Conflict is a part of work, just as it is a part of life. But with some simple tips and clear thinking, you might be able to turn that argument into an opportunity.
Of course there are always going to be differences of opinion among colleagues, but sometimes this escalates into hostility and antagonism, when things seem entirely personal. Disagreements we have with colleagues can feel like battles we’re fighting alone, but the effects of arguments at work ripple out beyond the people involved, making other colleagues feel bad and bringing down the mood of the office.
The government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Abritration Service (ACAS) has some really good tips when it comes to handling conflict in the office, whether that’s on a departmental or personal scale. We’ll have a look at their advice now and also touch on broader wisdom on how to handle tricky conversations in the office.
ACAS has identified the symptoms of conflict and the impact it has on the organisation:
Staff may seem less engaged, unwilling to take on new challenges and appear reluctant to get involved as much in meetings
Colleagues stop going out to social events with each other and a mean remarks start creeping into office conversation
The pace of work has slowed and the office doesn’t seem to be working as well
Absences and time off
More people are calling in sick and they seem to be more stressed and unhappy
To put these factors into statistics, ACAS chair Sir Brendan Barber estimates that such conflict costs the country 370 million working days a year.
So it is critical that we tackle conflict early. Some managers have finely tuned antennas and are aware of the rumblings beneath the surface. The key is to spot when the same small issues keep cropping up repeatedly the office, and that it is the same parties involved again and again.
Take preventive action
If you are a team manager, show that you are approachable and willing to listen to problems. If there is a good ethos in the workplace you should be able to detect if someone’s just having a bad afternoon or whether there’s long-term unhappiness brewing.
Hot, cold or warm?
The signs of serious conflict might not be obvious, because people react in different ways. Some start to get belligerent and loud, while others may be withdrawn. These phases are sometimes called hot or cold in the language of conflict resolution.
In a hot situation, people’s hackles are up and they might be shouting or losing their temper. In a cold one, a person might be seemingly withdrawn, muttering about the situation. They are annoyed, but not heated.
Your aim is to change the temperature level to warm. Placate the hot heads and draw the cooler ones into conversation.
Set realistic goals
You may be dealing with two very different types of people: one who relishes arguments and the other who avoids it. Once they have started a conversation let them know that it is up to them to come to an agreement – if only to disagree.
Handling conflict with a colleague
Rather than obsessing about the other person, start with yourself. When faced with a difficult situation we generally react in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
Identify your feelings
So scroll back to the last time you faced conflict at work. What did you feel at the time? Identify those emotions and recognise when they’re bubbling up again in the office. When you understand how you tend to react, you can begin to try to control it when you feel there’s an argument coming on. Take a deep breath, perhaps offer to make some soothing tea for everyone, and try to control your feelings. (This is what I once did in a personal argument and also suggested we sit down; more civilised.)
Think about the bigger picture
Let’s say there’s an argument in an office about progress over a project. You’d think the project was the only thing being discussed? Maybe not. Somebody might be angry because of the project and that they’ve got unaddressed issues with another team member. Or perhaps they’ve been so invested in some work they’ve done, that their ego is tied to the outcome and so they actually care more about being right, than doing the right thing for the job.
As well as identifying how you’ll react in a conflict, you also need to understand why you’re reacting. How much of your annoyance is personal and how much is professional? Do your best to separate the two.
Find common ground
Two people want to climb over a wall. One wants to use a ladder, the other a rope. Who’s right? Well, it depends on the wall. So that’s the first thing to talk about.
In an argument, try drawing the discussion back to common goals, subjects that neither party can say ‘no’ to. This draws attention away from personal feelings and desires and back to shared successes. From there, you can start to walk the conversation back to individual points one at a time, comparing and contrasting thee: what are the benefits of the rope versus the ladder?
There’s the old saying about people having two ears and one mouth – and that we should use them accordingly. Even if you feel your point is the right one, all things considered, you must listen to the other person so they feel that they and their view are being respected.
By listening, you also allow yourself the opportunity to come up with counter arguments that are relevant to the discussion at hand. Always counter the point, not the person presenting it. This way your thoughts are less likely to be taken as personal.
There’s interesting psychology research that suggests that when people with trenchant views are asked to explain why they have them, instead of just insisting that those views are correct, their attitudes can soften and they can become more receptive to different ideas.
Take the initiative in a discussion and explain why you hold your points and give examples. Encourage the other person to do the same. Hopefully you should now have a better idea of each other’s points of view.
It’s OK to own up
When we’re in conflict, we can get swept up in the idea – and I think this is especially true for men – that we have to win. This can make it hard for us to own up when our own ideas need improving, or even apologise for getting something wrong or misunderstanding what our colleague is trying to say.
Showing willingness to say you’re wrong on a point, or to say sorry, is actually a powerful tool to keep a conversation going and for both parties to come to an agreement. Don’t think of it as a retreat, merely a tactical withdrawal.
Just remember that conflict and disagreements aren’t always bad for business. If everyone is happy, nothing changes. If nothing changes, nothing improves. The key is to turn disagreement into something positive.
In the end be sensible, it’s not about you, it’s about the business.
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Previously on The Euroffice Blog…