A simple way to tame conflict

"For crying out loud, why aren't they looking this way?" Ian waved the bright orange pool noodle over his head in frustration. "I don't know", I sighed. "Blow your whistle again."

Four of us were on a canoe trip up island. All the campsites were unexpectedly full and we were worried about finding a place to stay for the night. As we paddled past one site, we noticed a little spot off to the side. After checking it out, we decided it would do in a pinch - definitely better than bushwhacking. But there were still a couple of sites further up the lake and we didn't know if they were occupied or not. Recognizing there were more canoes coming behind us, we had to make a decision quickly.

Ian and I volunteered to race ahead in my canoe to check the far sites, while the others would hold the little spot we'd found. After 15 minutes of hard paddling, he and I found a spectacular, empty site around a corner on the lake. We quickly set up a tarp to claim it, then headed back to the others. But it seemed silly to paddle all the way to them to share the news, then have to paddle back again to the new site.

So we went just a little way to a place where we could see them and they could see us. We figured if they spotted us signalling and not heading towards them, they'd deduce that we'd found a site and would paddle to us.

We were wrong.

They assumed we would paddle all the way back to them regardless. So they were just hanging out, talking to other campers, exploring the beach. Meanwhile, we got more and more frustrated at being ignored. And our inner voices started to tell stories. "Don't they know how hard we paddled to go find that other site? And now they're not even paying attention? They don't appreciate us at all." "Look at them just sitting on the beach while we do all the work. They're just slackers." "They're experienced paddlers. They should know better and be watching our every move."

After about 5 minutes of waving, shouting and whistling, we finally got their attention and they came to meet us. As they approached, Ian joked, "Don't you know that waving an orange pool noodle is the international signal to come here?"

Fortunately, instead of hanging onto our negative stories and holding grudges, we all recognized that we should have talked more about how to proceed, and turned the incident into a running joke for the weekend.

Misunderstandings like this happen all the time, in life and at work. Depending on the people, culture and situation, they can turn ugly fast, creating conflict that festers and fuels much bigger problems in the future. We find ourselves blaming and shaming others, piling this latest affront onto a heap of imagined wrongs we've suffered.

How can we avoid the blame and shame game to keep our relationships positive and supportive? To tame potential conflict, I like to name and reframe it.

Name it. Acknowledge what happened, that it was unintentional, and that both parties (likely) had a part to play.

Reframe it. Turn it into a learning opportunity. Invest two minutes to unpack the situation and talk about how you could collectively avoid having something like that happen again.

Is this common sense? Absolutely. Is it common practice? Most definitely not.

Why? It takes courage and vulnerability to admit that we made a mistake or could have done better. It also takes courage to tell someone that we value our relationship with them so much that we want to invest time and energy in keeping it strong.

Pretty much every problem my clients struggle with can be traced back to a gap in communication skills. While much of what we need to do better isn't rocket science, it does take a commitment on our part to do the work.

What communication challenges are holding you back? What's helping you move through them? Let me know - I'd love to share your insights!