Emojis, tagging, instagram + dealing with hostile email – BIFF it!!


I’m working on a presentation “Conflict Resolution in Our Digital Age” and thinking a lot about our electronic communications. I’m on email and text most every day, yet working with people in conflict seems to work best when we meet face-to-face. That’s why most of my meetings are in-person. This is also supported by research that explains how spoken language makes up only a small portion of what is communicated.  The non verbal and other than conscious communication makes up a majority of what we see, feel and hear. The question is how do we manage this in our digital age?

I’m convinced that the emoji is one answer. Emojis are so popular because we want more than “just” the written word.  We want to capture the non-verbal stuff whether it be tone, cadence, or a full range of emotions. Emojis and now “tagging” help us fill in the otherwise lack of information we receive via email and/or text. It’s also why instagram is so popular – a picture is worth a thousand words.

However, if you find yourself needing to use words, here are some suggestions from Bill Eddy,  founder of the High Conflict Institute on how to deal with “hostile” emails. This is  based on Eddy’s idea that “high conflict” people require specific strategies to address and, hopefully, deescalte the conflict producing behaviors. Eddy has numerous books and training videos that may be of interest if you live or work with a “high conflict” personality!

Here’s Eddy’s strategy for dealing with hostile emails and he calls it the

BIFF response –           Brief         Informative          Friendly           Firm

According to Eddy:

Brief: A brief response reduces the chances of an angry back and forth. Brief signals you don’t take the other person’s statements seriously and keeps you out of sending anything resembling a personal attack. Focus only on the facts and make no comments about character or personality.

Informative: Remember the point of your response is to correct inaccurate statements. Focus on the accurate statements you want to make and offer facts only.

Friendly: A hostile response will elicit a hostile response back. A friendly response is focused on de-escalation, and other email recipients will notice that your response is clearly very different than the other person’s hostile email. Try as hard as you can to sound as relaxed and empathetic as possible.

Firm: Avoid comments that invite more discussion. You might even try, “This is all I will say on this issue,” or, “This conversation is over.”

So, keep sending those emojis and tags and next time you get that email that sends you to your keyboard with strokes fast and furious, remember BIFF and take a break before even thinking about a response. Take a walk, clear your head, determine whether you even need to respond. Then try a BIFF!

Staff Ombuds – what types of issues / cases?

As I talk with NC State Staff members across the university as part of our roll out of the staff ombuds services pilot program, I am often asked – what kinds of issues or cases might someone bring to the ombuds? With this in mind, at a recent Staff Senate meeting I provided an office update that included four short case narratives to answer this very question. Thus, let me pass them on here as a case sampling.  Each situation includes a brief description and the type of assistance provided. In most cases there isn’t yet a specific outcome.

  • Staff member with concerns about treatment by Unit Supervisor Discussed strategy to bring concerns forward. Discussed potential referral to Employee Relations.
  • Staff Ombuds is working with senior leader to discuss program concerns based on staff members contacting the ombuds office.
  • Staff member with colleague who brought time sheet issue concerned about how to proceed. Contacted Employee Relations to learn about time sheet duties and responsibilities and provided information back to staff member.
  • Staff member whose work unit and larger setting going through reorganization with job duties shifted and concerned about job. Also concerned about interactions with supervisor around changes. Discussed potential sources of assistance ranging from OIED (Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity) to Employee Relations to FASAP (Faculty and Staff Assistance Program).

If you have a similar issue or something completely different, please give me a call and we’ll figure out if the Staff Ombuds Office can provide assistance.

NC State Expands Ombuds Services as Pilot Program

Beginning January 1, 2017, NC State has expanded ombuds services to include all staff members as part of a year long pilot program. (Staff includes employees working under the State Human Rights Act – SHRA -and those Exempt from the Human Rights Act -EHRA – with a non faculty appointment).  The expansion developed based on input and a resolution of the Staff Senate and with the support of Finance and Administration and the Human Resources office. Roy Baroff, who has been serving as the Faculty Ombuds will provide the expanded services that will follow the International Ombudsman Association Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice in a manner similar to the Faculty Ombuds Office. Information is available at – staffombuds.ncsu.edu

Here’s Roy Baroff presenting information to the Staff Senate on 2/1/17.

