As much as we might like the idea of living in Teletubby-land where everybody hugs each other all the time, the reality is that conflicts are part of life. Your office is no exception.
People have different values, agendas and traits. This can lead to differences in opinion, personality clashes or misunderstandings. We all know at least one person who pushes our buttons without even trying. Too bad, because if everybody could just see that ayour way is the best, we would all be happy, wouldn’t we?
Well, that’s just a fantasy, and a world like that would potentially be quite boring. Conflicts can be useful. They help us learn and grow if we handle them well.
Some of our career coaching clients are already quite good at managing conflicts. Others try to avoid them or create more conflict than necessary.
So how can we manage conflicts effectively? Here is my four-step process:
1. Truly listen
It’s important that we fully understand the position of the other party. This requires that we listen first. Not the kind of listening where we just wait for the other person to stop talking so that we can say our part. I’m referring to so-called active listening where we give our full attention to the other person. When you listen, don’t only pay attention to words but also to intonation and body language.
You may find this hard when you are not used to active listening. A trick is to silently repeat in your head every word you hear. This requires your full concentration, so you cannot think about your answer at the same time.
Ask questions until you have a good understanding of their side of the story, their arguments and what solution they are looking for.
Then repeat what you have heard, to make sure that you have understood the other party correctly. Ask them to confirm that you got their point right.
Sometimes it already helps if we simply acknowledge the concern of the other person. This can take the wind out of their sails, create an atmosphere of trust and pave the way for a productive debate.
2. Look for the real issue
Often there is a hidden issue behind the spoken words. Understanding this concept will make a huge difference to your ability to manage conflicts. In the school of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) there is a saying that every behaviour has a positive intention.
This takes some thinking to fully grasp. The notion here is that people don’t intend to act in a bad or destructive way. Their behaviour may be unacceptable or unproductive, but the driver behind it is always a positive one. This driver can be a conscious or subconscious process, so there is a good chance that the other person does not even fully understand the behaviour him- or herself.
So if there is always a positive intention, how is it possible that so often the output outcome is not? The answer is that our subconscious often applies a skewed strategy – a strategy that is driven by our primal survival instinct. It is driven by emotions rather than reason and applies a short-term view.
The most common driver underlying conflicts is fear. When people are overly critical, obstructive or insulting, often they are trying to protect themselves. They may feel threatened or compensate for a lack of confidence. In a corporate world this often manifests in people passing on the pressure they receive from their superiors.
I don’t mean that you should accept or justify the behaviour of the other person, but understanding the driver behind it will give you additional options to manage the conflict.
You may already have a talent for sensing the underlying issue of a conflict. If not, the more you look out for them, the better you will become at spotting them over time.
3. Know your own baggage
It’s not just the other person who has hidden drivers which make them act unreasonably. You have your very own baggage! You have your own fears and worries. Sometimes an individual will push your buttons simply because they remind you of another person or a previous experience in life.
Let’s say your boss frowns as you are talking to her, and she does so in the same “annoying” way that your ex-wife did. Suddenly, your boss becomes another person who is out to get you, and you respond in a way that is overly defensive and emotional. In fact, your boss just frowned because she didn’t understand a word you used. Your emotional response was based on an interpretation of the event that you made up in your own mind.
A good level of self-awareness will help you understand your own emotional reactions to other people’s behaviours. You can then manage them more effectively and chose more appropriate responses. I use psychometric testing with the Enneagram to help my clients understand how emotions and survival instincts drives their behaviour and that of other people.
4. Come to an agreement
If you have followed the above steps, hopefully you will have created a good atmosphere for a productive conversation where you can both exchange your arguments in a mature way. Stay objective by talking about facts and outcomes, rather than making it personal. Use a calm voice and open body language to create trust.
If possible and appropriate, go for a win-win situation. The other person will save face and you maintain good relations. A good working relationship may be worth much more than the satisfaction of being “right” or having it “your way”.
If you find it difficult to keep the conversation objective and productive, then you might want to engage the help of a mediator. This could be an unbiased colleague who is trusted by both parties, or a coach or professional mediator.
There are situations where an agreement cannot be reached. You can only control your side of the equation; you cannot control the other party. For example, if you are bullied at work, then you may not be able to have an adult conversation about the issue with the offender. You may have to protect yourself. This could be about standing up for yourself and setting boundaries, leaving the job or escalating the issue to a superior or the HR department. I recommend discussing the appropriate strategy with a trusted person, for example someone in your HR department or an executive coach.
The art of conflict resolution
Conflict resolution is an “art”. You may already be quite skilled at it, or wish to refine your skills in this area. Either way, it can become a game-changer in your life if you look at conflicts in the following way:
- Conflicts help you learn more about yourself and others.
- Conflicts help you grow as a person.
- Nobody has the power to make you feel bad. Whatever people throw at you, you have a choice whether you want to own it or shrug it off.
That’s the theory. Fancy trying it out in practice?