You're Doing Conflict Wrong

(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.


Case Study - Mean to Team (Part 1 of 2)

The trivial details – names, and the like – in this case study have been changed to preserve our client’s anonymity.

THE TEAM:

12 engineers make up the operations team supporting the IT department of a large school with 25K employees.

“You undercharged me.” — Jack, the Team Leader

 

THE SITUATION:

When Jack, the Operations Team leader, reached out to us, he cited communication and cohesion challenges on his team. We soon learned that he was understating the problem.

Interpersonal tensions were so extreme on Jack’s team that he was frequently physically ill before, during, and after staff meetings. Just imagining being in the same room with all those people at once, with the strife he experienced weekly in that room, caused him to vomit. Jack gave us this example of the tension level:

Mark requires Margaret’s work product to complete his own work. Mark won’t talk to Margaret directly, however. He won’t even look at Margaret. She won’t even say, “Good morning,” to him. Instead, when Mark needs Margaret’s work, he asks Gary to get it. Gary goes to Margaret. Margaret rolls her eyes. Gary rolls his eyes. Mark sits at his desk, drumming his fingers waiting for Mark to return so he can get back to work.

What an unnecessary and destructive waste.

On his wall, Jack had posted an acronym of traits he and his team had committed to embodying. While I’ll keep the acronym to myself, to protect the client’s anonymity, I will say that one of the traits was, “professional.”

I complimented Jack on some commendable ideals and asked out of curiosity, “How do you guys define ‘Professional?’”

He answered, “You know. Everyone knows what ‘Professional’ means.”

“Sure,” I said. “You know what it means, and I know what it means. But the problem is that we each have different definitions. But we assume that our own definition is universal.” I laid out a scenario:

Betty and Dave are standing outside their cubicles, talking about their weekends and their kids, and laughing. After about a minute, Stan gets very irritated. Don’t they see him trying to work in the next cube over? They’re so loud. Why don’t they just get to work? It’s work hours. To Stan, they are clearly unprofessional.

Meanwhile, Betty and Dave both wonder why Stan — who is sitting right there — hasn’t joined the conversation or even said hello. It’s clear to them that a little light conversation on a Monday morning reacquaints them with each other. It lubricates the professional relationship, and gives them insight into each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and what stresses or joys from their personal lives might affect their work today. Stan, however, seems to be giving them snide looks and is muttering something under his breath. To Betty and Dave, Stan is clearly unprofessional.

“Yes,” Jack yelled when I had finished my short story. “That’s my team.”

Beyond helping teams define important terms and values so that everyone’s on the same page, we explained to Jack, we also help to establish a foundation of empathy — as a habit — between people. Each person’s perspective helps to create a rich and well-balanced vision for the team as a whole. There’s a bit of one of my father’s favorite jokes in the training we offer:

Two arguing men in the community come to the Rabbi to ask him to settle their dispute. The first explains his perspective. The Rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The second argues his case. The Rabbi says, “You’re right.”

The Rabbi’s wife, overhearing all this, says, “He’s right? And he’s right? How can they both be right?”

The Rabbi shrugs and says, “You’re right too.”

 

THE TRAINING:

Soon after our first meeting with Jack, we met with his team for the first installment of their training. We were there, ready to begin the training on time. For the first time in our company history, however, we did not start our training on time — even with everyone in the room. The first 5 minutes of the training time were spent in an argument.

Kerry was certain that the training had been scheduled for 3 hours. Sally rolled her eyes and said, “I saw that in the last email, but every other email (and the calendar invitation we all got) said 4 hours. 3 hours was a typo. It’s 4 hours.” Kerry insisted it was three. Sally repeated that it was four. This went on for some time with only little variation. Jack, their boss, sat between them, bemused. We, The Yes Works trainers, sat before them, diagnosing the patient and seeing first hand the disfunction that Jack had described.

Each was so focused on being right (and in Kerry’s case, on going home), that they completely overlooked the authoritative resources in the room that could have settled the argument. We were there, looking at them, and would gladly have shared what our intentions were as the trainers (and what we’d been paid to do). Their boss sat only feet from them — between them — and could easily have defined the expectations. But neither of them asked him, and he didn’t interrupt to resolve either the content of the dispute, or the context of the dispute.

Kerry seemed committed to reading any ambiguous communication to him “in his own favor.” Evidently, he defined “in his own favor” as whatever would have him out of this place and this activity the fastest. Sally seemed committed to using the power of her reasoning to defeat Kerry’s wrong-headedness. Jack seemed disinclined to intervene. He did not assert his authority about a matter that had an authoritative answer. He did not bring his employees back to a focus on in purpose instead of self-interest.

When the dust eventually settled, we began our four hour training.

Some of the team was excited to have us there, and participated from the first moments with gusto. Others, like Kerry, were there because they had been required to be there, and were reluctant. Within minutes, however, we had the entire group on their feet. They laughed. They moved past some fears. They saw new sides of one another. They all went through quite a mental workout, each person going through multiple reps of practicing the principles that define our business-relationship training. Many of them did and said things they would not have anticipated doing. All of them participated equally. Kerry was completely involved.

 

Click here to read the exciting conclusion