After the Webinar: Turning Conflict into Conversation. Q&A with Dr. Kimberly Miller

Webinar presenter Dr. Kimberly Miller answered a number of your questions after her presentation, Turning Conflict into Conversation. Here are just a few of her responses.


Audience Question:  I appreciate that we have to have perspective in conflict. But aren’t there just some things that are objectively bad? Which, raises a valid question. Are some things just simply not negotiable? 

Dr. Kimberly Miller: Well, certainly, like I think murder and violence against people. Of course, it is objectively bad. Of course, we need to have consequences and all of that kind of stuff. And I’m not trying to suggest that everything is good. What I mean by that is we often put people in boxes of good or bad. And that’s how our brain usually categorizes people. Maybe you have some people in a ‘meh, I don’t know’ box, but most of us the people is good or bad. Now, I will say that I think the behaviors and choices humans make are certainly good or bad. But we often don’t understand what leads people to bad choices or bad behaviors, and we just write somebody off as bad. Again, we’re all a product of our experiences. And there’s probably not one of us on this webinar that hasn’t been bad to somebody else. Maybe we have to receive some consequence, whether personally or professionally for a choice or behavior. And my point is about that to say, yes, there are absolutely bad things in the world and murders an example of that. But, why do people murder? Why can’t people who murder find a different way to navigate their emotions? Like that’s a bigger question.  I’m not here to answer that. But if we all did conflict better, people wouldn’t need to do violence on other people. We wouldn’t have to kill people, rape people, beat people, violate people. We don’t have to do any of that. All of those kinds of things are emotional reactions, emotional decisions. Yes, that have horrible consequences that are bad. But the part I was trying to get at is we judge people as being bad and we don’t understand the reason for the behavior. I am not saying that our job is to understand murderers and work through conflict with a murderer. But I’m talking about in our personal life, how often do we put somebody in the bad box and go there just a bad human. But we’ve never tried to understand them. We’ve never tried to get perspective on that. And so that’s more of what I meant by that. Not that they’re not bad things in the world. But when I had given the example of the promotional process, that’s another example: Is getting promoted, necessarily a gift. I don’t know, I know plenty of people who are promoted who wish they weren’t, because they hate it at the next level. Also, people who didn’t get promoted, who were horribly depressed and angry for decades, and there are other people who don’t get promoted and say, you know what, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m going to move forward and work to get better or leave or find another job or whatever. And so, I guess yes you can argue that there are bad things in the world. But so much of that, I think is our mindset about it. What I am saying is, what’s your view on what happens to you in your life? What’s your view on other people? I really like to look at people who challenge me as giving me a chance to grow. And this friend I have, it’s a great example of that. The old me would have gotten horribly angry and held a grudge forever. I don’t know why they’re not responding. I can assume it’s bad. Maybe they have some going on with their family right now. And maybe that’s why they’re not responding. I don’t know. I’ll have a conversation with when I see them again. The fact is, they’re not responding. I can either get really angry about it or say, you know what, I’m going to figure out a way to move on. If they are just really being disrespectful, I won’t interact with them again. But I don’t know. I try to offer people grace, and so I don’t know if that answered Mary, if that answers your question, if not, please, you can reach out to me. But what I meant by that is more of how do you look at things? How do you approach things? Can you find a gift or a lesson in something that happens instead of letting it eat you alive and assuming it’s all horrible and terrible?


Audience Question:  You mentioned something during your presentation, and just now again, about how people feel hurt or undervalued, in this marketplace today, they could very well go simply leave and find another organization to work for. And that’s a really good point because one of the reasons – one of the things that we’re talking about next year is this notion of managing and finding people and keeping good people on our team. Is navigating conflict in a more productive way, is that almost becoming an organizational and managerial imperative because most of our agencies are pretty understaffed?

Dr. Kimberly Miller: Yeah, I would say it is. In my experience it’s an under-practiced skill, because I will tell you, the number one complaint I hear from all kinds of justice organizations I work with around the country is conflict and accountability. People will tell me all the time, people here don’t do conflict. We don’t hold people accountable. People get away with being jerks or not doing their job or we have a bad culture, or whatever it is. And a colleague of mine, a very, very competent colleague of mine, recently quit an organization she had worked with for 20 something years because she was not valued and appreciated. And now she went on to a bigger and better job. And I’ve been talking to her for a while about her experiences, which had been very bad and she was feeling very hurt or taken care of. And she was not in a good emotional state. And I told her, I said, you know, this can all be a gift, the universe could be conspiring for your success. And then she got this other job offer from a headhunter. And she took it and she got a 50% raise. And again, she could have let all that eat her alive and just be a victim of circumstance and say, well, they just don’t appreciate me and life will suck forever. Or she could have jumped and taken advantage of the opportunity, and she did. And this one organization lost a great employee because they weren’t willing to work on their own stuff. They weren’t willing to deal with conflict. They weren’t willing to self-reflect and look at how they were treating her and she left. And that happens all the time.


Audience Question:  Even in the example that you just use a few minutes ago, where you were talking about the person who goes up for promotion, they don’t get the promotion, and they let it eat them alive for years, you would have been more productive if a manager had been able to take that person and say ‘Hey, you didn’t get the promotion this time. Here’s what you need to work on.

Dr. Kimberly Miller: Right. Address it proactively, instead of letting that situation have a great employee, get back in a big hurry. And that gets at that piece of identity what is not getting promoted, say about you? We never talked to people about that. We go, ‘why are you so mad? You didn’t get promoted? There are 15 other people who didn’t get promoted, why are you so angry?’ And then people get on just pissed and they won’t tell you. But if you say it differently and say, ‘What is not getting promoted say about you, tell me about that story’. And then you can figure that out. And then you have a conversation with them about that. And then you help them. Learn what to do better, different or whatever. Now it’s an opportunity. But we don’t have those conversations, honestly and we let people get stuck in bad places, and we blame them and we don’t understand them. And I hear way too many people about promotional processes say they don’t get any feedback or just feedback that is ‘Oh, man, it’s not your time’. That’s just not helpful.


