In Business, Communication, Crisis Management, Teamwork

(Like this content about workplace conflict, but want to hear about it instead of reading about it? Here’s the companion podcast episode.)

If you’ve got two people who interact, sooner or later, they’re going to come into conflict. It’s a fact of human relationships.

This article is about transforming conflict and using it to your advantage. If conflict seems like something to avoid… If it seems like something you can win… Then, you’re doing it wrong.

When people come to workplace conflict hoping and striving to win, then it’s only conflict itself that wins. (Did that sound cheesy?)

What’s wrong?

Some people are conflict avoidant. Some people are conflict seeking. Whatever our conflict tendency, the vast majority of us are doing it wrong the majority of the time.

When we find ourselves in a disagreement, many of us do one of two things.

  1. Some of us widen our eyes, straighten up, and start arguing our case to win the argument. I call this the Stand and Fight.
  2. Others of us lower our eyes, shrug our shoulders, walk away, and resign ourselves to the certain outcome that things won’t go our way. I call this the Slump and Slink.

Most of us do each of these things at different times and in different circumstances. Avoiders sometimes go on the attack, and fighters sometimes flee.

It doesn’t mean we’re bad people — the fact the we do conflict wrong. It makes sense we’d respond this way. Our brains are wired by ages of evolution to preserve our lives. Being a jerk at work is a survival reflex. You’ve heard of “fight or flight.” Here it is. Argue = fight. Resign yourself = flight.

Your more primitive brain regions see disagreement with a colleague, anticipate conflict, and categorize that conflict as a threat to life and limb. Rationally, you know that threat isn’t real. Rational mind, though, has been nearly shut off. Primitive brain regions have coopted the rational mind.

What’s it cost to get workplace conflict wrong?

If it’s my brain acting on instinct, my response to conflict is nature. Why fight “fight or flight?” Why not let nature do its thing?

Well, combat and hiding both have costs.

  1. Combat deteriorates relationships in ways we’re all aware of. Combative posturing leads to mistrust and resentment. So does hiding — in more subtle ways. We pick up on the subtle signals when people disagree but acquiesce anyway. We see them hiding their disapproval like a kid in class who thinks they’re adeptly passing notes unnoticed. It feels manipulative. We’re uncertain where we stand, and so the relationship is full of uncertainty and discomfort. Without candor, there’s no trust.
  2. Even though the points of disagreement loom large, there’s usually more common ground than there is difference. When we enter combat mode, that common ground gets lost. Team cohesion suffers, and adversarial stances prevent good information from being heard. The points of disagreement are almost always relatively small. In the scheme of things, the common ground you share outweighs the difference 100 fold. It’s the difference that gets all the attention, and the context of affinity gets lost.
  3. When we avoid workplace conflict, valid concerns that could benefit the relationship and the organization don’t get the attention they deserve. Disasters (large or small) may result from the lack of information sharing. Same thing when you voice your concerns at the top of your lungs. You’re telling everyone why you disagree. And you may have very important points. If you’re on the offensive, however, instead of calmly sharing your concerns, people get defensive in response. They stop listening. You may be right, but by behaving aggressively, you insure that you’re not heard.
  4. People say quietly to themselves, “I knew it. Saw that coming.” People feel distanced from each other, and judge others as unwise, and pushy. “If only they’d asked me, I could have told them.” Team cohesion suffers. Resentment builds in all directions. 

So, if our primitive brains lead us to this kind of behavior, what can we do about it?

Slow Down

Your primitive brain, and the fight or flight response is powerful, but it’s not the only game in town. You can teach yourself to override it.

1.  Breathe: Try something called box breathing. Practice it anytime you feel a bit anxious or angry.

  • Breathe in for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for four.
  • Breathe out on a count of four.
  • Hold for four.
  • Breathe in for four.
  • Repeat.

This may not be practical during an argument, but it’s great before initiating a conversation that you anticipate may be stressful. And, even during the interaction, bringing your attention to your breath, and doing this box breathing as much as possible is a powerful fight or flight defuser. Just ask a Navy Seal. This is a technique they use in actual battle.

2.  Look for common ground. Whether your impulse is to fight or to hide from the conflict at hand, you’re focused on the differences between you. And either way, your brain is racing. It’s going a mile a minute. Your primitive brain has given your rational mind an assignment, “Identify all threats and all weapons to counter those threats and all means of hiding from those threats.” Your rational mind is good at that, but it’s now using that talent for assessment in an irrational fashion. It’s operating from the conclusion, and finding support. That’s backwards. Here’s an opportunity to practice the principle derived from the system of improvisation — YES, AND. Prompt yourself with phrases like:

  • “Here’s what I like about this…”
  • “I think we agree on X, Y, and Z.”
  • “I can see we’re not on the same page about some stuff. Before we get into that, let’s work together for a moment to find all the areas of common ground.”

3.  Puzzle it. Now that you’re calm, and standing on a wide swath of common ground, you and your collaborator can look at your points of distance and debate them. Investigate them. Try on each other’s perspective and see how it fits. Distance yourself from your ideas. You’re looking together at a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find the solution. Your pieces aren’t better or worse. They’re not even yours. Theirs neither. They’re not your ideas or their ideas. All ideas are joint property. They’re all just puzzle pieces. And they either fit, or they don’t.

4.  Murder the unchosen alternatives. When the decision is made about which direction to go down — yours, theirs, a third unrelated one or a hybrid of the two — put your doubts to rest. You may not be able to quash them, but don’t feed them. Instruct yourself, “We’ve made a decision. Whether I agree with it or not is irrelevant. That ship has sailed, and my job is to back this plan of action to the hilt.” Every plan of action but the one that was chosen is done. Burn your boats. Don’t dwell. And if it’s your plan that’s in action, don’t gloat.

Reap the benefits

By following this approach to difference and workplace conflict, you’ll reap rewards. Your relationships will thrive. Your blood pressure will improve. Your organization’s decision making will be more effective. Your results will be better.

If you want, you can think of this as the “BLIMP” method. If you look above, you’ll see the steps… BLPM. Ok. BLIMP is a stretch. I just know people like acronyms.

Know anyone who’d benefit from this article? Please feel free to share it or it’s companion podcast episode far and wide.

Aaron Schmookler
Aaron Schmookler is Co-Founder and Trainer at The Yes Works, dedicated to helping companies create and maintain a culture of communication, collaboration, and innovation through improv training dynamically correlated to the real work of real teams. Improv: The competitive advantage you’ve been looking for.
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