Business

Here’s one way to quiet loud disagreements at work

Diane Stafford is workplace columnist for The Kansas City Star.
Diane Stafford is workplace columnist for The Kansas City Star.

Fight or flight? What’s your instinct when confronted with conflict? And what’s the tendency of the person on the other side?

Workplace disagreements are inevitable. But knowing yourself and the basic tendencies of your co-workers can help keep little clashes from becoming bigger ones.

I was leafing through a new Harvard Business Review Press publication, Dealing with Conflict, and a comment attributed to emotional intelligence expert Annie McKee leaped from the page:

People in organizations “often have a very long memory when it comes to fighting at work. It doesn’t matter what the underlying cause was or who was right or wrong. All people remember is that it was a mess, and that you were involved.”

You don’t want this to happen to you.

To be clear: This isn’t about physical fighting. It’s about a shouting match in front of colleagues, being the victim or perpetrator of singularly disrespectful treatment, or being a part of an escalating, ongoing disagreement.

When these blowups occur, the emotionally intelligent response is to neither run from the room nor escalate the battle. The better approach is get at the root of the real problem.

The emotionally mature person needs to understand if the conflict comes from creative differences about a project or process or from more personal dislikes, such as insecurity or jealousy about workplace status.

Author Amy Gallo charts four options if you’re faced with upsetting conflict: Do nothing and pretend it didn’t happen; try to handle it by taking an end-around via a boss or co-worker; face the conflict directly with the person, or leave the organization entirely.

In each case, you need to weigh the long-term consequences and decide if the situation falls into a “don’t sweat the small stuff” category.

Usually, Gallo advises, direct contact is the best, though admittedly most difficult, option. While flight people may want to avoid further confrontation, fight people may have trouble managing a calm conversation. Either way, the path forward calls for a followup conversation.

As soon as your emotions are controlled and there’s a private space and time available, such a talk should occur. Both parties to a conflict need to honestly explain what they think led to the eruption, openly listen to the other person’s side, and strive for a resolution.

Plan what you want to say in advance but be prepared for unexpected responses. You may have faulty assumptions.

Creative conflict can be a vehicle to propel progress – provided both sides have valid information and the proverbial leg to stand on. Both sides need to understand the circumstances or goals of the organization. A right idea might not work at the wrong time because of finances or higher priorities.

Aim to find common ground. And maybe even eat a bite of humble pie: Offer an apology (even if you don’t think you should) or ask the other person for advice. … What would he or she do in your shoes?

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford, kansascity.com/workplace

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