NC State Faculty Ombuds Office – First Annual Report


The NC State Faculty Ombuds Office is relatively new after opening its physical office space in late February 2015,  The office was the fruition of many years of effort by the Faculty Senate working closely with leadership across the university. Thus, the office is pleased to report that it recently published its First Annual Report covering office opening and its first full academic year of operations. The report also provides a comprehensive review of the office operations along with an historical perspective.

As the NC State Faculty Ombuds, It has been a privilege to serve the university to date and I look forward to continuing efforts to develop and grow the office.

Here’s a link –  Faculty Ombuds 1st Annual Report

It’s All About Options

In November I added a short video explaining the role of ombuds (check out the home page link Video Explanation) that discussed the idea of developing “options” as an important role of the ombuds.  This concept also fits well with noted dispute resolution author Bernie Mayer (and others like William Ury) who explain that conflict intervention roles can be thought of as the “third side” of an issue.  Don’t limit your thinking to one way or the other; instead, what’s the third side? At the same time, Mayer also cautions those in such roles to not focus on the “dualistic” thinking of resolution or impasse. This can surface in the ombuds role if one is singularly focused on resolving issues.

As ombuds, while part of my thinking is absolutely to help you resolve a situation, I must also keep this goal at bay because you may come to the office with a different route in mind. Thus, instead of a singular focus on resolution or even a dualistic approach – resolve it or impasse – the focus is on options.  What are the full range of choices/options available?  Perhaps a situation is not yet ready for resolution and instead more information is needed or a referral or purposely avoiding the situation might make sense. With consideration and a focus on option generation there are generally multiple possibilities.

Thus, my primary goal will be to help you generate multiple options based on your goals and then you determine how to proceed.

Hope you have a Happy New Year and Happy New Options to resolve any issues you face!

How Can the Faculty Ombuds Help From a Leader’s Perspective ?


As I meet faculty leaders across campus and explain the role of the NC State Faculty Ombuds, I ask them to think in terms of – What can the Faculty Ombuds do for you?  Specifically as it relates to leaders, let me explain.

Recently in a meeting with faculty leaders, I asked for a show of hands – How many of you have ever had someone come to your office mad/angry/upset/etc., about something that was part of your work?  Did you feel personally attacked?  Most hands shot up! (no surprise)

Now suppose that person showed up at your office with a calm demeanor, with an “us against the problem” mentality instead of “me versus you” framework, with a willingness to think about the situation from both their own and your perspective, and discuss multiple options for resolving the situation?  Lots of heads nodding and smiles across the room.  This sounds pretty good.

Now, I can’t “promise” this happens after every visit to the Faculty Ombuds Office; however, when people meet in a confidential setting, share strong emotions about a situation, think strategically about the matter, and consider options for resolving the situation, then the opportunity to find solutions in partnership increases.  If you want faculty members with issues/problems/concerns to show up to your office in this frame of mind then ask them to visit the Faculty Ombuds Office first!

Part of an ombuds role can be thought of as a way station along the road (issue/concern/conflict) to be traveled. A place for a short break, to regroup, rest, get focused, and prepared for the journey ahead.

Let me know what the Faculty Ombuds Office can do to help you.

Negotiating in the Workplace – Part II


Here’s the rest of Jeffrey Krivis’ Top Ten Workplace Negotiation tips. (Take a look at 1 – 5 from 7/14/16).

6. “Learn to ‘read minds.’” – According to Krivis, “mind reading is not magic;” instead it is observation and intuition combined to help you get a sense about the people engaged in your conflict and how each might consider the situation. This includes non-verbal communication and “emotional tone” in language use and projection. Krivis suggests getting people to talk about themselves (most everyone will do so if provided the opportunity) and this gives you the chance to better understand the situation. And, with better understanding comes opportunity to better manage the negotiation.

I’ll echo Krivis’ tip as research indicates there is significantly more non-verbal and some call it “other than conscious” communication when we speak with another person than the words alone. Thus, it does help you negotiate to fully engage with the person and I often think of this aspect as seeking to build rapport. My experience suggests that people are more willing to find solutions to problems with people in almost any type of relationship. So, think – how do I build a negotiation relationship?

