Have you ever had a conflict with a colleague that escalated, and seemed to be impossible to bring to resolution?
Consider this exchange:
Leslie: You’re acting so unprofessional, I just can’t believe it.
Devon: How can you say that? You’re being paranoid again.
Leslie: Me, paranoid? That’s the most irrational thing I’ve ever heard! If you don’t apologize, I’m not continuing with this conversation.
Devon: You are so over-reacting!
What’s wrong with this exchange and why is it going nowhere to resolve the issues between these two colleagues? The answer is actually pretty simple: when one or both parties in a dispute use large, accusatory, general terms (“unprofessional,” “paranoid,” “irrational,” “over-reacting,”) the result is predictable. It will end in an escalation of the situation as people become more defensive and emotional, and so less able to address whatever the real issues are.
What to do? If you find yourself in this kind of a dialogue (even if only one person is using such language), take the following steps:
- Slow down. Breathe deeply. Count to 10 (or 15 or 20).
- If you’re too emotional, you likely need to leave the situation till later – so do that. Explain, “I’m having a really hard time with our conversation right now. Can we get back to it in an hour?”
- If you stay in the conversation, name what’s happening, and ask that the conversation go a different way: “We’re both talking in generalities. Can we talk specifics?”
- Get a piece of paper and write down the specifics listed by you and the other person. For example, Leslie might say: “You don’t update me on projects, and then I look dumb when someone asks me a question.” (Write down: frequency of project updates.)
- Devon might say: “When you’re late to meetings, we have to back up and start over and it’s very frustrating.” (Write down: Leslie coming late to meetings.)
- Then, address each issue specifically, and agree on actions/behaviors to fix the problem. For example: Leslie commits to arriving at meetings on time or before they start, and agrees that if late, the meeting will not start over. Devon agrees to weekly Monday morning stand-up update meetings to give Leslie updates. Always acknowledge the other person’s efforts to reach agreement, and point out where the agreements have been reached. For example, “I’m so glad we got to the bottom of our disagreement. I promise to get to meetings on time – but in case I mess up, I won’t expect you to start the meeting over.” Remember: Stay away from generalities and accusations – and be specific with what you want and need. Do you have other tips for getting resolution to workplace disagreements? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider