will be forced to withdraw from this project.

My advice to the writer as an expert on conflict resolution:

If you give in to it, this will not be the end.

The characters were known to the specialist long before collaborating on this project. Insisting on an alteration now is out of proportion and is intolerable in a professional context.

Had the writer and the specialist been in a meeting face to face and had he raised his voice or slammed his hand down on the table, or had he sent a written sommation from his lawyer after the meeting was over, the agression would have been clear cut. But don’t let the talk about values, integrity and life work be misleading. This too is a threat.

If the writer gives in, she is feeding the tiger more meat. Don’t fool yourself thinking that a hungry tiger will stop growling afterwards. The only way to stop the agression is to draw the line.

Confronting the specialist with his behaviour (missing out on deadlines, not being flexible and receding to threats) is the only thing that will help. It is even more powerful is the writer has this conversation face to face without the use of agression, strong words or personal insults. This way she draws the line and is changing the game.

It will be clear to the passive agressor that the writer is not sensible to threats and having de-escalated the situation, both will be able to get back to work.