Sometimes conflict cannot be avoided and that is not a bad thing. When you and your team or you and a colleague resolve a conflict together, you build a better working relationship. When I say to you, ‘Don’t give in without a fight’; I don’t mean go have an ugly nasty altercation. I mean don’t give in because it feels easier or you think it is the peaceful thing to do.
Q) Margaret, I once read or heard (because I read your articles and I have seen you speak) you say something about trying to be compassionate towards the difficult people in our lives. Are you really asking ME to feel empathy toward someone who is a big flaming jerk to me?
A) Yes I really am asking YOU to feel empathy toward that big flaming jerk. And I will ask you take it even farther and develop feelings of kindness towards them and take it beyond the feelings of kindness and treat them kindly even when they are being a huge flaming jerk. (Thank you for that phrase, as you can see I am loving it!)
Why on earth do I ask you to do all that? First of all, because you are part of my community and I believe that you are capable. In general people who are not willing to grow themselves in this manner don’t consistently read my articles or listen to me speak. Second, I believe that YOU will benefit from this behavior and I also believe that that big flaming jerk will benefit too. The truth is many of us assume that someone who treats us poorly is doing it because of us. They are doing it because of a choice they are making. So from the very beginning we can feel empathetic toward them and the fact that something is going on in their life which is leading them to lash out at you.
As-of right now, let’s you and I agree to stop saying huge flaming jerk (as fun as it might be) and call this person your opportunity person. Or you can come up with another phrase. What you want is to use a phrase that is positive, that recognizes that person is providing you with the ability to strengthen yourself and your conflict resolution skills.
Of course you see the necessary first step. It is to be willing to start the process of being compassionate to this person and this means opening your mind to the possibility that you can and will think positive thoughts about this person.
What’s next? Right now I am going to refer you to a previous article ‘How Am I Supposed to Do That?’ because it too discusses this same topic and gives you some steps to assist you as you learn how to deal with your opportunity person.
PS – Thank you so much for this question because it is one of the most popular things people either ask me about or like to debate me about.
Recently we have discussed steps to take to when you decide to step in and step up to conflict resolution. In ‘You Decide to Resolve a Conflict’ Part I and Part II one of the underlying assumptions was that you had time to plan your actions and the steps you would take to resolve the conflict.
All of that is really great when you can plan to face a conflict in advance. But some of you might be saying to me, “But conflict can’t be scheduled.” Yes, it’s true. Not all conflicts can be scheduled. Some situations happen right in front of you and you’re involved and you see that you need to stay involved. What do you do?
Do you say, “Okay, everybody, stop, we need to have a meeting about this later.” That isn’t always going to work. Let’s look at some techniques that will work.
1) If the conflict is unhealthy, you need to cool everyone down and bring discussion back to a level that is healthy. It’s like when you separate two children who are getting ready to punch each other, (I sincerely hope that your conflict is not about two people who are about to have a physical fight) you send them to their corners to calm down.
2) Remind everyone that we’re here to work on a business issue and EVERYONE needs to act like a professional.
3) Encourage them to state where they’re having conflict or what their issue is in a calm, professional manner; without blame and without calling name calling. Let each person have a turn to state what they believe to be the issue. Remind others to remain quiet and listen while others are speaking.
4) Many issues stem from misunderstandings about roles and responsibilities. Listen to people discuss the conflict, is there a basic issue about who should be doing what and when? If so, facilitate a conversation about roles and responsibilities.
5) Consider whether or not you are the right person to help resolve the conflict. You are already involved, you want to see it resolved and you’re trying; but perhaps your efforts are not working OR one of the parties isn’t receptive to you. You might be perceived as having too much bias. (Is one of the parties your best friend, then of course you have bias.)
6) If you are not the right person get a mediator. Bring in someone else who can resolve the conflict. It’s not about you personally resolving the conflict. It’s about the conflict being resolved in a healthy, productive manner.
7) What if you are one of the parties in the conflict? What responsibility do you have? Your responsibility is to behave like an adult professional, to let go of hard feelings, to really work on a solution that is best for the project or the customer or the company and not to insist on your way because it is your way. And you have a responsibility to do everything within your power to stop this from escalating into an unhealthy conflict. Even if the other person is calling you names and trying to make something more of it, you have a responsibility to be the stronger professional. Do not say or something that you’re going to be sorry about later.
Now what? Now you are ready to dig deep and work together towards the best resolution. The approach you take is very much like the approach we discussed In ‘You Decide to Resolve a Conflict’ Part I and Part II; you are just selecting the steps that fit the situation and using them right away.
Maybe you’ve mastered conflict resolution and you like to help others. Maybe you are the one that others come to for help when they have a conflict or you work in an environment where conflict occurs regularly. But somehow you find yourself stepping in and helping to resolve the conflicts around you. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It depends.
It certainly makes more sense for you to be involved in healthy conflict as opposed to unhealthy conflict. And today we will focus on healthy conflict.
What is healthy conflict? In the course of working together, it is normal to have differences of opinions about how work should be completed or who should complete the work or what is the highest priority— or similar issues. When individuals can discuss these differences in a professional manner without making it personal, that is healthy. People might become animated or passionate during this kind of conversation; but it’s clear that they care. They care about the subject at hand. They are animated and passionate about an idea, but this passion does not involve trying to hurt someone emotionally or physically.
Unhealthy conflict; is personal and hurtful. It’s when there is a disagreement and perhaps this is expressed by insulting another person, making faces at them, making nasty comments to them or making nasty comments about them behind their backs. In extreme situations, it can include threats to your personal safety or even escalate to physical violence.
