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Managing conflict: knowing what to do when a colleague makes you feel bad

Managing conflict: knowing what to do when a colleague makes you feel bad

Posted by Vlerick Business School
on Oct 31, 2018
in Negotiation

Your line manager interrupts you as you are speaking. Again. You count slowly to ten, thinking: “Obviously, my manager doesn’t value anything I say – and doesn’t care that he/she’s made me look stupid in front of my colleagues.”  “Conflict involves emotion. It begins when one person perceives that another is either not meeting a key need of theirs (e.g., the need to be heard) or is actively undermining that person’s interests or needs,” says Barney Jordaan, Vlerick Professor of Management Practice and a specialist in Negotiation, Conflict Management, and Mediation.

Most people don’t handle conflict well

“In this instance,” he says, “Talking over someone is failing to listen and failing to acknowledge our fundamental need to be heard and respected and for our ideas and contributions to be acknowledged. But it could also be telling someone to shut up − and that is humiliating to most self-respecting people." Few of us deal with conflict well. “Most of us are told from a very early age that conflict is bad, that we should avoid it – that we should be nice to our siblings, for example,” says Professor Jordaan.

Fight or flight

So, when someone makes us feel squashed or belittled, we might respond in one of 3 ways:

• We might ignore it and hope it will go away (and sometimes it does).
• Or we might ‘freeze’ − letting things build up and build up until they boil over.
• Or we might decide to go headlong into a confrontation with the other person. From this point, things can escalate out of control very rapidly.

Why? Because our perception is generally that conflict is a bad thing (our so-called ‘frame’) and that we should avoid it. When it does arise, the older or more ‘primitive’ part of our brain produces stress hormones that make us fight, flee or freeze. And if we go for the ‘ignore and suppress’ option, these hormones can build up in our systems, making us stressed, miserable and unwell. Barney Jordaan explains: “Unless we manage conflict, it is almost guaranteed to end up having negative consequences.

So, what is the secret to better managing conflict in our working lives?

Managing conflict doesn’t mean winning

As humans, we’re also wired and socialised to see things in competitive, ‘either-or’ terms: for me to win, you must lose. Instead of trying to resolve our differences collaboratively and amicably, our first response is often to win the argument, be proven right, or even punish or put down the other person.  Professor Jordaan: “When you don’t manage conflict, I-want-to-win tactics often follow. In other words – I want to prove to you that I’m right and you’re wrong. It should come as no surprise that this can escalate the situation to a point where we are prepared to sacrifice values, and even important relationships, simply to be crowned the victor. What we lose sight of is that, even if we ‘win’, the victim might become an aggressor the next time around.”

So, what is the healthy and productive way forward?

Retrain your brain

“First, we all have to recognise that we can’t avoid conflict. It’s part of the human condition. And when your gut tells you that you have a conflict with someone, or they with you, it’s healthy to recognise it and bring it to the surface sooner rather than later.

“It’s all about your mindset or ‘frame’: if you perceive team conflicts as bad, you will most likely adopt inappropriate strategies to deal with it and use behaviours that escalate, instead of reduce, the conflict. You need to train yourself to understand that conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a resource and opportunity, because it helps us to see other people’s views, create more rounded propositions, and even build better relationships.”

Don’t let it get personal

Barney says: “This thing that has upset you − if it’s a minor issue, just let it go. But if your gut − that little voice inside you − keeps telling you that it’s important, you must talk about it.” When you do talk about conflict, don’t get personal. Professor Jordaan: “Your manager or your colleague may not have picked up on the fact that they have caused a conflict with you. So talking about the situation might resolve it easily.

“The key is to talk about the situation, challenge their behaviour if you like, but don’t attack the person. Don’t let it get personal.”For example, if someone interrupts you in a rude way, simply say: 

I’d like to finish what I’m saying, Bob.

Compare this with the following response, which focuses on the person, not their behaviour, and can therefore only serve to escalate the conflict:

Why do you always talk over everyone else, Bob? You’re so insensitive…

Introduce an impartial third party

“Your aim should be to find a way forward that works for both of you. So don’t talk behind Bob’s back – that just fuels office politics and creates greater division.” But if you’ve tried talking to Bob and that hasn’t worked – or if you’re afraid to talk to him − you could also speak to your HR team, a mutually trusted colleague, or to a line manager and ask them to help you work through the conflict with Bob.

Get help

“If you think you’re struggling to manage conflict, you could also ask for coaching or mentoring within your organisation. “The important thing about conflict management is that it can be learned – and we can all have more calm, productive and collaborative work experiences when we have learned better conflict management skills. The best thing of all is that you can use these skills in every situation − both at work and at home − even with your children!”

If you’d like to find out more about managing conflict, please get in touch!

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