Handling Conflict at Work

conflict at work

One of the hardest aspects of work for me was handling conflict.  I’m the daughter of an alcoholic father, so my childhood taught me that disagreements would tend not to end well for me.  And women of my generation were socialized to be agreeable and to keep the peace.

It’s hard to avoid conflict in almost any job, but it becomes impossible to avoid when you are managing people.   So, when I became a manager, I had quite a hill to climb.  Although I shrank from conflict emotionally, I understood intellectually that I could not avoid it and had to get tougher.

Using my strengths

It’s an HR and self-help shibboleth to focus on your strengths instead of on your weaknesses, and in my case that shibboleth proved true.  It was absolutely key for me that I used my existing strengths to build myself up in this weak area.

Strength 1: Self-control

The top strength that I used:  sheer determination and self-control.  I knew that I had to get better at conflict, and so I just made myself speak up. 

My early attempts were only partially successful.  It wasn’t hard for me to listen to views that opposed mine. And I knew that I had to respond.  What was hard was responding appropriately.  I made the rookie mistakes of trying to placate everyone I listened to, and talking too much.  I used my voice, but I used it too much and in the wrong way, and I spent too much time defending my decisions, which opened me up for more arguments.  And then I allowed those arguments to go absolutely anywhere.

I had one employee in particular who, once he started complaining, could go on for an hour, changing subjects every 5-10 minutes.  That was the first lesson I learned:  stick to the subject.  I was the boss in that situation, and  I had the power to control the conversation and keep it on topic.  Over time, I learned to do that.

Strength 2: Collaboration

I learned to hear people out, make a decision, and then announce in in few words, with no defensiveness.  Using my existing strengths – careful listening, a desire to be collaborative, and an ability to synthesize opposing points of view – gave me the confidence to be firm and decisive.  At first, I was pretending.  I didn’t feel decisive at all.  After a while, my confidence in my decisions grew and I didn’t have to pretend any more. 

Strength 3: Analysis

At first, I had some failures that I had to learn from.  Here, I used my analytical strength. 

In one conversation with a vendor where I had to deliver a demand that was unwelcome, I was met by sneering rudeness by the vendor rep.  This was the very sort of reaction I most feared, and I was caught off guard and speechless. 

I drank a lot of wine that evening, and cried a little, but I also analyzed the conversation and I was ready for him when we met again the next day.  When he again started to belittle our request, I said, “Mark, you don’t have to agree with me, but this is what we are required by our regulators to do, and therefore you have to support it if you want to keep doing business with us.”  We got what we needed, and he was never rude to me again.  Someone else would have said that to him the first time.  I had to think through conversations like that before it became second nature to me to respond firmly. 

Strength 4: Tact

It was hard at first, too, for me to speak up and disagree with my management and my peers.  What helped me here was my strong sense of responsibility.  I knew that it was my job to participate in decisions and advocate for the program that I was managing. I had to force myself to say things that I knew would be unpopular, but that I also knew were right.  Once again, I used strengths that I already possessed – tact and diplomacy – to backstop the difficult necessity of delivering bad news, demands, or contrary opinions.  And I learned that I could deliver those kinds of messages, and usually didn’t get the negative reactions that I feared.

The value of conflict

I always assumed that I was right to avoid conflict as much as I could.  But, learning to handle conflict appropriately taught me that it can be a positive thing.

Conflict is a form of communication, and it often helps us to learn more about ourselves and each other.  As I got better at confronting conflict at work, I also got better at it at home.  I’d always had that passive-aggressive tendency to hold things in until they came out in the form of screaming, tears, or both.  I learned instead to calmly state what was bothering me and what I wanted, and my husband and I got better at negotiating with each other. 

And that employee who did the hour-long rants?  He was still the person I had the most conflict with.  We disagreed about many things.  But, once I learned to set some boundaries with him, our conflict became very productive.  He often had good ideas, and frequently pointed out to me things that I hadn’t noticed on my own.  Our conflicts also helped us to get to know each other personally, and our relationship became quite warm. 

I still like getting along with people much better than I like disagreeing with them.  But constructive conflict is now a tool in my kit, and it not only made me a better manager, it also made me a better human being and enriched my relationships. 

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