Dear Dale, how should I approach this conflict?

Recently a visitor to my website (let’s call her Sandra) shared with me the details of a conflict she was dealing with at work–and she was looking for some suggestions, support, and advice on how she might approach things with her coworker. Her developing workplace conflict centred around a recent jobshare scenario (involving Sandra and her colleague) in which changes were made to titles, roles, responsibilities, and distribution of tasks. Her colleague seemed rather displeased with these changes, and was acting out with open criticism, a negative attitude, derogatory remarks, and in other troubling ways toward Sandra. The two of them have not yet had a conversation about the emerging issues, but given that the conflict is creating tension in the workplace and putting a strain on their work relationship, Sandra realizes the time has come to talk to her colleague about the issues.

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Here’s My Reply:

Dear Sandra, Thank you for your conflict question. It’s most unfortunate that you find yourself in this rather uncomfortable and hostile situation at work.  I want to start my reply to you by reassuring you that conflict between people at work is very common.  Conflict at work is “normal.” There is nothing “wrong” with you or your colleague or “bad” about either of you for being in this conflict situation.  Conflict happens. It often happens due to a lack of communication.

Know that solutions can happen too. Solutions can grow out of communication.

As you can attest to, being involved in an unresolved conflict at work can really take its toll. It can take up your energy, thoughts, and focus, The details of the conflict, your feelings, and thoughts about it can play over and over in your head throughout the day.  I have seen in my own work how ongoing conflict can impact mental health, physical health, and one’s ability to be fully functioning at work and beyond.

There is great benefit in addressing conflict.

It’s understandable that some folks might avoid or put off dealing with their interpersonal issues at work, or hope that the problems or irritations or resentments will just go away—but this is seldom the case. Conflict that is not addressed tends to grow; 1 erroneous assumption between co-workers can turn into 2 miscommunications that can turn into 5 resentments that can spill over into 10 problems.

There is great benefit in addressing conflict sooner rather than later.

I like to use the common analogy of the elephant in the room representing the looming unresolved problem–in this case, the elephant represents a conflict.  Not addressing the conflict is like pretending not to see the bulky elephant in the middle of the room.  I also like to add to that analogy the notion that small elephants make smaller messes; big elephants make bigger messes. The longer a conflict is allowed to grow, the more problems are created.

Get rid of the elephant while it’s young. Don’t let the elephant grow. Big elephants make big messes.

What struck me as the “up side” of your conflict situation is that it seems the issues between you and your co-worker are  fairly recent. They have not been going on for a long time (like years). You are aptly reaching out for suggestions on how to handle your situation fairly early in the conflict cycle—and that’s awesome! Kudos to you!! This also means that there is great opportunity here for you and your colleague to successfully talk about and resolve your issues before they spiral into a deeper state of conflict (and yield you a pile of proverbial big elephant poo).

Your letter indicates to me that you are choosing to look at this situation and do something about it while it is in its infancy. You want to address it now rather than let it live on, grow, and make bigger messes that are more onerous to clean up.  In your letter to me you said “The time has come to have a talk with her” And I wholeheartedly agree with you!

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Keep in mind that while you cannot control your colleague in this scenario-–you cannot control her actions, her thoughts, her assumptions, her attitudes, her demeanour, her opinions etc…  you CAN control you, your actions, your reactions, your thoughts, your choice of words, your course of action, your intentions, your mindset etc.

You mentioned that you would much rather write or send your colleague an email. I get it AND I’d like to strongly recommend against this as there is simply too much room for error, misunderstanding, and miscommunication in email, especially when it comes to emotionally charged communications. Email lacks communication cues that we need to receive from facial expressions, body language and, tone of voice. Frankly, email communication would probably be more like “email miscommunication” here and I think it could just lead to more problems for you.

I know it can be difficult—sometimes even a bit scary, to address conflict in person.  But a face-to-face format will be much more likely to lead to the positive results you are looking for.

I suggest you ask your colleague (calmly and face-to-face) if she would be willing to have a private meeting with you in a couple days to talk about some tensions you’ve noticed between you.  Say you’ d like to hear her thoughts and have an opportunity to share your thoughts—because you’d like to do whatever you can to get rid of the tension and work together to sort out whatever problems exist.  To honour your privacy and dignity, you may want to pose the suggestion that you meet off-site for a coffee break or,  at the very least, secure a private room on-site.

When I sit down with employees in conflict, we come up with a set of ground rules or a code of conduct that might include things like “no swearing” and “no interrupting.”   You might consider posing the suggestion that when the two of you meet, you will come up with your own ground rules for discussion, with the purpose of creating a respectful environment where you both feel you can speak up and be heard.

I also think it is absolutely a-ok for you (both of you) to prepare by recording  your thoughts on paper, especially if you think you might forget what you want to say. Know that a stressed brain is a fragmented brain—and things can get mumbled and lost if you are in a high state of stress. If recording your thoughts on paper will reduce your stress and anxiety, and therefore allow you to communicate more effectively, I say go for it!

I’d also suggest you take a look at some of my other blogs posts, as you may find some helpful nuggets in there too. Take a peak at “Tips for raising the conflict resolution topic with a coworker” at https://conflictbegone.com/2013/07/03/tips-for-conflict-talk/ and “Power conflict resolution questions” at https://conflictbegone.com/2013/07/31/conflict-questions-for-hr/

All the best in working through this challenge.  I would be interested to know how things go for you.  Thank you again for reaching out to me.

Kind regards,

Dale

About Dale Burt, MA Psych: Dale is a Conflict Management Consultant based in the Toronto, Ontario area. As an experienced mediator and trainer, she helps to resolve and prevent conflict in the workplace. Helping your workplace work better ~ one employee relationship at a time. Follow Dale on Twitter or, LinkedIn, or call her at 905-903-0951 with your conflict question.

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