7. “Think creatively about ways people can cooperate rather than clash.” – Krivis and other conflict resolution practitioners (notably Bernie Mayer in his recent book “The Conflict Paradox”) observe that there is a “tension” in just about every negotiation or conflict between competition and cooperation. Krivis suggests to “be on the lookout for signals that support a cooperative environment” while Mayer argues that you need and want both approaches in your negotiation to help fuel a resolution. From both the idea is to seek options for mutual gain. Can you expand the “pie” of the negotiation so all can get some or all of what is wanted?  Both also encourage relationship building as a means to find mutual benefit options.

8. “‘Edit the script’ to help people see their situation in a different light.” – Krivis explains that people in conflict can “get stuck in their positions” as they retell the story over and over from a “narrow” point of view usually in a “negative and hopeless tone.” He suggests that you can “edit” the story by telling it from a broader and more constructive vantage point. For some in the conflict resolution field this is called “reframing” where you offer back the story heard and shift the frame. In this case, Krivis suggests you shift it to a “positive, forward-looking construction.”

9. “Avoid the ‘winner’s curse’ by carefully pacing negotiation.” – Krivis explains that “it is possible to reach a solution too quickly” noting that people in negotiations expect it to take some time. If it doesn’t and moves too quickly, then all may feel like they did not get the full measure of the deal. As a buyer, we sometimes call this “buyers remorse” meaning “I paid too much!” Thus, Krivis encourages you to pace the negotiation even if you see the deal early. This allows all involved to feel like the deal made was indeed a “good one” for all concerned.

10. “Finally, realize that every conflict can’t be solved.” – Sometimes an issue or dispute just will not get resolved at the time of your involvement. Krivis who serves as a professional mediator notes that sometimes you just have move on and that includes those in the dispute.

I’ll note that this is particularly challenging in the workplace because there are times when you just can’t move on.  Thus, while I agree with Krivis, I also suggest that rather than move on, people determine how to move around the situation. Thus, it might mean adjusting expectations or finding new resources or support. It doesn’t necessarily mean leaving it behind, but rather, putting it aside until it might become more ripe for resolution.

The Ombuds Role – Conflict Engagement with the Conflict Paradox


I recently heard a keynote address by Bernie Mayer outlining his thinking on how we (people with conflicts and those that seek to intervene and help – meaning everyone!) think about conflict. Mayer is a longtime mediator and thinker in the dispute resolution field and recent author of “The Conflict Paradox” (Wiley & Sons, 2015).

Both in his talk and in his book, Mayer seeks to expand our thinking when it comes to conflict. Instead of conflict resolution, he suggests “conflict engagement.” The idea is that resolving a conflict is not always the goal of a person in the situation. Mayer’s primary theme is to move beyond either/or thinking, to move beyond “dualistic” constructs that can “trap” us, and shift to conflict paradox thinking.

Mayer describes “seven essential dilemmas” for our consideration:

Competition and Cooperation            Optimism and Realism

Avoidance and Engagement              Principle and Compromise

Emotions and Logic                           Neutrality and Advocacy

Community and Autonomy

Mayer’s idea is that each paradox is actually part of the other and not separate, i.e., you need one or parts of one to have the other. For example, we are not either optimistic or realistic; instead, we are “motivated by optimism and guided by realism.” These concepts work together and should be considered together. As another example, it’s not a question of avoiding or engaging in a conflict; instead, there may be parts to avoid and parts to engage.

I’m just starting my read of “The Conflict Paradox” and will share some thoughts along the way. At this point, I’ll share a thought on conflict engagement that goes to the heart of the ombuds role.

While most who work as ombuds, mediator, or other dispute resolution professional, think of the role as one to help people resolve conflicts, Mayer challenges us to think in terms of engagement. The idea is that we don’t necessarily help people resolve the conflict; instead we help people engage in the conflict. We help each person determine what and whether to resolve a situation or address it in some other fashion.

As the NC State Faculty Ombuds, I think in terms of helping people think strategically, to help them determine their options for a given situation, and then help them consider the choices based on what’s most important to them. As an example of the conflict paradox in action, for many faculty members, there is a significant tension with competing to win the situation versus cooperating to preserve the relationship. Most often the choices made generally meet both aspects because to be successful, faculty members need to win (sometimes part of what is sought, but not all) and preserve relationships!