Conflict management is something that most of us aren’t very good at, largely because we generally shy away from confrontation and it’s not really in our nature to rock the boat. It’s also one of those leadership skills that we don’t get to put into practice all that often and, like any skill, to become good at it, we must practice, practice, practice. If conflict management is something you’d like to become more comfortable with, read on. I’ve provided a simple framework that will assist you in dealing with even the most troublesome work colleague.
Before we talk about the framework let’s discuss the thing that makes conflict so difficult to deal with…the stress response (fight or flight) that is triggered when we find ourselves under “attack”. Whether it’s a physical attack or a verbal one, the body responds the same way and signals the hormone system to release a burst of hormones (primarily adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol). This is very much a survival response that served our ancestors well but is not overly conducive to productive office conversations! Managing your stress response is a topic for another day but part of managing stress is having the skills or resources to manage the “threat” at the time. So, here’s that simple framework I mentioned that can be used to enable the other person to move passed their emotional upset so you can both move towards a solution.
Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude. ~ William James.
For someone to verbally attack you, almost to the point where they appear irrational, you can be sure there is a lot of emotion bubbling up from under the surface. Our natural response is to inform them logically that they are mistaken and they’ve got the wrong end of the stick. We try to defend ourselves if we are being accused of something that we have no knowledge of or, depending on how our own day is going, we use the ol’ “the best defence is an offense” strategy. Or lastly we might keep all emotion out of it and just jump to the solution…logical, right? While it may feel gratifying to take the moral high ground or to release some of our own stress that we might be feeling, it rarely leads to a good outcome. Even if we propose the right solution to them they are unlikely to be in the right mindset to take on the advice.
The next time you find yourself on the receiving end of someone’s emotional upset remember this: Their rant might not even have anything to do with you. They might be letting off steam and you’re just the object of their focus. Therefore, there is no reason to take offence and there is no reason to react (as direct as they may be, it might even just be their default communication style). Simply follow these easy steps and you’ll be amazed by the outcome…
Step 1: As much as the circumstances permit, immediately build rapport with the other person by mirroring their body language.
Step 2: Listen empathetically. Really listen, not only the words but also to the emotion.
Step 3: Identify the Roman Columns in what they’re saying. Just like a Roman Column in the great coliseums, Roman Columns in communication are the one or two core statements that the person is really trying to get across (they are the essence of the conversation). Focus on these to truly understand what it is the person wants to communicate.
Step 4: Paraphrase back to the person what you heard. That’s it! Just repeat back to the person what you think the Roman Columns are. If you’re right, they’ll let you know. If you’re wrong, they’ll also let you know which will allow you to get closer what’s at the heart of their emotion. When paraphrasing, it’s best to be succinct and gently turn down at the end of the sentence (making a statement tends to evoke less resistance than raising the tone up at the end as in asking a question.)
Conflict can only occur when there is disagreement. By paraphrasing you are not disagreeing with the other person, you are starting on a journey of understanding.
Step 5: If step 4 is executed well the person is likely to continue “expressing themselves”. Simply repeat steps 3 and 4 until you notice one or both of the following:
- The person is repeating what they’ve already said, perhaps using different words and phrases but the Roman Columns are the same.
- The venom or emotion starts to decrease and you notice they are calming down.
Step 6: Now that we have shown that we fully understand their issue (and remember, don’t be surprised when you realise it had nothing to do with you in the first place!) you can move into acknowledging their feelings and then finding a solution.
For example, “That would make me feel really [mad, angry, frustrated, sad, upset, or whatever emotion you would feel in this situation] and it’s not something I would want to go through again. So what do we need to do to ensure this never happens again?”…or something along those lines.
Step 7: Allow them to come up with the ways in which to solve the problem…don’t own their problem. If you have a few ideas you can prompt them along but largely the solution needs to come from them.
Step 8: When you both have nutted out a solution or two, summarise what the solution is, what the next steps are, and gain agreement from the other person that that’s the way forward.
Step 9: To end the discussion stand up (if you’re sitting down), shake their hand or lightly touch their shoulder or arm, thank them for bringing this to you and offer your help any time they need it. Don’t underestimate the power of the handshake or the physical contact in this situation…it gives a clear signal to the other party that you genuinely accept that the incident is over and done with.
If you’d like to know more about how you can better handle conflict, or facilitate a positive outcome between colleagues or teams who are in conflict, or if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.