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.
- Some of us widen our eyes, straighten up, and start arguing our case to win the argument. I call this the Stand and Fight.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Slow DownYour 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.
- “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.”