There’s (at least) one in every office: Know-it-all Norm, Competitive Carl, Passive-aggressive Priyanka… even though you’re all on the same team, people who provoke conflict can derail your day and create unnecessary tension.
When we were little, we were taught the fundamentals for getting along with others: share your toys, ask nicely, say sorry, don’t hit… things were simpler then. The playground of yesterday is the open office of today, and not everyone has remembered the lessons for playing professionally with colleagues. Conflict is a natural part of competitive business, of course, but too much is counterproductive. How can you deal with unnecessary conflict at work without giving in to the fight-or-flight response?
1) Step away from the sandbox
Staying calm, not giving in to provocation… this is the hardest part of conflict management, because we’re hard-wired to defend ourselves or pick sides when an argument arises. But a glance at the Comments section of any online article proves that knee-jerk responses tend to bring out the worst in people and certainly don’t resolve anything! When faced with a challenger, be the bigger person (or the grownup if you prefer) by keeping your cool rather than raising your voice or jumping head-first into an altercation. By setting an example with your professionalism, you’re inviting your adversary/colleague to rise to the occasion and respond in kind.
2) You have two ears and one mouth
Sir Richard Branson has a favorite saying: “Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by listening to themselves speak.” Active listening, in which you pay attention to your colleague’s point of view with an attitude of curiosity and respect, is the path to finding common ground. Giving someone the space to vent can also allow them to blow off steam… and then communicate more rationally. When you listen first and talk after, your response – instead of being a rebuttal in an endless debate – is much more likely to be constructive, and you’re more open to learning (I’m looking at you, Know-it-all Norm).
3) Use your words
The tools we use to communicate in the workplace have changed dramatically. Text, rather than direct speech, is the medium of emails, group messaging, SMS and social media. How often do you read someone’s hastily typed words and feel your blood start to boil? Probably too many times a day. The art of letter writing has unfortunately been lost in today’s email correspondence, and more’s the pity, because multi-tasking professionals don’t always take the time to choose their words carefully. You can provide a positive example by using fact-based, non-emotive terms, and consider the point of view of the reader, anticipating potential triggers for confusion or frustration. Whenever possible, avoid the de-humanizing effect of the digital back-and-forth by communicating the old-fashioned way, like we did with our playmates: face-to-face!
4) Know your bully
As a hundred movies and after-school specials have shown us, inside most bullies is a tormented kid who needs attention and guidance. While you don’t have to make friends with everyone you work with, in moments of conflict with an especially irascible person, a little empathy goes a long way. That’s why listening, and carefully responding, is so important. Reflecting respect and dignity towards another person allows them to feel “heard,” reducing tension and making room for exchange. A sincere “Wow, I get why you’re frustrated!” or “This is a tough one, can we explore some possible solutions?” can turn a foe into an ally. As bullies are more used to contempt than compassion, an unexpected warm(ish) welcome can paint a potential conflict in a more positive light.
While dealing with stress, competition, sensitive egos, and time-crunches isn’t as easy as 1-2-3, channeling your inner child and applying the lessons we all learned early in life can be surprisingly useful in the grownup world of work.