Conflict. The word itself more than likely triggers you to think about a personal or professional challenge you’ve had or are currently going through with someone. Most of us do everything in our power to avoid it, particularly in work relationships, but I’m here to tell you, you can’t.
We’re human beings with differing beliefs, perspectives, and experiences, so when it comes to working together the goals are to find common ground and mutual purpose. However, more often than not – even with the best intentions – we don’t reach an understanding until there’s conflict.
It’s the great disruptor, helping us to be more conscious of our interactions and creating opportunities for open and honest dialogue. The key is to run (or if you’re really uncomfortable, maybe a slow walk) toward these opportunities rather than back away from them.
At an early age I realized trying to steer clear of “the great disruptor” was nearly impossible.
I tried avoidance, denial and benefit-of-the-doubt instead of communication, but all were detrimental to self-care. My frustration and dismay would make their way to the surface at some point, serving as a reminder to me that, as James Baldwin put it, “You cannot fix what you will not face.”
What really forced me to change was seeing how NOT dealing with conflict physically affected me: I was 28 at the time, excited about my new “grown up” job and putting up with a lot of mistreatment (constant criticism, meanness, and apathy) from my former supervisor. I developed horrible, blister-like breakouts. The stress literally showed on my face. When I noticed how badly I was breaking out I chalked it up to something in my diet, but my body was actually responding to what was happening at work.
How did I know it was work related? Two ways: 1) I’d not had acne since I was 13 years old. 2) Louise Hay. I’ll explain.
When I couldn’t get rid of the breakouts no matter what I did, I knew it was something deeper than eating too many greasy foods. I opened Louise Hay’s book Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them, turned to the page on the cause of pimples, and the first sentence said, “Small outbursts of anger.” The second sentence was an affirmation: “I calm my thoughts and I am serene.” I knew at that point my physical distress was about not confronting my supervisor.
I was angry but acting as if everything was OK. The only way back to “calm thoughts and a serene” state was to confront her, so I did.
Before the meeting, I wrote down my main talking points, provided examples, and also shared what I needed for a better work environment. Was I afraid? Absolutely. But Maggie Kuhn said it best, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.”
My supervisor was shocked but receptive. I was relieved and liberated.
Things improved, but more importantly, after that meeting I made a commitment to always respectfully speak my truth and never let any situation get that bad again – no matter how difficult I think confronting it might be.
It’s years later and I’ve kept that promise to myself.
And yes, the breakouts disappeared.
I was so serious about learning healthier strategies of communication that I also worked to become a conflict resolution mediator. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I now use the skills and techniques I learned to help others navigate difficult dialogue.
Here are four tips I’d like to share with you.
Be COURAGEOUS about resolving conflict. Don’t let the issue fester.
The decision to resolve conflict is most certainly an act of courage, because no one really wants to face it head on. We ignore it. We make excuses. We wait until we’re forced to deal with the issue. I’m saying don’t let it get to that point. Be proactive, especially if you think it’s a situation that could potentially damage your work relationship.
Write down your thoughts before meeting with the person so you have a clear head and an open heart for resolution. And remember, the more you put it off, the more challenging the situation will become. You owe it to yourself (and the other person) to resolve it as quickly and thoughtfully as possible.
Keep in mind, what you think will happen is far worse than what will actually happen, so refrain from visualizing drama and instead think about what will go right.
If you feel the issue warrants having a third party present (conflict resolution mediator, trusted mutual colleague, etc) then be sure you and the other person are in full agreement about someone else being a part of the meeting.
Be willing to have a difficult conversation in order to move forward with clarity and understanding.
Everything doesn’t always come up roses when working together, unfortunately. So, it’s important to have courageous conversations. Don’t ignore bumps in the road; they are opportunities for personal and professional growth, and of course, better communication. The harmony and happiness you want when working with others is on the other side of that difficult (but necessary) conversation. Meet with a common goal and mutual purpose in mind, agreeing to clear up miscommunication and to move forward with greater understanding of what each person needs to sustain the work relationship.
Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High reiterates this point:
Mutual Purpose means that others perceive that we are working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that we care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa. We believe they care about ours. Consequently, Mutual Purpose is the entry condition of dialogue. Find a shared goal and you have both a good reason and healthy climate for talking.
Commit to directly discuss your concerns only with the person you have conflict.
This one seems simple, but it’s not. Why? Because the urge to vent your frustration and share the problem(s) you’re having with someone other than the person you’re in conflict with is almost second nature. It’s what we’ve all learned to do in order to avoid confrontation.
Venting is a quick and comfortable way to feel better and to validate your side of the story. But what does it really solve? You got it. Nothing. The problem still exists, and unfortunately, the person you’ve told is now indirectly involved, and that could potentially make things worse.
How many times have you consulted with friends and loved ones about an issue or challenge you’re having in a work relationship? Probably too many to count. It’s OK. We all need a listening ear sometimes, but sharing the same thing over and over again gets old quickly.
Work toward developing solutions not increasing complaining sessions, because eventually, your friends and loved ones will get tired of hearing about it.
Put another way in A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted:
Talking to someone other than the person who brings up your unhealed feelings is triangulation. If you’re unfamiliar with triangulation, it occurs when you have an uncomfortable situation with someone but discuss the problem with someone else rather than going to the person directly. Healthy communication is talking directly and only to the person you have an issue with. Talking to someone else is complaining; it’s triangulation and it perpetuates rather than solves the problem.
At some point or another you’ve heard this quote from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”
Listen to the other person without
- Impatiently waiting for your chance to speak – fidgeting, lack of eye contact, etc. Body language speaks volumes.
- Focusing on who’s right or wrong. The purpose is to be open, to listen and understand, not to one-up each other.
So, first ask yourself (when you take time to write down your thoughts), “What is my intention for meeting?” If it’s just to give the person “a piece of your mind,” then you’re wasting your time. You may feel better for a while after doing it, but there’s no real resolution in that plan.
Remember, this is about your commitment to being a more thoughtful communicator and to developing a shared purpose that will strengthen your trust in and respect for each other.
Listening must be a two-way street.
Be patient with yourself when it comes to the process of conflict resolution. Take it one step at a time. Sure, it may be uncomfortable at first, but there’s definitely growth in the uncomfortable space, an opportunity to learn how healthy, productive communication works. So, take the leap. Do it afraid, because meaningful work relationships happen through courageous conversations.
Ayanna Jordan is founder of and leadership development coach & trainer for The Phoenix Rising Collective. She develops and facilitates women-centered workshops on how putting self-love into action can transform your life. Ayanna also creates coaching and training that supports women’s professional growth in leadership, entrepreneurship, and passion-filled work. As editor-in-chief of Phoenix Shine, she is happy to be working with contributing writers to provide resources and awareness on topics that cultivate self-love and acceptance. Right now, she is most inspired by the LYFF series and She Makes It Beautiful. You can learn more about Ayanna HERE.