If you find yourself in a conflict situation at work, know that conflict is a normal part of workplace interactions. It is also important to recognize that if you manage this workplace conflict well, in can be a great opportunity for you! No, really. Well managed conflict can relieve your stress and tension, strengthen your problem solving skills, build mutual respect, improve that work relationship and much more. Addressing conflict takes time and emotional effort on your part, but there’s great benefit in it for you. No, really. Make conflict more productive by using it as a valuable opportunity for you to:
1. Relieve the stress, tension, and anxiety that tend to accompany ongoing conflict. Addressing the conflict can bring about the sensation that a huge weight has been lifted off your shoulders. Many of the fine folks I have worked with to resolve their work conflicts have reported feeling so pleased, a sense of real relief, when the issues that were causing their (sometimes debilitating) stress were finally addressed. Enjoying their sense of liberation and relief, they also often lament that they wish they had “done this sooner.” The stress, anxiety, and as one client put it “sense of yuck,” felt while the conflict is alive can often be lifted by addressing the problems and issues. They tell me they feel better, think better, and even sleep better having addressed the issues. In fact, this is supported well in research by Nixon (2011) that looked at 72 studies of the effect of occupational stress on the health of employees. Interpersonal conflict was most associated with sleep disturbances!
2. Practice empathy to understand the other perspective. Practising empathy means taking a look at the situation from the other person’s side. It’s about trying to understand what they see, and how they see it, from their vantage point. Even if you think your colleague is an alien from another plant—you can try to understand his or her extra-terrestrial perspective. And once you understand it, there is no more need for you to guess, ponder, or imagine how he perceives it. Now you’ll know.
Practising empathy does not mean you must like his perspective or agree with her point of view or want to be bff’s. Practising empathy is just about calmly trying to understand. That’s it. Not agree. Not adopt his point of view. Just to try to understand. So if you can, for just for a moment, try walking in her shoes (and know that you can take the shoes off). You might be surprised how impactful empathy can be in moving you toward better understanding and an effective solution.
3. Speak your truth. You have been respectful in seeking to understand your colleague’s perspective. Now here’s your opportunity to tell your story, express your perspective, tell it the way you see it, speak your truth directly and honestly. For many of us in unresolved conflict situations, we walk around with an ongoing conversation in our head about what we would like to say to our colleague so she could know our story, our reasoning, and our thoughts. Here is your opportunity to express that respectfully. Finally being heard feels so good!
4. Do some serious assumption busting. Based on my own empirical observations over the years, I can pretty much guarantee that there are erroneous assumptions lurking behind the scenes of your conflict situation. Whether it’s an assumption you have made about your colleague or assumptions your colleague is making about you, chances are they exist. Assumptions lead to conflict, they keep conflict alive, and often follow a pattern like this:
- Person A says/does something that person B doesn’t like
- person B does not talk to person A about what he said/did and instead makes an assumption about how/ why/ when/ what person A said/did
- that assumption leads to changes in behaviour
- which leads to hurt or angry feelings
- which leads to a change in behaviour
- which leads to another assumption and so on.
Sometimes these conflict spirals go on for years, and can leave a path of destruction. Here’s an example of how one might start:
Say you were late getting important information to your co-worker. She assumes you deliberately withheld the information (to punish her for not supporting your idea at last week’s meeting). With her erroneous assumption about you in her head, she starts behaving negatively toward you. You, in turn, make an assumption about her character and you start interacting with her a little differently too. And on it goes.
While assumptions are a natural part of human cognition, the problem is sometimes assumptions are incorrect. Here is your opportunity to unravel the conflict spiral, identify the assumptions, and correct them.
5. Model your best professional self. You have professional swagger. Ya that’s right. And 99% of the time you carry yourself at work with dignity and grace. You’re respectful. You’re reasonable. You’re calm, flexible, and adaptable. You’re a great listener. This is your chance to show it. Ask yourself, “How do I want to be viewed when I walk away from this conflict interaction?” Working through this tough situation in a professional manner shows your competence. It feels good too–because when you walk away from this conflict interaction knowing you have engaged in a respectful exchange, you will have no regrets about what you said or did.
6. Fess up if you messed up. Hey, we’re human. We’re fallible. The reality is that ongoing conflict can really get to us after a while. The unrelenting tension from unresolved conflict can make it difficult for us to consistently show the best of our self. Sometimes the feelings of frustration, fear, annoyance, disdain, or injustice that builds up over time can spill out in ways we aren’t proud of. We may say or do things we wish we hadn’t said or done that contributed to the conflict. Perhaps you yelled, engaged in some hurtful gossip, or deliberately said “good morning” to everyone at the table except her.
Take the opportunity to acknowledge those behaviours you wish you hadn’t shown. It takes courage to fess up when you mess us. But when it happens, it can be a powerful way to release a lot of the anger and tension between you. Demonstrate you can admit wrong doing and take responsibility for your contribution. And know that a genuine and authentic “I’m sorry” can result in some instantaneous healing (for both of you).