I often coach clients around giving and receiving feedback in the workplace, which already represents a tough enough conversation for most of us. Throw a dose of conflict into a work conversation, though, and it’s usually enough to send people running in avoidance.
It’s hard to say exactly what’s so difficult about handling conflict effectively in the workplace, but it’s safe to say that most of us are used to seeing it handled poorly. What’s worse, most of us have either suffered or witnessed the consequences: feelings get hurt; people get ostracized; one person wins, and another one loses. There’s no shortage of consequences.
How can we handle conflict better? The one-word answer is: Listen. Take note of three ways you can listen and address conflict more effectively.
1. Listen to everyone’s story, not just your own
We often go into an argument or a conflict with the idea that we know exactly what the situation is and whose fault it is. And how do we know? We tell ourselves stories about what’s motivating other people—stories that may or may not be true.
Let’s say I think Jack is playing games and trying to undermine me during the leadership meetings. How do I “know” that? Because he interrupts me, and because he didn’t mention my role in the successful project he’s leading. After all, if he respected me and wasn’t playing power games, he’d behave differently, right?
Well, who knows? Maybe Jack is doing exactly what I think he’s doing. But maybe there’s something entirely different going on. In my story about Jack, he’s the villain and I’m the victim. And therefore, I clearly must stand up to Jack and tell him I won’t put up with his underhanded, evil ways. As you can sense, I’m pretty invested in my story about Jack.
What if instead of getting worked up with my made up story about why Jack is doing what he’s doing, I just ask Jack how he sees it? Maybe Jack isn’t even aware that he’s interrupting me. Or maybe he purposefully didn’t mention my name because he thought the leadership team would ask about last week’s hiccup and he didn’t want to get my name mixed up with that. Who knows? The reality is I DON’T know, so before I get too invested in my own villains and victim story, maybe I should tell Jack what I observed and then listen to his story.
2. Listen to how you answer the question: What do I want?
Many times we get sucked into conflict and don’t even realize it until we’re in the thick of it. That’s when tempers flare and egos blow up. We get fixated on things like, “But, she’s wrong; what she’s saying isn’t true.” Or, “I can’t believe he just called our group incompetent!” Yes, you have a right to be indignant and offended. How dare they, indeed!
But maybe you want to respond to conflict in a “next-level” way that isn’t simply reflexive or defensive. How do you do that? Start by asking yourself, “What do I want?” And if the true answer to that question is “To defend my honor after being insulted,” then by all means, go ahead and defend.
I’d propose that most of the time, the insults, untruths, and chest pounding that come up during conflict simply derail you from what you want. More than likely, you want more significant things like to work somewhere where we show respect. Or you may want to be the best team leader you can be. Or to work as efficiently as you can. Whatever your answer is to the question “What do I want?,” listen to your answer and consider whether your behavior now (in the heat of conflict) is taking you closer or farther away from that. Don’t just get sucked into the conflict. Instead, behave intentionally, keeping in mind what you want.
3. Listen for cues that people may not feel safe
Safety First: a good motto for many situations at work, but especially important when you’re dealing with conflict. At a macro level, it’s up to everyone in your workplace to create a culture where it’s safe and OK to engage in conflict because it’s (1) normal that it comes up and (2) productive when we address it. At a micro level, though—when you’re in the middle of conflict—you can help the other person feel safe to address it. How do you that? Two ways:
First, listen for cues that people don’t feel safe. If people are raising their voices or verbally attacking others, they don’t feel safe. If people are withdrawing from the conversation and shutting down, they don’t feel safe.
Second, keep the conversation going. Invite them to talk about what they want and what’s important to them. Listen actively and non-judgmentally, and they may very well head back to safe territory where you can effectively and collaboratively address the conflict.
The next time you’re involved in (or getting sucked into) conflict at work, pay attention to three things: the stories you’re telling yourself about others, what you want, and maintaining a safe environment in which to address conflict. And if you remember nothing else… Just remember to listen more. It’s hard to go wrong with that!
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with Purpose to get the business results they want.