Unhealthy conflict interferes with people’s ability to do their work.
Healthy debate on workplace teams can lead to better strategy and decisions and should be encouraged. Most of us work with others and that means we are accountable to someone other than ourselves. Being accountable on a team can and should mean that others will challenge you to do a better job or to follow through on a commitment. That’s good. If on your team there is never any kind of conflict or disagreement – that is weird. This is a sign that people are hiding things, perhaps they are afraid to express their true opinions or to engage in conflict.
Should you get involved? You might just have the natural inclination to step in and resolve conflicts whenever, wherever you see them. And people come to you specifically for this assistance. That does not mean you always should step in.
Conversely, some of you cannot stay far enough away from conflict. You want no part of it, not now, not ever. If you think somebody is even going to start any kind of conflict, you want to run from the room. Well, guess what? That’s not a viable approach either. There will be times when you need to step up and step in to help resolve conflicts.
Consider using these questions to decide if you should step in and put on your conflict resolution hat:
1) Are you in a leadership position? If the answer is yes, you should get involved. If the answer is no, skip to question 3. All of you have the opportunity to be a leader because leadership is not just about a role or a title. But in this situation, I’m really asking you, are you officially in a role of leadership?
2) If you are in a leadership position, do the parties involved report directly to you? Your answer to this question determines how you get involved.
If the parties involved are your direct reports or on your team, yes step in and work to resolve the conflict. If the parties are not your direct reports, are you the right person to help or should you refer it back to their management? If a conflict is occurring right in front of you and it clearly requires someone to step in right now. Then do it.
When you are in a leadership position, helping to resolve conflict is a critical part of your responsibility. Like it or not, conflict that is not resolved gracefully or not resolved at all, damages everyone. It festers and it undermines the work environment and it is bad for morale. As a leader, you have a responsibility for the environment and culture that
you’re giving to your teams, supporting your team in the best possible work environment and making sure that conflict is resolved appropriately and in a timely manner is a part of that.
3) Ask yourself, does this conflict require immediate resolution? If the answer is yes and you are the right person to assist, step in right now. (This assumes the leader is not present.) If resolution of the conflicts can be delayed, you might consider discussing it with the right member of your leadership team. Tell them what you observed and ask them if they would like you to be involved.
Some other points to consider: Not all situations require, the boss to step in. I’m not advocating keeping secrets from your management. But you DO know that your leadership does expect all of YOU to be able to solve some problems without them, right? So,
should they be involved? If it’s a major conflict, then they should be involved. If not, can you and the team work this out on your own?
Another factor to consider —are you directly involved in the conflict? Are you one of the parties directly involved in the conflict? If so you are already involved. Can you objectively facilitate the resolution or should you ask another unbiased resource to assist?
These are not hard and fast rules many situations you will need to make a judgment call. We are talking about situational leadership.
You are observing something and in the moment, you decide your strategy. You know your approach and based upon your comfort level with the conflict and the possible ways to resolve that conflict you decide how to move ahead.
“Margaret, you share with us these great tips for treating people with compassion. You make sense when you remind us that other people’s behavior is about them. But how are we supposed to really do this in the real world? Especially when someone is right in my face and I just want to yell at them?”
Not only is that a fair and honest question, it is one I hear frequently. If treating others with compassion was easy to do all of the time, almost everyone would do it all of the time. So with that in mind, here are some tips to consider:
1) Select ONE person who is difficult for you and concentrate your efforts on this ONE person.
2) Do not select your absolute most challenging person to work on first. Weight lifters don’t bench press 300 pounds right away, they work up to it. Why should you be any different?
3) Take some time and think about this person. Come up with at least three good qualities they possess or three positive statements that you can make about them. OK, now here is where the difficulty might begin. If this person is truly annoying to you, you might not be able to see any good in them. Well I insist that you stay at this step until you can complete it! Some ideas:
- They have family and friends who love them
- They are offering you an opportunity for personal growth
- They are good at (fill on the blank – working out, public speaking, product design…)
4) Now associate their name with the three good qualities or positive statements you have for them. Memorize this information in a statement that is easy for you to repeat to yourself, like this:
- Difficult Dan is a loving father who adores his children, organizes the company blood drive every year and is giving me an opportunity to become even better at dealing with difficult people.
5) Next time you encounter Difficult Dan (or your difficult person), remember the statement you memorized about them. If you know you are going to encounter them, then repeat the statement to yourself before the encounter. This puts you in a positive frame of mind and you are approaching them thinking about their good qualities, not their bad qualities. While you are with person, keep your positive statement in your mind and when they annoy you or become difficult, keep recalling this statement. (Silently and to yourself, of course!)
6) If you feel yourself becoming agitated with your difficult person, try to take a deep breath and again repeat the positive statement to yourself before you respond to them. Then recall that you want to move forward with compassion and that this person’s behavior is not about you, it is about them and finally, you only control your behavior.
When your encounter with this difficult person ends, be appreciative. I don’t just mean appreciative as-in; “I am so glad that jerk is out of my face.” I mean appreciative as-in recognizing that this person is really bringing you an opportunity to grow. And if the encounter went well, be appreciative of your growth. If you don’t think the encounter went well give yourself credit for your efforts and DO NOT GIVE UP! You must be persistent to prevail.
To borrow from some other famous groups and philosophies, you do this one day at a time and one step at a time.
PS. Click here for more support in Dealing with Difficult People.