Coaching for Nonprofit Leaders

Transform Conflict into Collaboration

Cockroach in a bookcase

I am on a book binge. I borrow one book after another from the Austin Public Library. Books about bias, behavioral economics, positive psychology, decision making, and coaching.

I like them so much that I order them from my favorite local bookstore so I can reread them whenever I want.

When I pick them up, I can’t help skimming through my new treasures. It takes minutes before I am ready to bike home. I spend the 4.3 miles thinking about the puzzle of how to fit them in my limited shelf space.

As soon as I open the glass doors of my bookcase, I see a cockroach scurry behind Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking. I quickly get my cockroach-catch-cup, slowly peel the books away, trap the cockroach, and take it outside. I trust it will thrive there as well as in here.

When I come back, I see some brown granules on the shelf. I wipe them off. Then I see some brown smears against the back of the bookcase. No problem, my soapy water does the trick.

Now I spot more droppings on the shelf below. Getting concerned I take the books off that shelf too. Then the books on the shelf above. Within minutes, all my books are sprawled around my room, on my bed, the table, the bench, stacked on a stool.

I stare at a bookcase fully contaminated by cockroach excrements.

It takes me the rest of my Saturday to clean up the mess. Not exactly my idea of resting and rejuvenating after a week of hard work. And certainly pretty far from the delight I had when I biked home from the bookshop.

But the worst part is the barrage of shame and self-criticism that comes along with the experience.

I had seen some of the evidence months before. I just didn’t want to spend the time cleaning the brown spot inside the glass door. I had seen a cockroach hide behind the bookcase in the previous weeks and didn’t think much of it. I could have explored these signals but I didn’t want to give up my other plans. I had more important commitments and the task of emptying the bookcase seemed overwhelming.

Instead, I ignore the small consistent clues and they turn into this big mess.

Maybe this is a metaphor for team dynamics?

Your colleague makes a remark that doesn’t land well. Since it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, you shrug your shoulders. Yet, you take it home and fret about it.

Or maybe your CEO offers criticism or raises her voice. You feel startled but don’t know how to share it without hurting the relationship. Instead, you start looking at job listings.

Or a team member comes to you with complaints about another member and you spend hours trying to get them to work together, taking time away from your core responsibilities. You take a deep breath, work harder, and hope for the best.

In Dutch we call those responses ‘little clothes for the bleeding’.

They work only to a certain extent.

Meanwhile, the incidents pile up. And over time the whole team gets bogged down with unresolved issues.

Maybe I can help you with that.

Like cleaning, it might be better to have small, regular sweep-ups that keep a fresh workplace, rather than a big yuck that brings everything to a halt. Maybe you need a mediator. Or someone who facilitates a dialogue. You might benefit from a webinar on self-care. Or perhaps coaching for a key manager who could use a boost of support so she is energized again to inspire her team.

Schedule a free discovery session to explore how working with me can help you keep communication open and clean.

Conflict can feel like balancing on a tight rope

One front foot. Pause, maybe 1-2 seconds. A second foot. Pause, 1-2 seconds. Maybe even three. A third foot, an even longer pause.

The tiny squirrel is now nine feet out on a narrow utility line, some 18 feet above the ground. He has to cross another 35 feet to get to the other side of the line into the tree that he wants to get to.

At that moment a mockingbird swoops in and squawks at him. God knows why. Twice he flies in at full-speed right at the baby squirrel. And the squirrel freezes at his feeble spot on the line.

My heart goes boom, boom, boom.

How I wish I could climb up and bring it back into safety. Instead, I am left on the ground 18 feet below hoping and preparing to catch it if it fell.

A few seconds into the freeze, the squirrel manages to turn around and get back into the tree where he came from. When he jumps into it, I think he’s safe and I continue my morning walk.

The event reminds me of what can happen with people in conflict when they don’t feel safe enough to move to the perspective of the other person.

Some freeze when they imagine what the other person might say about them. Scared that they will only hear how fundamentally flawed they are.

