So here you are, new role, new company, new excitements. But, sooner or later, you will bump into conflict. Conflict is a normal part of working life but we rarely talk about how to handle it.
In the workplace, most conflict falls into three categories:
Conflict over resources
I believe someone or something is stopping me from achieving my goals or meeting my needs.
Conflict over expectations
I thought that you said X was going to happen but Y happened instead.
Conflict over loss
I feel I have lost face, advantage, confidence, respect or I fear that I will if this situation continues.
In most organisations, we will meet them daily. They are just part of the rough and tumble of working life; perhaps we wouldn’t recognise them as 'conflict'.
Think about some of the conversations you have had recently about priorities or about what was agreed at that meeting. Think about your reaction when your idea was rejected. All 'normal' things and all falling into one of the conflict categories. Being able to recognise these conflicts in their smallest, quietest forms gives insight into what’s going on for colleagues, for ourselves, for the team. And insight gives us the chance to change outcomes.
How conflict affects us
For some of us, everyday conflicts (such as disagreements with a colleague), triggers our 'fight' reaction and we become aggressive. For others, it provokes us to abandon our position or just withdraw. These reactions can deepen and lengthen conflict rather than resolve it.
These reactions originate in one of the oldest parts of our brains – the amygdala. Billions of years of focus on our survival makes the amygdala champion at recognising and dealing with threat. Far quicker to act than our higher brain, the amygdala takes over and we (the more sophisticated, rational we) are no longer in control.
Managing ourselves in conflict
We can take back control by learning to recognise the signs that the amygdala is taking over, deliberately pausing and choosing a positive response. It can help to have some stock phrases to create space for choice:
“That’s an important question and I need to think about the best response.”
“Can I just check that I understood what you meant?”
“Hang on a tick while I think about that.”
We can develop stronger control by understanding the situations, feelings or words that can trigger us into the conflict zone. Call me “short”, “fat” or “mouthy” and I’m not bothered. Call me “liar” and my amygdala will be reaching for the axe before I can say, “I beg your pardon.” Knowing our own triggers helps us be prepared.
Managing ourselves, we begin to feel more in control of everyday conflict situations instead of avoiding them or making them bigger and stronger with defensive, aggressive reactions. We can then positively influence others' behaviour.
Influencing others' behaviour in conflict
An important point before we move on: Other people are different from you.
They have an amygdala, too, but a whole different set of triggers and experiences. We can make no assumptions. Being curious about what other parties want, value or need is a platform for handling conflict well.
Here are some practical steps we can take:
We can listen
Without judging and without giving advice. The world is full of advice givers and those who tell us we “shouldn’t feel that way”. Offering space for people to be heard helps find perspective.
We can help them explore what they want and need
Having heard the issues, could we explore what is most important to them about the conflict? What would they like to happen now? In conflict, people adopt positions like: “I never want to speak with him again”. Gentle exploration can reveal the underlying need – maybe to feel safe from public criticism or to feel more confident that they can learn a new task. Clarity of need brings clarity of options.
We don’t take part in the drama
No matter how outraged we feel about the situation, we don’t need to share it. If we want to help, we must button our lip and not indulge ourselves with anything that increases the emotion or drama of the situation.
Unresolved conflict tends to fester and resurface. Actively resolve minor conflicts and you grow knowledge, strengthen relationships, turn strife into creativity. Adding conflict-management skills to your portfolio can only strengthen your personal brand.
And you won’t have to wait long for an opportunity to try it out.