Have you ever watched a conflict between two other people at work and were reluctant to step in? Why is that? There are so many possible reasons:
- You don’t want to get in the middle of it.
- You’re unsure what to say.
- You don’t want one or both of them to be upset with you.
- You’re not a supervisor to either of the people in conflict.
- You’re afraid your approach will be too tough.
People will often say they don’t want to step in because they are afraid of how the people in the conflict will respond. I believe it is more often our lack of confidence in our ability to handle their response that we find uncomfortable.
We often think of conflict in negative terms, but conflict can be healthy. It often helps us address problems before they escalate and benefit from the differences among members of our team. Harriet B. Braiker, author of Who’s Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life, writes “Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is not the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.”
When conflict is avoided or not managed well, it often hinders productivity, lowers morale and leads to more (or continued) conflict.
I believe the best place to start with managing conflict is with self-awareness, which leads to emotional intelligence. It is useful to ask yourself:
- How do I feel when I witness or engage in conflict – anxious, dismissive, angry, frustrated, terrified or avoidant?
- Am I open to thinking about conflict in a more productive way – as vital to forming and keeping healthy relationships?
- How do I currently handle conflict? Do I avoid it, try to control others, lecture people, say what I think others want hear, judge or criticize others? Are there more productive ways for me to behave in conflict?
Much of how we deal with conflict has to do with our preference for passive, assertive or aggressive behavior. Most people tend to be more comfortable with passive or aggressive behavior than assertive behavior. Practicing assertive behavior over time will help us become better and better at managing conflict. We must keep in mind that when we are under stress, we tend to fall back into the (unhelpful) behavior that we prefer. It is during these times that emotional intelligence becomes even more important. When we learn techniques to harness the power of our thoughts and emotions, we can more effectively navigate conflict.
Once you identify your current thoughts and behaviors, you may decide you want to try more productive ones. You can challenge yourself to think in new, more productive ways that are just outside your comfort zone to handle conflict effectively.
- Instead of feeling angry in a situation, you might choose instead to think about feeling energized to take action.
- Instead of avoiding conflict, you may choose to see it as healthy communication. You may decide to practice in a small way, like telling someone in your family that you disagree with them and why. Slowly challenge yourself more and more over time to say how you feel or what you think in a given situation, until you are comfortable practicing in small ways at work too. Taking small steps to develop your confidence over time is very effective.
- If you are prone to lecturing, controlling or criticizing others in conflict, your challenge may be to think about and show empathy, understanding, and acceptance of other people’s feelings. You may practice by making an effort to listen more attentively to others before speaking.
- After each conflict, think about what you did well and what you would have done differently if you could do it over again.
M.J. Clark, M.A., APR, is a senior leadership consultant at Integrated Leadership Systems. Clark helps companies foster more authentic communication in the workplace, and helps executives better manage stress, become more assertive, mentor others, and develop leadership and management skills. She has a master’s degree in organizational communication from The Ohio State University, and a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Ohio University. She is author of “Shut Up and Lead: A Communicator’s Guide to Quiet Leadership.”
Interested in learning more about this topic? Join M.J. Clark, M.A., APR for her webinar “The Art of Managing Workplace Conflict” on May 5, 2015, from 3 to 4 p.m. EST. The webinar is free to PRSA members.