Wind-back Wednesday: Conflict Resolution

Workplace battles getting you down? It may be entirely within your control! Here’s how to deploy conflict resolution skills the next time team harmony turns dissonant

Workplace conflict: we all experience it. Most of us would like to avoid it. In my early career I had made it a personal mission to avoid conflict at all costs. An impossible task in any workplace, let alone an industry that has a lot of pressure points coming from all angles!

Procurement is not always the most popular department! We can often find ourselves having to be the bearer of bad news.

“Sorry, you can’t hire your mate’s company to run the million dollar project that they have no experience in.

“No sorry, we can’t vary the contract to include buying a helicopter when the original contract was for printer paper”.

The list goes on.

Bad plans fail

The plan to avoid conflict was doomed to fail from the get-go, yet I persisted. If I ever found myself in a confronting situation, I would feel my heartbeat rising and I would be filled with a sense of dread. I found it embarrassing that I was impacted and I was embarrassed by my reaction, which was to freeze. I seemed to be ok with tackling issues from behind a screen or keyboard but face to face I froze. This went against everything in my identity that I was proud of: to be forthright, to stick up for people, to challenge the status quo. I wasn’t one to sit back in meetings and let dumb ideas get approved. But this fire would die as soon as anyone got aggressive in my face.

What is conflict?

Conflict is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “the occurrence of mutually antagonistic or opposing forces, including events, behaviours, desires, attitudes and emotions”.

What happens to us when we perceive conflict?

Physiologically our body responds to conflict long before we’re actually engaged in an argument as we are often communicating non-verbally through things like gestures and body language. Our interpretation of non-verbal communication can often be subconscious. For example, we may think that a person yelling at us loudly would be what sets the alarm bells ringing, when in fact it’s probably the early signaling from body language. The pace and speed of the person’s walk and their facial expressions would tell you everything you needed to know about whether this interaction would be happy or threatening. By the time you find yourself in a verbal conflict situation your body’s stress responses could have already been activated (fight, flight or fawn / feign).

You are not defined by your feelings

For me, when I realised that my reactions were an automated response to a perceived threat I realised I could detach from my feelings. My feelings are not me, they are a response. When someone is up in your grill yelling at you, your feelings are 100% valid but if you’re the type of person who is normally an advocate for others and you find yourself not able to treat yourself the same way, you are not a weak person. You are simply responding in a default manner that is a learned behaviour shaped by your life experiences. With concentrated effort and a willingness to explore yourself, you can change your responses.

Where to draw the line

Everyone should have their own definition for what conflict is for them. From there you can begin to figure out a game plan for how to deal with it when it arises. For me it was a process of delineating between different behaviours I was experiencing in my interactions with others. For example, someone yelling at me in a meeting is unacceptable. Someone holding an opinion that procurement should be a function of a finance team because it’s just a transaction and my role isn’t needed: that’s a difference of opinion and that’s ok. Being clear with yourself about your boundaries and what you consider as acceptable behaviour – and what isn’t – is critical. 

What can we learn from conflict?

The biggest light bulb moment for me was that I didn’t actually have to learn to love conflict, or even be ok with it.  I just had to learn what my responses are and pre-plan how I will deal with it, which is not the same as avoiding it. Once I learned to look at conflict differently I started to notice this is a fascinating field. It is seldom discussed, especially when you are new in your career. Managers and mentors don’t often ask you questions about how you deal with conflict, nor unpack tricky situations with you for you to learn to grow and evolve.

Conflict insights

Top 5 tips to help you begin to understand conflict and find a path to conflict resolution.

  1. Conflict is a form of communication: there is a message in there you just have to find it.
  1. Everyone is human. Even if they are acting out of control, they are still a person.
  1. Creating space between you and the person is the number one priority. Do not return to the conversation or topic until you are ready – this is a must!
  1. If it is helpful, try to think about what motivations the other person has in their broader role at present. Are they seeking a big work win that they are hanging their career on and are you perceived as a barrier or block to this? Are they facing a lot of pressure and are essentially projecting their emotions onto you? Are they working for a bad manager who makes them feel inadequate?
  1. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes a conflict situation does provide an opportunity. In the past I’ve had conflict situations that have enabled me to implement improvements that have ultimately changed the relationship between two teams for the better. I would have never thought that repeated office battles would lead the way for improvement. 

Understanding the message in the conflict and the other person’s motivation and point of view can help you to form your action plan for the way forward. If someone is under extreme pressure, it is no excuse to blow up at you, but you may be able to figure out what’s causing it and work around the edges and take their situation into account.

Reflect and plan

You can engage with your conflict responses by undertaking a simple reflection exercise. Think of some workplace conflict situations that you’ve found yourself in the past and use the questions below to reflect. 

With the distance of time, ask yourself these questions:

  • What was the past disagreement or attack about? When we retell these stories to friends, family and colleagues we often describe the characteristics about the other person and focus on the behaviour that affronted us. “Oh my gosh they were such a nightmare, they blew up at me for no reason and stormed around the meeting room, then threw their paper down….” If you look at it in black and white, a conflict scenario could look like: “an internal customer thought their idea was the way forward and had gone several steps further in the process than they should have. When they were corrected about the required process, they reacted negatively”.
  • Put yourself in their shoes, what was going on for the “perpetrator” at the time?
  • How did you react?
  • What could you have done differently in your reaction that may have improved the situation or enabled a faster resolution?
  • What sets you off? Often we can get hot under the collar when our values are triggered. Be aware of what yours are. For example, honesty and integrity are high in my values system therefore if I know if I’m in a situation where someone is outright lying, I’m going to start turning into the hulk. I can now recognise this as my values being triggered and I detach from the reaction and set about writing down an action plan that will resolve the issue before it turns into a heated conversation.

Words to live by

“Peace is not an absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means” – Ronald Regan

This article was originally published on 11 August 2022