Friday 27 April 2018

Gina London: How to win battle over conflict in the workplace

'Individual employment rights and arbitration are replacing union collective bargaining and litigation.' (stock image)
'Individual employment rights and arbitration are replacing union collective bargaining and litigation.' (stock image)

Gina London

Even if you're an extraordinarily nice person - like I am - if you're in a workplace there will be conflict. Even if you're a conflict avoider - like I also happen to be - you will have to face up to conflict at some point. It's unavoidable, really.

Sometimes you have time to prepare. For instance, you know your presentation at a meeting is going to be met with resistance. So, you talk to people individually beforehand to understand differing points of view and possibly win them over - or you write out a list of expected objections and try to craft positive responses.

But what I'm going to focus on today is those unexpected moments. When a simple question or a casual comment with a colleague sends you on a jolting, sudden lurch downward. This week, I was having lunch with a colleague. We had both spoken at a business conference earlier that morning. And we were just chatting away about nothing in particular when I mentioned a video I had recommended for him and his team. "Why didn't you share that video with the audience?" I asked, thinking I was being really clever to suggest that the video would have added interest to his presentation."

"Oh my God," he said, "I hate that video."

In an instant, I felt my temperature and my eyebrows rise. Succumbing to a fit of pique I said: "Wow. I love it. I can't believe you don't like it."

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong-o. Wrong. In that one line, I broke about every rule on dealing with conflict. In fact, I potentially was the one who created conflict by being the disagreeing party.

Researchers at Cornell University report that while conflict is inherent in the workplace, 40 years of study have resulted in changes in the ways conflicts are managed and resolved. Individual employment rights and arbitration are replacing union collective bargaining and litigation.

This autumn, they will be examining advances that may being made in the adoption of conflict resolution practices in small and entrepreneurial firms. Obviously, my gaffe was not one that was going to spur a major conflict. The stakes were not so high as to warrant third-party mediation. So, let's focus on what two reasonably rational people can do to prevent a minor conflict from going off the rails.

1Get a grip on your emotions. Workplace conflicts arise when opinions differ and emotions run high. If you're a mini Ivan Yates or Vincent Browne - one of those people who seems to enjoy confrontations and a good argument (and you're not the host of your own show) - you may be hurting your career by regularly upsetting your peers.

On the other hand, if you're too passive when it comes to handling conflict, you may find that you're easy to overlook and unable to effectively drive your career forward.

The balance between the two is to be assertive. You're confident enough to speak up, but you're not going to alienate people while doing so. In my lunch chat, my first reaction was too emotional. I took the remark personally. I didn't stop and think before I spoke.

2 Don't use extreme language. Words like 'hate' and 'love' are absolutes. Why be so extreme? It's better to soften your word choice so as not to raise an impenetrable fortress of rhetoric around you. Likewise, accusing someone of being 'always' or 'never' something can be polarising too. "You always arrive late." "You never let me speak." "You're always interrupting." This prompts defensiveness. If a behaviour is happening often enough to become frustrating, you can qualify your position by stating something like, "It seems as if you are regularly..."

3 Ask open-ended questions. Rather than immediately countering the initial comment with my own opposite comment, I should have asked a series of questions. "What specifically did you not like about the video?" "Can you help me understand how you feel about it?" Or even simply, to quote Justin Bieber, "What do you mean?"

If you don't take time to understand where the other person is coming from, what chance do you have of finding common ground - not to mention potentially winning the other person over to your position? Seeking to understand and possibly even empathise with the other person's point of view, is a great way to lower conflicts. More questions, less countering, is a good rule of thumb.

4 Use hypotheticals. You've asked a lot of questions and better understand the other person's point of view. Now ask them to imagine what their perfect resolution to whatever problem you're dealing with looks like. "How would you envision this working out?" "What would a better product or service look like?" Encourage them to help you both discover the solution.

5 Offer solutions to your complaints. Speaking of solutions, you should be offering plenty of them yourself. I've mentioned this before in previous columns, but don't criticise in a vacuum. Consider the value of your criticism. Does it move the issue toward resolution? Is it productive? When someone asks for feedback, that doesn't always mean open season on slams. Is there something positive you can add? Add it.

Healthy conflict directly and constructively explores the issues at hand without bulldozing or ignoring the other people at the table. In my case, the lunch table.

Have you had a moment of conflict recently? What did you do? What happened? What take-aways did you learn? Tell it to The Communicator! Write to Gina at

Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant. @TheGinaLondon

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