Dealing with workplace conflict - the right way!

Dealing with workplace conflict - the right way!

According to Forbes, a typical manager spends 25-40% of their time dealing with conflict.  I'm not sure who Forbes was polling, but it can't have been any of our clients!  However an oft-quoted study from CPP Global that feels closer to home finds that 89% of employees have experienced a workplace conflict that escalated, 67% have gone out of their way to avoid a colleague because of a disagreement at work, and 25% have seen conflict lead to sickness or absence.

The GOOD news is that the same study finds that "over 95% of people receiving training in conflict management as part of leadership development or on formal external courses said it helped them in some way" (our December session featuring Dr. Kim Alyn is on conflict management - but enough with the plug.)  

How NOT to Deal with Conflict

Whether or not you've attended training in conflict management, here are six things not to do if you don't want to make conflict worse:

  1. Get defensive.

    This is a tough one because our natural tendency when somebody comes to us with conflict is to get defensive.   There's a tool you can use to set that defensiveness to the side and listen to somebody else - more on that later.
    • Jim:  You gave Ryan a promotion and not me.  It's not fair.  I've been here longer.  I even trained Ryan when he arrived.
    • Me:  It's up to me who gets promoted, not you.  This only concerns Ryan and is none of your business.
  2. Dismiss the topic as unimportant.

    If somebody comes to you with a conflict issue and you say something like "You're making too big of a deal out of this" or "You shouldn't feel that way", you're dismissing the topic as unimportant.  if it's important to them it needs to become important to you.   And remember that feelings are neither right nor wrong, they are simply information.  What you want to do is get to the root of why they have that feeling.  
    • Jim:  You gave Ryan a promotion and not me.  It's not fair.  I've been here longer.  I even trained Ryan when he arrived.
    • Me:  You shouldn't get upset.  He's in a different area - his promotion shouldn't affect you.  You'll have other opportunities; don't make a big deal out of it.
  3. Jump to conclusions without having all of the facts.

    This tends to stem out of our defensiveness, so if the person comes to us about conflict they are experiencing about us, we will often jump to conclusions about what they are trying to say before we have all the facts.  Another area that you might do this - and one you need to be very careful of - is when you're mediating conflict.  So for example, if you have two employees and one of them comes to you and tells their side of the story, you need to make sure you don't jump to conclusions before you get the other side of the story. You may even need to ask other people what happened who were witnesses to the conflict.  So be careful of jumping to conclusions.
    • Ryan:  Jim and I are supposed to be sharing Donny as a design resource, but every time Jim needs something he tells Donny to stop what he's doing and do that instead, regardless of how important my project is.
    • Me:   So if Donny were to report to you instead of Jim, that would fix the problem?
    • Ryan:  Yes
    • Me:  I'll send out a memo this afternoon.
  4. Mentally prepare your comeback instead of listening.

    You know who you are :)  I'm sure all of us have done this at some point or another; somebody is talking to us and maybe they're frustrated and they're sharing their position and what are we doing?  We're thinking about how we're going to respond.  So instead of really listening we're preparing our comeback.
    • Jim:  I'm frustrated that you assumed I was monopolizing Donny's time without asking me about it.  What actually happens is that Ryan... (I have no idea what Jim said next - too busy dealing with the "you assumed" part)
    • Me:  I didn't assume any such thing.  I simply think everything will work smoother if Donny reports to Ryan.  And you'll have one less performance review to worry about. 
  5. Be unable to empathize with the other person.

    The conflict resolution tool I mentioned earlier shows you how to show empathy towards somebody in the midst of conflict even if you don't feel empathy.  Because you don't have to feel it to show it, but the person needs to feel like they're being heard.
    • Jim:  I'm frustrated that you assumed I was monopolizing Donny's time without asking me about it.  What actually happens is that Ryan...
    • Me (in my head): oh here we go again (out loud) sigh...
  6. Be unable to stay calm during the conflict.

    This usually happens as the conflict starts to escalate.   If the person that you're speaking with raises their voice or becomes more attacking in the conflict scenario, you may tend to lose a little bit of control and lose your level of command.  Again the tool will get rid of this problem if you use it properly.
    • Jim:  You're not listening to me, dammit!
    • Me:  Now you listen to me, you waste of space!!  Just get out of my office...

