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Nautical 'Leeway' in Relationships and Conflict

‘Leeway’ is a sailing term, and it is a useful concept that we can apply to work relationships and conflict resolution.


What does it mean? If you point a boat in the direction you want it to go, natural factors are going to push the boat off course. Sometimes a bit. Sometimes a lot. Leeway refers to this drift.


Factors like wind direction, currents, boat design, true vs magnetic north, all adds up to drifting. So when you’re plotting a route, sailors accommodate for leeway.


Learning to sail for me has been a beautiful and terrifying interplay between what I can learn to predict and control, and being at the mercy of the ever-changing and uncontrollable wilds.


(Thanks Mitch, for the photo!)

Now to work. How many times have you approached a difficult conversation, request, or confrontation? Or, maybe it’s approaching some conflict or difference.


If you’re nervous, perhaps there’s been some overnight thinking, by playing out all the scenarios that might happen. Plotting your course, as it were.


The thing is, it’s quite common for people to plot really rigid navigation courses when preparing for relationship exchanges. In doing so we can forget to accommodate for leeway. Leeway is inevitable.


Here are a few factors that might cause a leeway drift in relationships:


• Everybody’s state of mind, body, spirit

• Our life histories

• Everybody’s stressors outside of work 

• Our feelings towards our roles, authority, the company

• Our sense of safety and threat in and out of work

• Novel context, perspectives, and information about the issues


We can afford ourselves some leeway, and we can afford other people leeway too.


In conflict resolution, people often head into a mediation fairly fixed on their point of view, ready to argue hard. It’s totally understandable.


Mediation gets exciting because two parties are courageously entering out into the ever-changing wilds of relating to each other, where there are so many factors at play. If we can accommodate for some leeway in ourselves and the other person, it will increase the likelihood of getting to our destination. In sailing terms, this is called a course made good.


Summary: Account for leeway in ourselves and others to increase the chances of a course made good. 

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