Managing Conflict in the Workplace

Meeting of Minds

I recently read an article about a survey conducted by an international consulting firm that concluded 85% of workers had experienced conflict on the job. My immediate response was that the other 15% were either in denial or had just been hired. I say this because if you are human, you will experience conflict. There is no getting around it. All conflict boils down to difference--different needs, different expectations, different perceptions, different values. And guess what? Humans are all unique (a.k.a. different). This means conflict is a normal part of the human condition. If we are all different and difference is the source of conflict, we will experience conflict. And, although you probably don’t want to hear this, this experience will occur numerous times over the course of your life (maybe even your day).

Yet, we get the message along the way that conflict is bad and if we experience it something must be wrong with us or the other person. Unfortunately, how most of us try to deal with wrong is to punish, shame, or fix. That makes sense because we were probably punished or shamed as children when a conflict erupted, so we are simply repeating a learned pattern. Or, perhaps, we were told how to correct the situation or someone else imposed a fix. And that may have felt good, at least temporarily, because conflict by its very nature is uncomfortable.

As adults, many of us are frustrated in our efforts to punish, shame, or fix conflict.  It’s hard to effectively punish another adult--most of them don’t believe we have the authority to do so, and even if we do have authority, their need for freedom leads them to rebel against punishment often making the situation worse. Shaming, we all know, is never a good option. And although we can try to unilaterally “fix” the situation, it usually arises again, sometimes bigger than before.

So what can we do? As a good friend once told me, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” It is counter-intuitive, but simply sitting with the person we are in conflict with being an empathetic, listening presence has the highest likelihood of improving the situation. Understanding the other person is the first step and we can only do that if we are willing to be vulnerable enough to let down our defenses and listen deeply. Listen not only to what they are saying, the content (which is really hard, because we’ll want to judge it as right or, more likely, wrong), but for what they are feeling (empathy--feeling with). Believe it or not, this is often enough. Many people just want to be heard and understood and very few people take the time to do that.

If, after you’ve heard the other person and they affirm that you really, really get them, you want to share what you feel and need, go for it! You’ve established the conditions to make problem-solving together much more likely.

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