Others swoop in with a list of blame, evaluations, and ‘shoulds’ rather than share their more vulnerable feelings and needs, not trusting that they will be heard with compassion and empathy.

Neither one sees their conflict as an opportunity to improve collaboration. It is more a boxing match on a utility line than a chance to explore the values and norms, assumptions, and preferred strategies underlying their respective positions.

I hear many of my clients struggle with conflict these days, as their challenges increase with economic shocks, social changes, isolation, presidential elections, funding stress, and higher demands for their services.

That’s when a neutral facilitator can help. They create a brave space for each participant to share honestly. They model how to listen with empathy. They accept and work with the triggers that come up. And they support each participant to make requests.

As a result, the participants don’t only solve their problems, they actively find solutions to improve their collaboration.

I just finished a facilitated dialogue between two nonprofit team leaders. This is what they say after our third session:

“Last month was extremely hard to where I was taking it home and I was replaying conversations and it was stressful and almost to the point of me not wanting to work here anymore. So I feel like now we both can come in and do our jobs successfully since we both have huge responsibilities. We’re going through so much right now that in order for us to come in and be the best that we could be here, something had to give with the tension that was in the air. I’m really grateful for our time with Elly and I feel like we both can be more productive in our jobs through this process.”

“We’re both trying so hard and I think that is making the biggest difference. We’re both really committed to making it work. I have way more trust in him than I did before. I’m really hopeful and I feel good about where this is going.”

Contact me if you want to see how hiring me as a facilitator can help you.

1 Communication lesson from a kitty

He is skin and bones. He comes up to me meowing as only unhappy cats can do.

When I pet him, I can feel every rib. My heart breaks for his starvation and I feel almost nauseated with grief and upset.

When I look at the porch where I’ve seen him before, I see that the cat bed is gone. Two new cars are parked on the driveway.

I imagine that the people who took care of the kitty moved out and didn’t take the cat with them. The new owners don’t care or haven’t noticed the kitty yet.

I run home, jump on my bike, and buy cat food. In my head, I make a list of everyone who might want to adopt the kitty. My neighbors with their 4- and 2-year old girls. My best friend who already has two cats. Us as a block. The shelter. Post it on the neighborhood app.

When I come back, the kitty is gone. I do see a neighbor unpacking her car with groceries.

“Have you seen the red kitty?”

“Yes. He is ours.”

“Oh… I thought he was abandoned. He came up to me meowing and looked so thin.”

“He likes to wander around and loves being petted. He showed up at our doorstep eight years ago, when he was probably five years old. We feed him every day, but no matter how much we give him, he loses weight. We took him to the vet and had all kinds of tests run on him. We think he is moving to the end of his life.”

“Ah, I feel relieved he’s taken care of. I guess I can return the cat food then.”

“You’re so kind. Yes, you can. We’re watching him day and night.”

I feel relieved to see my understanding was incomplete. The meowing that I took as a request for help was just a bid for connection. A good old-fashioned cat strategy to be petted.


With people, we might miss bids for emotional connection. Especially if we are triggered by how they express their “tragic expression of unmet needs”. 
Rather than seeing the beautiful, precious, universal needs in those bids, we hear blaming, shaming, and complaining. We lose our excitement to connect to them and don’t want to do anything like the human equivalent of petting a kitty.

Instead, we turn away or turn against. We react with stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, or contempt. What John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is the fastest route to conflict crashing beyond repair.

Trust me, I’ve been there. I learned my lesson the hard way. After my share of failed attempts to repair challenging interactions, I got up to speed with books and videos of inspiring teachers. I experimented with new behavior and gained insights about conflict resolution.

So I developed an online mini-training, “The 5 Secrets to Resolving Conflict that Hardly Anyone Uses”, in which you can learn to respond more constructively to tragic expressions of unmet needs.

You will learn how to prevent turning away or against angry bids for connection. Without being overrun by those horsemen.

Is that something for you?

Then
 sign-up here.

In 10 days you get 5 emails with simple steps to resolve conflicts that hardly anyone uses. For free.

Enjoy more purring kitties around you!