Frequently, the only two options we see for handling the conflict is to respond in a combative manner (fight) or totally avoid the conflict (flight/freeze/submit). Sadly, both of these strategies often do more to escalate conflict than to extinguish it. And, the opportunity to turn a conflict into a positive learning experience is lost.
Almost every conflict can produce a positive benefit. However, in order to reap that benefit we typically have to navigate through some muddy waters and hold a difficult discussion.
If you decide to hold a dialogue with this co-worker, before you get HR involved--which will open up a different can of worms--please consider the following:
- Are you willing to risk damaging or losing the relationship with your co-worker?
- Are you going to ask this person to change? If you are, you may want to think twice. It's difficult to change when we are highly motivated. It's almost impossible to change when the impetus for change is coming from an external force.
- What is the best location for holding the discussion? (Help establish a positive tone by meeting in a comfortable, neutral location.)
- What political forces may become involved in the conflict? Who needs to be involved in the implementation of a possible resolution?
- What are the possible consequences of losing emotional control or exposing a personal vulnerability?
- What level of confidentiality is reasonable to expect?
- How can the dispute be framed as a mutual problem?
Once you are ready for the difficult discussion, make sure that your attitude reflects the fact that discord is simply a natural byproduct of close human connection and almost always presents an opportunity to learn what needs to be fixed.
To put you in the right frame of mind, make a list of ten traits that your co-worker possesses that you admire and respect. Read the list over a few times. Additionally, you will want to consider the following concepts and strategies.
The following set of questions can be used to guide an effective discussion under stress:
- Where are we now?
- Where do we need to be?
- How will we get there?
- What do each of us need to do?
- How can I help you?
Be prepared for confrontation. If you are prepared you will be able to keep your cool and model the attitudes and behaviors you want. Uncontrolled emotions can harm your image, no matter how much you are provoked.
Listen and get the whole story. Active listening takes practice and an open, unbiased and uncluttered mind. The active listener is engaged in the communication process and pays strict attention to all speakers, asking appropriate, open-ended questions (how? what? when? where? who?) to probe for underlying interests and clarifying questions to verify understanding.
The active listening skills of empathizing, paraphrasing, re-framing, summarizing and picking-up on non-verbal clues are worth cultivating.
Other things to consider include:
- Focus on solving problems, not placing blame. Fault-finding is looking backward, resolution requires moving forward.
- Your tone and body language must be in agreement with your words. Others will believe your voice and other non-verbal messages as opposed to your words if there is inconsistency between them.
- Don't expect to find a flawless solution. A solution that can be revisited and readjusted may be a great first step.
- If you're stuck, suggest that each of you write down your perspectives of the dispute and some recommended remedies. Then read each other's writings.
- If the discussion escalates so that you are no longer listening to each other, call a time-out.
- If all else fails, at the appropriate time, suggest wiping the slate clean and starting anew.
- Seek commonalities, such as a shared experience (feeling dismissed) which may be fueling the fire.
- Plan some kind of formal or informal follow-up to avoid a recurrence. Without reinforcement stress can easily lead you back to old patterns.
- Shake hands and sign off on a written version of the agreed-upon solution.
Elinor Robin, "The Relationship Mediator," has more than 18 years of experience in mediation while working within the public and private sectors.