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Five Tips for Dealing with Conflict at Work

November 8, 2011

There you are in the conference room, discussing an important issue with your team. Eventually you make a recommendation, one which everyone knows that you are extremely well-qualified to offer.

Just when you expect the applause to break out, you instead begin to sense a palpable whoosh of negative energy blowing in from one corner of the room.

“Forget it,” says one unenthusiastic team member. “Bad idea. It won’t work.”

But you, being the hard-charging and persistent manager that you are, won’t take this without a fight.

“Oh yes it will work,” you retort. “It will work very well because of x y and z. I’ve done my homework and I know what I’m talking about.”

Your adversary, however, is also a very competent and tenacious manager who has shown you again and again that he is intent on making his opinion known, and will see it through to the death.

“Well, have you thought of A, B and C? Last year we were stuck with six weeks of inventory because of some other clown’s similar lame-ass idea.”

You bristle at the opponent’s liberal use of foul language in mixed professional company, because that is not how you roll.

You can’t be serious,” you say, “Comparing this proposal to last year’s debacle? It’s an entirely different situation!”

Voices rise, blood vessels bulge, and the innocent onlookers shrink back in awkward embarrassment. A conflict ensues, right there in the middle of the conference room, and everyone around the table knows that at least one, and possibly both parties will come out looking like an ass.

When facing a situation in the office where we disagree with a colleague over a project, course of action or decision, often times we find ourselves fighting to win.

Rather than digging in the heels and insisting on our own way, an alternative is to stop for a moment and view the potential outcome in terms of what is God’s way, what is best for the organization. That is who you are working for, after all, being God’s good and faithful servant, right?

The Lord?

The shareholders?

The greater good of the organization?

Here are some tips to help get you there.

1. Stop being so defensive.

Being overly defensive does not score points. Instead, it makes you look desperate and immature. Usually what is perceived as a personal attack is nothing more than an attempt to make an improvement, or it may possibly even be a legitimate point of view. Remove your ego from the situation, and see if it looks any different when you start to view the facts.

Okay, sometimes it really is a personal attack. But the rest of these tips will still work.

2. Maintain a calm tone of voice.

It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of an emotional whirlpool, especially when the person on the other side begins to raise their voice, use aggressive hand gestures or hostile body language. You will do much better if you can maintain a calm, confident approach, even when you are in the epicenter of a volcanic-size outburst. Take a deep breath, say a quick prayer, count to five, and keep your cool. Controlling your voice is the key to controlling the situation. You might be surprised at the respect that this alone will win from the other observers in the room.

3. Don’t retaliate with criticism or personal attack.

In your mind, view the experience on a higher, spiritual plane instead of a simple conflict between two alpha-managers. Instead of retaliating, begin to ask probing questions, and get at the heart of the opposing point of view. Turn the conversation towards what is best for the organization, not about who will win.

4.  Acknowledge the other person’s idea as legitimate

One of the most counter-intuitive things you can do in the heat of an intimidating argument is to build up the other person by giving them credit for their opinion, even if you vehemently disagree. Usually that is what they are after anyway, to soothe their own ego. Try complimenting the other person on the validity of their idea, and it may very well diffuse the negativity and lead to a more productive discussion.

5. Look to God’s outcome for the situation.

If God is truly present in your life and in your organization (which He is), then you must trust that he has a purpose and an outcome that is bigger than you or your opponent. Picture yourself as the conduit for God’s grace and purpose to pour into the situation at hand, and see how that changes your attitude. And the outcome.

Now get back in the ring and work it out!

Photo by Salvator Vuono at freedigitalphotos.com

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 7:30 am

    This is really some great advice! I especially like #5, but all of them are strong.

    I guess I like #5 because that mindset can fix so many of our problems…at work, home, etc. If (a HUGE if) we can just maintain an eternal perspective and see events and relationships from God’s point of view, it is so much easier to do the right thing.

