Sometimes when we’re talking with people, we get an “ah-ha” that opens up a whole new pathway of thinking. This happened recently with a woman (I’ll call Barbara) when we were discussing difficult conflicts she was having at work. One conflict involved a co-worker who wasn’t pulling his fair share of the workload. The second conflict was with a decision made by management not to identify her for future leadership development. When I asked her how she had responded to the two conflicts or intended to respond to them, she shook her head and looked down: stuck in both conflicts without any clear path out.
Here is the epiphany. I asked her how these conflicts would have been addressed if she were having them in her personal life. She replied, “Oh, we don’t really resolve conflicts in my family. We just don’t say anything for awhile, and then we move on. Nothing ever really gets talked about.” So, I asked her, “Do you think this approach will work in the workplace, especially if you want to be a leader?” She immediately knew the answer was “no, it wouldn’t work.” In other words, she was using her personal style of conflict resolution (that she had grown up with and was very ingrained in her being) as if it were an acceptable practice in the workplace.
The next obvious question was, “what conflict resolution approach would be acceptable for someone who aspires to be a leader?” I mentioned as an aside to her that conflict occurs about every 20 minutes in the workplace. So it’s obviously something that we can’t dodge or ignore. She recognized that a true leader surfaces conflict directly, in an attitude of resolution and that a leader should be able to describe the conflict problem without attacking the individual personally. She also mentioned the importance of good listening and finding common ground between the individuals. In other words, like a great soup, she knew all the ingredients; she just didn’t know how to put them together.
The breakthrough for Barbara came when she realized that she couldn’t approach conflict in the workplace the same way she approached her personal conflicts. She needed a model approach for the workplace that would always steer her towards best practice. She needed to “put on” a conflict model when dealing with workplace situations; she needed to put on a coat of conflict resolution.
Here are a couple of tips to remember when designing your own conflict resolution coat (imagine putting on this coat when getting ready to deal with the many conflicts of the workplace):
1) The first step is always to determine if you and the other person have an attitude that you want to resolve the conflict. “I’m struggling with a problem that I’d like to talk with you about. Would you be willing to hear me out and share your own thoughts as well?” If that isn’t the case, then delay because you won’t get anywhere pushing the river up hill. “I can see that you’re still very upset about the situation, and I’d like to suggest that we wait a week or two and then meet to talk about it. Is that okay?”
2) When you share your side of the story, try to speak in “I” language. Describe factually what has happened and the impact on you in feelings. “I realize that you have made a decision not to earmark me for leadership advancement. I’m very disappointed with that decision.”
3) Describe what you would like to see happen. “I’d like to talk with you about how I could convince you I am interested and then prove to you that I’m ready to do the hard work.” See how many “I” statements there are here. “You” statements just ignite the fight/flight response in the other person and then you’re back to the beginning trying to build an attitude of resolution. Focus on yourself and word everything from the “I” perspective.
4) Now clarify the consequences of the person either choosing to follow your request or deciding not to. “If I’m given a second chance, I won’t let you down. If I’m not, then I’ll have to consider whether it makes sense for me to move on to another department.”
Barbara pushed herself to develop a workplace conflict resolution approach that has become comfortable for her, especially knowing she wishes to advance into the role of a leader. Barbara also, however, reverts to her family conflict resolution approach when dealing with her parents and her siblings. There’s nothing wrong with having two approaches. Hmmmm…..something I had never thought about before.
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