Any relationship, professional or personal, often encounters sparks of tension and discord. Disagreements in work practices, looming deadlines, personal issues, differing senses of humour and even varying moods and temperaments can cause “rubs” to occur, misunderstandings to arise and workflow to be obstructed.
These are natural. They occur in most relationships and in every workplace. They do not, on their own, mean your relationships or teams are broken. They do not need to ruin or re-define our working relationships with others.
They simply need to be resolved …. respectfully.
As someone who facilitates workplace conflict resolution both informally (mediations) and formally (investigations/arbitrations), I can assure you that there is no “pot of gold” at the end of the “adversarial rainbow”. It is far better for everyone – those involved in the conflict and those caught in the middle – to resolve day-to-day conflicts both early and informally.
The best way to do this? Have a conversation with the other person involved.
However, instead of talking through conflict with those involved, I increasingly witness our collective tendency to avoid the situation. If there’s tension with someone, we work around them. If there’s conflict, we walk the other way.
We readily talk about the conflict we face, including its impact on us and our wish for it to be resolved. However, we are having these conversations with everyone but the person involved.
This epidemic of talking about rather than to the individual prolongs the conflict and makes the situation worse.
Avoidance is Dysfunctional and often Disrespectful: Here’s Why
There are many ways we avoid dealing with conflict in the workplace. But before we figure out how to change our approach, we need to better understand why we do what we do.
- When we speak critically about someone to others in the workplace (for unnecessary and non-work-related reasons), it is often considered a form of disrespect. At its mildest, it is gossip. At its worst, it is a form of harassment.
- Often, we think we are simply sharing our truth and perspective on a situation. However, we do so in a way that sounds 100% factual (“THIS is what happened”; THIS is what he/she did”.) As a result, we end up hurting the other person’s reputation with the team. They become a conversation piece in the workplace without being given the opportunity to share their perspective or defend themselves against someone else’s perspective, narrative or experience.
- True respect requires courageous and respectful transparency with those with whom we have an issue. We do not need to communicate with them alone but we certainly do need to communicate with them.
- Conflict avoidance is not only disrespectful, it is counterproductive. When we refuse to communicate, simple misunderstandings and one-off events turn into long-term and systemic challenges.
- Why? When we avoid speaking to the person directly, they remain unaware of our concerns. If they don’t know what we are upset about, how will they know what they have done or how we want them to change? Yes, we are entitled to establish reasonable professional and personal boundaries with others but it is up to us to communicate those in a clear, direct, and reasonable manner. No one can be expected to read our minds. This applies to leaders and colleagues alike.
- When we are upset with someone at work (or at home!), they can “feel it” it – even when we don’t say a word. Our energy around them changes, our non-verbal cues shift, and our silence becomes deafening. Those involved usually know something is “off” but don’t know what it is. This causes them to be as stressed as we are, but they are even more confused as to why.
- Finally, when we avoid having conversations with the person involved, we make assumptions about their actions and intentions at the time of the conflict. We use our assumptions about them to form “stories in our heads” about their behavior, often inaccurately. Many conflicts exist because we don’t have all the facts about what happened and why. We can only gather such facts by talking to the person who was there at the time – no one else.
How to Jump Start Conflict Resolution
For these very practical reasons, it is critical that we jump-start conflict resolution by having 15-minute “MIRROR conversations” with those who, from our perspective at least, are causing stress, issues or concerns. A MIRROR conversation is one in which we reflect our experiences for others in a way that will build mutual awareness and understanding so that we may fix the fractures in our relationship.
In doing so, let’s proceed with care and compassion. Conversations – even those intended to resolve conflict – can cause even more conflict if we fail to engage in respectful, measured and considerate communication.
What does this look like? Here are a few tips on how to get a MIRROR conversation about conflict resolution started:
- Set up the conversation for success. Don’t blindside the other person. Find a mutual time that works and let the other person know, generally, what it is you want to talk about. Do so confidentially.
- Allow anyone a support person if they are uncomfortable with a 1:1 conversation. No conversation will be effective if someone feels uneasy about being alone.
- Have the conversation in an informal and confidential venue. No need for boardrooms and binders – keep it chill – but ensure it is contained so that others do not hear the exchange.
- Both individuals should commit to keeping the conversation ‘in the room’ after it’s happened to avoid destructive workplace gossip.
- Understand that a conversation is a two-way thing. The person who initiates the meeting “gets to start” and must then sit back and listen to the other person’s perspective. The person who is first expected to listen should understand – from the outset – that they will get an equal opportunity to respond.
MIRROR Conversations Require Respectful Speakers and Respectful Listeners
Respectful speakers should:
- Describe the concern/issue in a neutral, specific and descriptive manner, allowing the other person to visualize how they “showed up” for the speaker during the interaction. Truly act like a MIRROR. Don’t judge, don’t generalize, don’t diagnose – just describe the event that caused you concern. Explain its impact. Explain what you would have preferred to have seen or experienced instead.
- Use respectful words, a measured tone of voice and neutral facial expressions when mirroring your experience and concerns to the individual. Understand that you can “blow a conversation” by being aggressive, sarcastic, condescending or abrasive regardless of the words you choose.
- Understand that any apparent “merit” to your concern or desire for change is undermined when you describe the person or the issue in a disrespectful manner.
Respectful listeners should:
- Genuinely listen to the person, without feeling pressured to agree, with an open willingness to understand where that person is coming from and how they experienced the situation with you.
- Consider how you may have been “seen,” even if you did not intend for that to be the case. Acknowledging our own role in conflict is a personal strength, not a weakness.
- Also understand however, that you do not need to “buy in” to someone else’s description or characterization of you if you do not feel it is accurate. That said, and as difficult as this may be, let them finish their narrative before “jumping in” to defend yourself.
- Even when your defense or response to the other person’s concern has merit, it is disrespectful and often counterproductive to interrupt, talk over someone or walk away simply because you disagree and that disagreement has caused you discomfort. Personal discomfort in the face of differing perspectives/experiences/opinions is often not a sign of disrespect (if the information is being conveyed respectfully). We need to learn to live with, and move through, our own discomfort in the face of differing perspectives if we are to achieve meaningful and lasting conflict resolution.
- Once the initial speaker has finished, the listener now becomes the speaker. The roles are reversed, and the rules remain the same. Respect all around.
- Once each person has had an opportunity to talk about the past from their perspective, the conversation should move to solutions for the future. Again, this should be practical, specific and balanced. What would each person like to see from the other next week to avoid what happened last week? That’s it. Nothing more.
- No one, for any reason, is entitled to personally attack the other person (through name-calling or critical comments of a personal nature) or otherwise treat them with contempt. No exceptions. No excuses. Keep the conversation focused on the specific behaviors, work practices or communication at issue. Nothing else. There is simply no defense to being mean.
- When a conversation gets too heated or goes side-ways, end it as soon as possible and return to the discussion later. Don’t use the heat to retreat on a permanent basis. Cool off and resume, perhaps with others at the table to lend support.
Working Together to Address Workplace Conflict
Day-to-day resolution of workplace conflict is simply about finding ways to work through issues so we can get back to getting the work done. When we find ourselves “in each other’s way,” let’s figure out practical and meaningful ways to adjust. Let’s not write each other off, pigeon-hole each other or in any other way make this more challenging than it needs to be.
It starts – and often ends – with a 15-minute MIRROR conversation – one that is reflective, respectful, balanced and very practical. If that doesn’t work, and you feel that conflict and dysfunction are taking hold of your psychological health or your organization’s culture, reach out to a professional.