It’s an inevitable part of every professional’s life that at some point we will work with someone we disagree with. But all too often the situation is made worse by the fact that instead of addressing difficulties directly with the person, we waste time and energy thinking about past or future interactions with them, or worse, complaining to other colleagues about them. ‘Conflict’ does not have to be a dirty word – it can be something that we respond to in a healthy and productive way.
Conflict tends to arise from difference in one form or another. Here’s an example from my time in the healthcare industry. I used to work with a nurse who complained that she wasn’t being valued. She felt that she had put forward several great ideas at management meetings but the CEO didn’t implement them. In meetings she often became quite negative of other people’s ideas and the discussions between her and the CEO often became quite heated.
So what were the differences that lead to the conflict above? Aside from very different communication styles (where my colleague was energetic and spoke from the heart, the CEO was succinct and logical), a huge difference lay in their training - my colleague was a nurse and the CEO was an accountant. When she put forward creative ideas to improve client experience, he saw huge costs. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about patients or that she didn’t care about costs, it was just that they approached things from very different starting points.
So how can we manage these differences to result in a more productive approach to conflict?
Create an atmosphere of trust
Work to ensure that people feel comfortable putting forward and discussing ideas with you. When dealing with people who don’t normally volunteer their input, actively seek it out. And if you have more (perceived) power that another person, don’t punish those that disagree with you by yelling at them or freezing them out if they something that you don’t agree with. Instead, work to understand their position. By creating an atmosphere of trust, it’s likely you will deal with any disagreements earlier rather than working to resolve a conflict situation.
Focus on behavior
Once you’ve decided that you want to address the situation, think about what you want to say. Do not get personal. Instead focus on the behavior that bothered you. Ensure you also outline the impact of the behavior. For example ‘Yesterday you finished your class eight minutes late. This meant that I didn’t have enough time to set up my class and start on time. It also meant that fifteen students had to wait outside before entering the class which blocked the i-lab area at peak time.’
Don’t let the situation simmer for too long but similarly don’t react if you are angry or upset. Choose the right time and place and make your case. And be ready to listen to their response.
Step into your partner's shoes
Try to consider what it’s like to be on the receiving end of you. In what way might you have contributed to this conflict? Are you always clear in your communication? Are your expectations reasonable? Do you ever pursue your priorities and desires at the expense of other peoples?
Seek to understand the other person’s perspective. What is causing them to see the situation differently to you? Perhaps the reason they ran overtime in their class is that the computer broke in their lesson? Perhaps the clock stopped? Ask the other person questions to help you understand – and do this calmly and in a neutral tone.
Take your ‘but’ out of your mouth
Imposing your preferred solution is unlikely to lead to a good working relationship in the long term. When you are both clear on your goals and motivations, it will be easier to explore a solution that works for both of you. A good tip I got about this was to use the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. For example, when a teacher whose class ran late says ‘I needed to make sure the students got some feedback’, respond with ‘and I need to ensure that my class starts on time’. The use of ‘and’ allows both parties to state their goal. This will encourage both parties to consider options that are mutually beneficial instead of taking a position that forces one party to compromise.
Difference in ideas, perspectives, values, communication styles and priorities are some of the things that cause conflict. But these differences are the things that make work interesting. And this diversity brings opportunities to our business. Next time you find yourself disagreeing with a colleague at work, use it as an opportunity to find out more about that person. And to find out more about yourself.