Skin in the Game

By Mary Conger, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania; Founder, The American Dialogue Project
Chair, IOA Communications Committee

Last week, I went to see my doctor. In the course of discussing my minor malady she briefly mentioned an experience she’d had as a patient herself. It was a casual, entirely appropriate remark. She didn’t “overshare” or project her experience onto me. Her anecdote took all of 10 seconds to relay, but it has stayed with me for days.

I like my doctor. She is knowledgeable, experienced, well-regarded. Her academic pedigree is top-notch and her online reviews uniformly superb. Her wry but warm bedside manner is exactly my speed. If you had asked me two weeks ago, “How’s your doctor?” I would have answered, “She’s perfect!”

But this week, I find her even perfect-er. In conveying that she knew what it felt like to be vulnerable and under another’s care, she created a deeper trust between us. That is the incredible power of evinced empathy—it closes gaps that you didn’t even know were there.

This experience has me thinking about how important it is, as a professional, to remain in touch with what it feels like to be on the other side of the desk.

Folks often quip that, for people who deal with conflict every day, ombuds are remarkably conflict averse. We are expert at diffusing, reframing, self-regulating; our conflict toolkits are well-stocked. “What I hear you saying…” and “tell me more about…” we intone to our colleagues, our children, our boss, our partner. STOP OMBUDSING ME! they may scream in response, silently or aloud.

All of our conflict engagement knowledge, experience, and esteem are excellent when we’re helping others in a professional capacity, of course. But we may be missing out as individuals and as a professional body when we wield those tools to keep our own conflicts at bay.

Operating in Ombuds Mode seems especially prevalent in the “public square” of interactions with other ombuds. Our natural tendency to keep the temperature of conflict low may be exacerbated by an internalized interpretation of “neutrality” as remaining at a remove from conflict, gears unengaged, thermostat set somewhere between ecru and taupe. I suspect we may (consciously or unconsciously) fear that our credibility as ombuds will be impugned if we aren’t perceived by colleagues as calm and collected at all times. An extraordinarily tight job market likely intensifies this chilling effect.

Ombuds err on the side of caution for many good reasons. But what do we cool cucumbers miss out on when we hold our tongues, other than the catharsis of speaking our minds? Adam Grant recently wrote in the New York Times, “The skill to get hot without getting mad — to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal — is critical in life.” The Wharton professor cites research showing that tense, heated argument can fuel creativity and progress. This is reminiscent of Tuckman’s (1965) second stage of team development, storming, in which a group experiences conflict over goals, power, personalities, etc. While not all groups go through this stage, and some that do never progress past it, teams that engage a storming phase well are more versatile, more effective, and more comfortable sharing their opinions openly because they feel free from judgment (Wikipedia). There’s an important lesson in here for ombuds associations.

Wonky research aside, it seems like good sense to stay in touch with the adrenaline, anxiety, and confusion of conflict—to feel all the feels, as the kids say these days. This is what animates conflict, after all, and the better we understand this energy, the better we can channel it productively.

It also helps us evince empathy, though, and not just for the circumstances our visitors describe but for the lived experience they share with us. No one needs an ombuds with a hair-trigger temper, to be sure. No one wants an ombuds who is unkind, indiscreet, who exercises poor judgment in their professional or personal life. But we shouldn’t prize an ombuds who is aloof either, one out of touch with the real discomfort that conflict can cause. Personally, I prefer a chef who likes to eat and an anesthesiologist who feels pain.

So think about it: When is the last time you found yourself—let yourself—be in real conflict with someone? Had a conversation that made your palms sweat and your voice crack? Took a stand that felt just yet precarious? Encountered a situation that you might…bring to an ombuds?

If it’s been a while, we might need to consider the possibility that we have a bias against those who find themselves in conflict (aka, our visitors) or at least a real gap of understanding. Trust is built through authentic—yet entirely appropriate—expressions of empathy. Letting ourselves get hot (but not mad) on occasion should be part of our practice.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we go out and drum up conflict for learning’s sake à la “Fight Club” (fistfights do not qualify for PDH credits as far as I know). But maybe someday soon we’ll encourage each other to “argue like an ombuds,” much as “fight like a girl” has become approbation rather than insult. In order to get there, though, we need to engage conflict with some skin in the game.

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