The Power of Gentleness

Published 27 May 2020

Is gentleness an underestimated power in defusing workplace conflict? An unexpected encounter points to three insights to be applied when we next meet with a conflict.

Some months ago, I visited the home of an extraordinary couple. For several years now, this couple has opened up their home to take in young people who lacked one. These were young people too old to be placed under Singapore’s fostering schemes or fully supported by existing social services. Over the years, this couple has provided a home for single mothers with newborns in tow, teenagers told by their parents to fend for themselves, or those who suffered abuse at the hands of family members and who just needed a place to sleep without fear. To create a loving and nurturing home for these individuals, this middle-aged couple had even given up their careers, to be fully present with them.

Gestures of gentleness

On my visit, while this couple was showing my friends and me around their house, one of their young residents came up from behind us. Looking antagonistic, she voiced in an unfriendly tone, “Who are these people? Why are they here? Someone tell me what is going on?!”

In response, this couple did not deliver a sharp reprimand, as may have been expected. Instead, the couple continued smiling. They turned towards the girl and drew her into our circle. The husband put his arm around her shoulders, saying in the softest tone, “Come, these are our friends. Come and introduce yourself.” At that gesture, antagonism fell off the girl. We made mutual introductions. When my friends and I left, she even bid us farewell sincerely.

The episode brought to mind the proverb: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The couple’s behaviour was a lesson in gentleness, and paradoxically, its power in disarming another.

It demonstrated how a gentle approach stopped a potential conflict from erupting and escalating – all in less than a minute!

Workplace conflict

CPP, Inc. and its partners surveyed 5,000 employees across nine countries in Europe and the Americas to understand the nature of workplace conflict. They found that 85% of employees had to deal with conflict “to some degree” and close to 30% had to do so “always” or “frequently”. Almost one in three said a recent conflict took a few days to properly dispel. On average, each employee spent 2.1 hours per week – equivalent to one workday a month – dealing with conflict. Consequences of conflict, aside from personal insults, attacks and bullying, included organisation-level impact such as absence from work, employee turnover and project failures.

Many of us in our workplaces can identify with the employees surveyed. Perhaps, we are even spending far more than two hours a week doing battle with another colleague or attempting to reconcile warring factions. Perhaps our inability to resolve conflicts at work is even keeping us awake at night.

Could we learn something useful from this couple’s demonstration of gentleness, and apply it to the conflicts confronting us at work and everywhere else?

Three insights concerning gentleness at work

There are at least three insights on the use of gentleness in a situation of conflict.

Gentleness is a conscious choice.

Firstly, the use of gentleness means laying down what we consider our ‘rights’, and making a conscious choice. This couple certainly had the right to reprimand their resident. They had opened their home to her, a stranger, and given of their time and careers to care for her. They were ‘right’ to expect courtesy from her towards their visitors. It would have been within their ‘rights’ to reprimand her. Yet, they chose to meet her with smiles, welcoming arms, soft tones and inviting words.

Let us not mistake gentleness for weakness. Gentleness is actually a choice consciously pursued from a position of legitimacy. When facing a conflict, even if you are in the right, would you exercise your rights consciously and gently?

Gentleness requires a shift away from self.

Secondly, it is only possible to set aside your rights and be gentle towards others in conflict when you focus less on yourself and more on others. This happens when you care for others and have their interests at heart. The couple’s goal is to give the young people staying in their home a safe and nurturing environment, and to help restore their dignity and confidence. They understand that their charges had experienced rejection or even abuse by their own family. These young people often instinctively show antagonism as a way of defending and protecting themselves. The couple could have given a stern rebuke at that point, but would that have helped the girl grow in dignity and confidence at this point in her life?

In the same survey by CPP, Inc., half of all employees see personality clashes and warring egos as the primary cause of workplace conflict.

So, are you willing to put aside your ego and be others-centred? Would you look beyond the immediate conflict and identify the bigger picture or greater good you would like to achieve?

Gentleness is still about leading the way.

Finally, the use of gentleness does not mean giving in to others’ (presumably incorrect) behaviours, but rather showing them a better way. The couple did not endorse the girl’s unfriendly response to visitors. They role-modelled to her an alternative manner of relating to people instead. And this helped the girl realise, through her own experience, how their gentle ways alleviated stress and gave her ease instead.

In most Asian cultures, we prefer to keep up a harmonious front. We may not vocalise our disagreements and arguments, but they may become inner monologues running ceaselessly in our minds. Instead of simmering in angry discontentment, would you express gentleness and lead the way to a solution?

It is rare that the simile “as gentle as a lamb” is used as a compliment in the workplace. We tend to think of lambs as helpless and in need of shepherding, lest they be devoured by wolves. We are more inclined towards overt displays of might in our leaders and ourselves and, whether for self-preservation or ambition, prefer to play the wolf.

Yet, the next time you are faced with a conflict at work, why not give gentleness a try and test the power of the lamb for yourself?

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