THE COM­MU­NI­CA­TOR How to win bat­tle over con­flict in the work­place

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

EVEN if you’re an ex­traor­di­nar­ily nice per­son — like I am — if you’re in a work­place there will be con­flict. Even if you’re a con­flict avoider — like I also hap­pen to be — you will have to face up to con­flict at some point. It’s un­avoid­able, re­ally. Some­times you have time to pre­pare. For in­stance, you know your pre­sen­ta­tion at a meet­ing is go­ing to be met with re­sis­tance. So, you talk to peo­ple in­di­vid­u­ally be­fore­hand to un­der­stand dif­fer­ing points of view and pos­si­bly win them over — or you write out a list of ex­pected ob­jec­tions and try to craft pos­i­tive re­sponses.

But what I’m go­ing to fo­cus on to­day is those un­ex­pected mo­ments. When a sim­ple ques­tion or a ca­sual com­ment with a col­league sends you on a jolt­ing, sud­den lurch down­ward. This week, I was hav­ing lunch with a col­league. We had both spo­ken at a busi­ness con­fer­ence ear­lier that morn­ing. And we were just chat­ting away about noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar when I men­tioned a video I had rec­om­mended for him and his team. “Why didn’t you share that video with the au­di­ence?” I asked, think­ing I was be­ing re­ally clever to sug­gest that the video would have added in­ter­est to his pre­sen­ta­tion.” “Oh my God,” he said, “I hate that video.” In an in­stant, I felt my tem­per­a­ture and my eye­brows rise. Suc­cumb­ing to a fit of pique I said: “Wow. I love it. I can’t be­lieve you don’t like it.”

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong-o. Wrong. In that one line, I broke about ev­ery rule on deal­ing with con­flict. In fact, I po­ten­tially was the one who cre­ated con­flict by be­ing the dis­agree­ing party.

Re­searchers at Cor­nell Univer­sity re­port that while con­flict is in­her­ent in the work­place, 40 years of study have re­sulted in changes in the ways con­flicts are man­aged and re­solved. In­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ment rights and ar­bi­tra­tion are re­plac­ing union col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and lit­i­ga­tion.

This au­tumn, they will be ex­am­in­ing ad­vances that may be­ing made in the adop­tion of con­flict res­o­lu­tion prac­tices in small and en­tre­pre­neur­ial firms. Ob­vi­ously, my gaffe was not one that was go­ing to spur a ma­jor con­flict. The stakes were not so high as to war­rant third-party me­di­a­tion. So, let’s fo­cus on what two rea­son­ably ra­tio­nal peo­ple can do to pre­vent a mi­nor con­flict from go­ing off the rails.

a grip on your emo­tions. Work­place con­flicts arise when opin­ions dif­fer and emo­tions run high. If you’re a mini Ivan Yates or Vin­cent Browne — one of those peo­ple who seems to en­joy con­fronta­tions and a good ar­gu­ment (and you’re not the host of your own show) — you may be hurt­ing your ca­reer by reg­u­larly up­set­ting your peers.

On the other hand, if you’re too pas­sive when it comes to han­dling con­flict, you may find that you’re easy to over­look and un­able to ef­fec­tively drive your ca­reer for­ward.

The bal­ance be­tween the two is to be as­sertive. You’re con­fi­dent enough to speak up, but you’re not go­ing to alien­ate peo­ple while do­ing so. In my lunch chat, my first re­ac­tion was too emo­tional. I took the re­mark per­son­ally. I didn’t stop and think be­fore I spoke.

use ex­treme lan­guage. Words like ‘hate’ and ‘love’ are ab­so­lutes. Why be so ex­treme? It’s bet­ter to soften your word choice so as not to raise an im­pen­e­tra­ble fortress of rhetoric around you. Like­wise, ac­cus­ing some­one of be­ing ‘al­ways’ or ‘never’ some­thing can be po­lar­is­ing too. “You al­ways ar­rive late.” “You never let me speak.” “You’re al­ways in­ter­rupt­ing.” This prompts de­fen­sive­ness. If a be­hav­iour is hap­pen­ing of­ten enough to be­come frus­trat­ing, you can qual­ify your po­si­tion by stat­ing some­thing like, “It seems as if you are reg­u­larly...”

open-ended ques­tions. Rather than im­me­di­ately coun­ter­ing the ini­tial com­ment with my own op­po­site com­ment, I should have asked a se­ries of ques­tions. “What specif­i­cally did you not like about the video?” “Can you help me un­der­stand how you feel about it?” Or even sim­ply, to quote Justin Bieber, “What do you mean?”

If you don’t take time to un­der­stand where the other per­son is com­ing from, what chance do you have of find­ing com­mon ground — not to men­tion po­ten­tially win­ning the other per­son over to your po­si­tion? Seek­ing to un­der­stand and pos­si­bly even em­pathise with the other per­son’s point of view, is a great way to lower con­flicts. More ques­tions, less coun­ter­ing, is a good rule of thumb.

hy­po­thet­i­cals. You’ve asked a lot of ques­tions and bet­ter un­der­stand the other per­son’s point of view. Now ask them to imag­ine what their per­fect res­o­lu­tion to what­ever prob­lem you’re deal­ing with looks like. “How would you en­vi­sion this work­ing out?” “What would a bet­ter prod­uct or ser­vice look like?” En­cour­age them to help you both dis­cover the so­lu­tion.

so­lu­tions to your com­plaints. Speak­ing of so­lu­tions, you should be of­fer­ing plenty of them your­self. I’ve men­tioned this be­fore in pre­vi­ous col­umns, but don’t crit­i­cise in a vac­uum. Con­sider the value of your crit­i­cism. Does it move the is­sue to­ward res­o­lu­tion? Is it pro­duc­tive? When some­one asks for feed­back, that doesn’t al­ways mean open sea­son on slams. Is there some­thing pos­i­tive you can add? Add it.

Healthy con­flict di­rectly and con­struc­tively ex­plores the is­sues at hand with­out bull­doz­ing or ig­nor­ing the other peo­ple at the ta­ble. In my case, the lunch ta­ble. Have you had a mo­ment of con­flict re­cently? What did you do? What hap­pened? What take­aways did you learn? Tell it to The Com­mu­ni­ca­tor! Write to Gina at Sun­day­busi­ness@ in­de­pen­dent.ie

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