    Unfortunately, we are all naturally bent toward self preservation and self promotion to some extent. Fighting this tendency and embracing God’s perspective is likely a life-long process…one which few (if any) will master here.

    Thanks for an excellent list of tips!

    • Sonal permalink
      December 6, 2011 6:23 pm

      100% agree with you Chris.

  2. November 8, 2011 8:01 am

    It’s good stuff, Brad. I deal with this routinely at work. And that #4 – that can be a tough one to consider. My knee jerk reaction is to get the defenses up.

  3. November 8, 2011 9:53 am

    These are all great practical tips. I particularly like #4. If you’re not defensive (like you mention in #1), we can see the merit in someone’s critcism. This reminds me of advice I’ve heard related to marriage: don’t think of it as you vs. them; think of it as you and them vs. the problem.

    I also think that although these times of conflict are unpleasant, they provide us with great opportunities. Not only can these strengthen the relationship we have with the person we’re having conflict with, but the rest of the office can see us living out our faith in real life. There’s no telling the profound impact that could have.

  4. November 8, 2011 12:14 pm

    Yep, this is tough stuff. It’s so hard not to retaliate and not to make it personal. And something in my brain still can’t get past the idea that “God doesn’t care about things like business strategy” — but I’m getting better at integrating my faith with the everyday.

  5. November 9, 2011 10:54 am

    The defensiveness really got me. Too many people want to defend their turf — as if they have a right to be wrong.

    I am learning that maybe, possibly, someone else could have a better idea than I do

  6. November 12, 2011 9:03 pm

    Great advice Bradley, but what if that voice from the corner is yourself…I can knock my own ideas out of the ball park so often 🙂 I also find I give into others too much.

  7. November 12, 2011 9:44 pm

    These tips are all so brave. I’m afraid my usual tactic is to say, “That’s a really interesting persective! Let’s talk about it after the meeting.” And then move on.

    But I work for a small, small company (in terms of staff, I mean) so we have the luxury of not always settling things around the conference-room table.

  8. November 14, 2011 10:53 am

    Honestly, in situations like this, I have begun reciting the Lord’s Prayer in my head rather than planning out my next series of verbal responses. I’ve found the negative people typically talk themselves out if I don’t respond.

    Sometimes I lose the battle with this strategy. But I don’t plan to lose the war.

  9. November 14, 2011 5:45 pm

    Great tips, Brad. I especially like #1. After reading Enchantment and now Mindfulness, it seems that successful leaders are more successful if they are open to the ideas of others. Seems like it should be common sense but the rules for success in our society must have been written by the wrong guy.

  10. November 15, 2011 10:03 am

    Reading this again this morning, I am thinking I will develop a zero tolerance policy for unjustified negativity.

    Or maybe I’m being defensive and treating the negativity as illegitimate…?

  11. November 15, 2011 10:31 am

    I like your postscript to number one. It’s in those cases that I have the hardest time remaining clear-headed. We’re no longer in the conference room but in some kind of very human insecurity match (whether I, or he/her is the instigator makes no difference). Good counsel here, Brad.

  12. November 15, 2011 11:52 am

    Number 4 has a lot of merit. I like to respond with a “Yes, and…” (depending on the statement the other makes)
    Then, instead of denying their point of view you can say something like: “Yes, and I’m glad you mentioned that because we need to build in real time tracking to be sure we do not end up with that result again.” Or “Yes, and that is something I could use your input on to make this work successfully.”

    You are trying to dismantle the conflict by acknowledging the other person as having a valid statement, but keeping the proposal intact.

  13. November 15, 2011 1:13 pm

    Good advice, not just for the board-room exec, but even for the Iowa farm wife, the mom, the church volunteer.

  14. November 15, 2011 5:48 pm

    Wish I had read this five hours ago. I also am sometimes the person on the other side, having to shoot down an idea. Civility really does go a long way, though. So does not fooling yourself that you are the only one with good ideas! Great post. I’m heading to a meeting at church in a few minutes, and I agree with Jennifer. This advice will work just as well there.

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