Tool to Help Solve Conflict the Right Way

The conflict resolution tool is called the Dialogue Method, and it originated from a relationship counseling tool known as the Imago Technique that was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix. He focused on improving personal relationships. but the adapted Dialogue Method can be used in professional relationship as well.  Now you may not be able to use every step of the Dialogue Method in every business situation, but practicing it will at the very least teach you how to field conflict more effectively, and also improve your listening skills, something that in and of itself will improve conflict.  

  1. Listen.

    This is going to be the most challenging, because my first tendency is to want to get defensive.  Instead I want to try to be more constructive in conflict resolution, so I'm going to set aside my defensiveness and I'm going to listen.  I'm going to invite the person to sit down and tell me all of their feelings about this conflict.
    • Jim:  You gave Ryan a promotion and not me.  It's not fair.  I've been here longer.  I even trained Ryan when he arrived.
    • Me:  Please, sit.  Go on.
    • Jim:  You're not treating me fairly.   As I said I've been here longer, I feel like I have more experience, I don't understand why I didn't get promoted.  I can't remember the last time I even got a salary increase.  I'm fed up. 
  2. Mirror back or repeat back.

    When Jim finally takes a breath, I'm going to repeat back what I heard him saying.  By repeating back I am containing his anger.  If I get defensive and interrupt or interject or talk over the top of him, that's going to cause his anger to explode.  By mirroring back and repeating back, I'm expressing that "I want to hear what you have to say and I want to make sure that I have it right."  
    • Me:  So what I hear you saying is that you're very frustrated.  You feel like you should have been promoted.  You don't understand why Ryan got promoted because you feel like you've been here longer and you have more experience.  Am I hearing you correctly?
    • Jim:  Yes, that's correct.
  3. Ask for more.

    I'm going to ask "What else?"  At this point he might say "That's pretty much it, I don't know what else I can be frustrated about" or he might expand a little bit.  If he expands, I will mirror that back as well.
    • Me:  What else is frustrating you about this situation?"
    • Jim:  Well I'm also frustrated that I don't feel like anybody around here really appreciates me. 
    • Me:  So you're also feeling that you're not appreciated?
    • Jim:  True.
  4. Validate.

    Step 4 and step 5 take place more or less at the same time.  Validation expresses that it makes sense that he would feel that way.   I'm validating his feelings because, as I mentioned earlier, feelings are neither right nor wrong, they are just information.   Validation doesn't mean that I'm saying he's absolutely right, I blew it, I shouldn't have promoted that person.  Validation is expressing that I understand why he feels as he does.
    • Me:  It makes sense that you would feel that way.  If I were in your shoes and I viewed the situation the same way that you were looking at it, I would probably feel the same way.
  5. Empathize.

    Validation moves right into empathy, which takes the process a step further when you try to determine what they might also be feeling.  Here's what empathy looks like: 
    • Me:  I would imagine you might also be feeling like "Why do I even try around here, does it even matter to anybody".  Are you feeling that way?
    • Jim:  I am, a bit, and I'm also feeling overlooked.
    • Me:  So you're feeling passed over for your chance at promotion, is that correct?
    • Jim:  Yes.
  6. Respond.

    I would actually ask to respond.  And then put my case.  While I'm sharing this he might cut me off, in which case I would ask to continue. 
    • Me:  Jim, thank you for sharing. Is it okay if I respond with some thoughts? 
    • Jim: Sure.
    • Me:  The reason that Ryan got promoted was because of this and this and this.... 
    • Jim (interrupting):  I'm just as good at that...
    • Me:  Would it be okay if I finished?  Because when you share your thoughts with me, and your frustrations,I sat here and I listened and I tried not to interrupt you, and I repeated back to you to make sure I heard you correctly.  I would just ask for the same courtesy, that you would at least let me finish, and then I promise I will give you the opportunity to respond again.  Does that sound fair?
    • Jim:  Yes, okay.
    • Me:  I really believe you have a tremendous amount of potential to promote, and I want to work with you over the next year to try to get you promoted.  I value your work and your expertise in these areas particularly...
    • Jim:  That sounds like a good opportunity

Perfecting the Dialogue Method

The Dialogue Method takes a while to perfect.  It is a very effective technique that allows the other person to stay calm in the midst of conflict, and worth the effort to learn if you want to become better at conflict resolution.  It's a beneficial tool at work, and one of the best place to practice it is at home.  Just move right into the Dialogue Method next time your significant other/child comes to you with a conflict - and notice how better the outcome becomes!