How To Handle Conflict At Work

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Learn how to deal with difficult people at work. Confrontations are not always avoidable, but this lesson will give you strategies you need to resolve any conflict at work. I explain how you can de-escalate conflict with passive-aggressive coworkers or colleagues who directly confront you about their issues.

Let’s be real, Explearners.Workplace confrontations happen.They’re not pretty and they’re not always avoidable. 

And when they do happen, we want you to be able to go to your communication toolkit and repair communication conundrums with confidence, authenticity, and poise. 

So, you had a confrontation at work. It’s gonna be OK.  Take it upon yourself to do the following:

(1) Don’t make it about you

The quickest way to escalate the confrontation into a much bigger conflict is to take it personally. This is why we don’t make it about ourselves. The reality is that we all carry some baggage with us and we all go through rough patches so the person may just be taking it out on you because they need someone to lash out on. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that’s the right thing to do, but just be aware that there is more than meets the eye and there can be so much more going on in that person’s life than you even know. 

Get some perspective and know that it really is not you. It might be them. 

Just an aside: you’re not the issue unless they give you valid reasons explaining why you’re the problem(and complaining that you chew loudly or saying that they just can’t put a finger on why they don’t like you are not plausible reasons for lashing out on you), but if you are actually the issue then we have a different situation on our hands and that’s the topic of another communication lesson.

(2) Talk it out face-to-face (f2f) in a private meeting 

The root cause of many confrontations can be the inability to see eye to eye about something. When a confrontation transpires, you want to talk to the person face-to-face. Conducting a private followup meeting over email or text message is like adding oil to the fire. So don’t do that because it’ll only escalate matters. The lack of visual cues and nonverbal communication in texting and emails can make the conflict trickier to resolve. It is much better to set up a time in person and in a neutral setting. Humans can be territorial so it’s better to have the conflict resolution meeting on equal turf and in a private space. 

Some example of neutral territories: 

  • Book a private meeting room
  • Have the meeting in a coffee shop near the office
  • Have the meeting in an empty office 

I’d personally avoid doing the meeting in your office or theirs because that’s not entirely neutral, is it?

What do you discuss in this f2f?

Call out the pink elephant in the room. This is where you discuss what the issue is. In some cases you may know what upset the person for them to confront you. In other cases you may be oblivious to the alleged issue. if it is something that came out of left field you might have to ask more directly:  Have I done something to upset you? It is really important to have a positive attitude here and the overall objective of the meeting is to get to the bottom of the issue and to come to some sort of resolution. 

(3) Call a team meeting

Sometimes, the situation might call for a team meeting. Note that this can occur in place of the f2f private meeting with the person who confronted you OR it can come AFTER the private one-on-one. If you choose to have the team meeting in lieu of the f2f meeting, be sure to keep it professional it is NOT OK to publicly humiliate or call out the person who initiated the confrontation. My suggestion is to first clear the air privately with the person who confronted you and THEN if you are in a leadership role that allows you to call together a team-meeting then do so. 

This would be a GOAL SETTING MEETING whose purpose is to clarify objectives and communicate clearly about these objectives, so everyone is on the same page. An effective acronym I like to use is SMART when creating objectives in goal setting meetings:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

(4) find a win-win

Revisit ways of negotiating for a win-win situation. If we look hard enough we can find ways of coming to a win-win. Let’s have a look at what I call “The Orange Story” which is a story my parents would tell my brother and I if we fought over something. 

Two people want an orange. But there is only one orange. One possible outcome could be to cut the orange into half, giving half to person A and half to person B. Sounds good, right?

Yes, definitely, but it’s not the most favorable outcome. 

Why?

Because Person A just wants to eat the fruit. And Person B just needs the rind for an orange spice cake they’re going to make.

If they simply communicate their needs they could both get what they want!

In light of finding a win-win solution for both parties, they each communicate their reasons for needing an orange. 

Because they each know what the other wants, and they do not have overlapping uses for the orange (i.e., bake with the peel vs. eat the fruit) nothing goes to waste and they both get the most desirable outcome – what they want!

So you see how important it is to communicate your needs? People aren’t mind readers, you have to communicate your desires and expectations if you want anyone to help you achieve those goals. 

Keep in mind this Orange Story next time you find yourself in a pickle.

(5) Get a BATNA 

A BATNA stands for your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (a term coined by the authors of Getting to Yes). In other words, what is your best next alternative?

To figure out your BATNA:

Write out the actions you will take if you are not able to come to an agreement or conflict resolution let alone a win-win situation (which would be ideal, right). So this is when you need a BATNA. Highlight the top 3 ideas that you can actually foresee as plausible outcomes and transform them into actionable items. Then choose the single most favorable option that seems to suit your needs (in other words what’s your next best alternative). 

This is your BATNA.

BATNAs are a powerful tool in any type of negotiation (job search, salary negotiation, conflict resolution or repairing a toxic environment in the workplace). 

(6) Framing with “I” 

As you know taking responsibility is our underlying theme here in dealing with difficult situations resulting from poor communication skills. It is very important to assume responsibility (not just in your mind, but also to verbalize it). Avoid saying “you” à you did this, you did that, you are this you are that…. It can be both inciteful and inflammatory particularly in a confrontation. Focus on framing your communication with “I” because it shows the interlocutor that you are not blaming them but owning up to whatever it is

Here are some examples:

  • I would like to understand what happened from your point of view?
  • What have I done to cause you to feel this way?
  • What do you believe I could’ve done differently?

(7)  Active listening and (8) empathetic communication

Be sure to check out the blog posts and accompanying video lessons about this. Boosting your listening skills will also be useful when dealing with a workplace confrontation so I highly encourage you to revisit those video lessons. 

Recap:

Let’s recap before we go. The issue we wanted to resolve is workplace confrontation.

We’ve discussed 8 ways of resolving this type of communication conundrum.

My advice would be to practice these strategies before you need them so that you make them part of your communication toolkit and be ready to act professionally and appropriately when the time comes.

Happy Explearning 🐝