Audience Question: Do you find it helpful if everyone in the organization has this the same type of training and philosophy that you’re talking about today? And that everyone is trying to practice it or use it? Can the organization still grow and prosper and become better if even only a few people are using the philosophy that you’re discussing? 

Dr. Kimberly Miller: So this is magic wand versus reality. Yes, ideally, everybody has the same training and everyone practices. That is the ideal,  magic wand that I would want for all organizations and all families. Yes, that’s the best. However, we cannot control any other human. And you have now had the class. So you go practice. And we talked about influence before, right? We can’t control our people, we can influence them. So one of the best things you can do: find someone else who wants to practice this. Find someone else, whether it’s in your family or in your organization appear that you have a good relationship with. Teach them what you learned today. Or ideally, if you’re a Justice Clearinghouse member, have them watch the webinar. And then y’all practice together. Because here’s what happens, this is how the snowball effect happens with influence. When a couple of` people or even one team starts doing something better and it works, other people want in on it. So the best thing you can do is practice with one other person or do it with one other human and then reap the benefits start talking, “Oh that felt good. I know we worked through the conflict. Even if you fight less, “Hey, me and Susie are fighting less these days.” That’s pretty sweet. That might seem crazy. That works. Because people want in on good stuff. So the best thing you can do you practice find at least one other person to practice with. And don’t wait again for conflict to practice this. Start working through your emotions on a daily basis. Start thinking about your needs on a daily basis. Start talking about identity on a daily basis. Start using these curious questions. Because when it becomes a habit that you practice these communication and conflict skills outside of a conflict. Guess what, next time you get in a conflict, you have a habit you can pull from it’s going to go better.

Christina McCale (host): Well, and as you were just saying, if you start it before it becomes a conflict if you started when it’s still little stuff, it won’t be a big thing later.


Audience Question:  How do you tell somebody or acknowledge that somebody seems angry without making them more angry? Isn’t that just kind of like stoking the fire and throwing some gasoline on an already volatile situation? 

Dr. Kimberly Miller: People are afraid to say to someone ‘aren’t you angry or hurt or whatever,’ because they fear a response that has more intense emotions.  But wouldn’t you rather know if it’s anger or hurt? Or disappointment or fear? It tells you so much to know what it is. And again, you don’t have to catch it. You got to have good self-care and boundaries. Just because they’re angry doesn’t mean you need to be angry. So when you say ‘Wow, it seems like you’re angry’. ‘Yes, I am!!!’.


Audience Question: And don’t say that these emotions sometimes initially read very similarly when you’re trying to observe them and other people.

Dr. Kimberly Miller: Yes, and that’s why we say ask, because if you experience anger and don’t ask, you might miss that it is hurt. Anger is always a surface emotion, there is always something deeper, but we rarely ask or explore what is underneath. In general, people are less likely to want to talk about, like hurt, fear, etc. But if you say, seems like you’re angry, do I have that right? Yes, I am. Okay. Then if you ask what’s the anger about and they say, well, you didn’t consider me, you can then ask them to tell you what that is about.  “Well, you asked everybody else what they saw you and ask me. And I know I was on vacation for two weeks, but you didn’t even ask me.” “Okay, I can totally see that. And I didn’t know before you left on vacation, we were going to have this come up in the organization. So what would you like me to do in the future when you’re on a two-week vacation and something happens when you’re gone, and my boss told me I need an answer in seven days. What does that look like? Do I call you on your cell phone? Because I really value your personal time. So how could I do that differently?” And that’s just an example, right? But it’s having those curious questions and saying, Tell me what that looks like. Help me understand why you feel that. Tell me what the anger’s about. Tell me why you feel hurt. Because another thing that I see people being afraid of or not enjoying, and that can be a lot of reactions is people’s crying, tears, tears freak people out. And people want to shut down. And I’m not saying let an employee fall on the floor in a crying fit in your office. But don’t try to fix the tears, try to understand the tears. Right? Say, ‘Okay, do you need a few minutes to pull yourself together?  Let’s take a 10-minute break’. You don’t have to sit there with them when they cry for 15 minutes, but you can say either let them take a break, get themselves together. Or you can say, “Help me understand what the tears are about. Why is this so hurtful to you?” Again, go to the identity. “What is this conversation saying about you? What are you telling yourself about this conversation?” “Well, I’m the worst employee on the planet.” “Oh, well, now you know what the tears are about. If you’re telling yourself the story, you’re the worst employee on the planet that’s going to hurt.” So the challenge is to help them reframe that. And I would say, just as an example, “So why does difficult feedback lead you to feel so hurt? Like, I get that it hurts, right? It doesn’t feel good. But why are you telling yourself the story that you’re a horrible employee when I’ve said multiple times this is to make you better?” Like how can we get you to a better story? What do we need to do? And then usually when you get into stuff like that, the tears will change, you can figure out more of what they need. So I would never be afraid and maybe it’s my training as a therapist, right? To ask people about their emotions. But I’m never afraid to ask people, because yes, they might escalate temporarily but they’ll also tell you if you’ve got the emotion wrong. Right? There are many times I’ve asked people are you angry? I’m not angry. I’m disappointed. Oh, wow. Okay, then that’s different. So I think it’s, I would always ask, and remember if they escalate that’s not about you. That’s about them. You don’t have to catch it.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Turning Conflict into Conversation.  


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