Conflict is not, by its nature, a bad thing. In a world without conflict, problems in the workplace wouldn’t be discovered or addressed, and innovation would grow stagnant.   

We get into trouble when conflict is poorly managed and is allowed to affect people personally.

To properly manage conflict and make sure it’s a positive force in the workplace, managers’ and supervisors’ own emotional awareness needs to come into play.

During a presentation at the SHRM 2016 Annual Conference & Expo, Dr. Morgan Hembree, a leadership consultant for Integrated Leadership Systems, shared exactly how to flip conflict on its head and use it to inspire a workplace.

Get into the right frame of mind

To start her presentation, Hembree presented a hypothetical situation of an employee — let’s call her Kathy.

Kathy interrupts people during meetings, and a manager would most likely look at Kathy’s action in one of two ways:

  • She doesn’t appreciate others and is being quite rude by voicing up. The consequent emotions coming from this line of thinking are hurt and frustration, leading to the manager snapping at her or shying away from participating in the meeting.
  • She’s eager and excited to share her own ideas. This thought process wouldn’t lead the manager to blow up at Kathy for some imagined sleight. Instead, it leaves the manager feeling hopeful and curious as to what else Kathy has to say, and when later the manager addresses her behavior, the manager’s in an appropriate emotional mindset.

The most effective office mediators are the people who have a good sense of self- and social-awareness, capable of managing themselves in either context.

Hembree’s tips for building this type of “emotional intelligence” include being an active listener when someone is talking, engaging in their conversations and not drifting off into an internal thought-scape when another person’s talking.

Buzzword Alert!

Emotional Intelligence: “The capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically” —

Even with a strong emotional sense of well-being, managers aren’t going to be able to control other people’s actions. But they can influence those actions with a minor change to their approach.

The first key is to remain calm and in control. Managers must identify their emotional triggers and work to not let them high-jack a constructive conversation. Any discussion goes right out the window when both parties are no longer interested in fixing a problem and instead focus on doing as much damage as possible to the other party.

Second, managers must be assertive in their approach to the problem. Let’s go back to Kathy. A manager will want to fix the problem of her disrupting meetings with her interjections because others seem frustrated by her actions. But the manager must be the collected one — the one with strong emotional intelligence, who realizes Kathy might just be eager to share, not eager to hurt.

Hembree outlined three steps to assertive conflict intervention that’s helpful both in and out of the workplace:

  1. Describe the behavior

Come to the conversation prepared. Have specific examples of what Kathy was doing that needs to be addressed. Don’t go off script, even if Kathy tries to deflect. You’re there to talk about her actions. Not her, not other people – simply how she’s behaving. Remember that you’re not involved in this confrontation to critique Kathy, but instead to provide her with constructive feedback.

Focusing on the behavior — and only the behavior — allows for the spotlight to shine on something actionable and doesn’t isolate the person, which will result in Kathy getting defensive and shutting down the conversation.

  1. Focus on the emotional impact of the behavior

Even the meanest of people are still human. Just about everyone wants to help others and feel good.

Shifting the focus on how their behavior is making others feel is also something that can’t be argued with. People in the meeting feel one way and Kathy another. The two parties can’t change the way the other feels or reacts, but they can change what is leading to such feelings. Once Kathy hears she’s making others frustrated, she may open up about her intentions when she interrupts others.

Plus, this again doesn’t shift the focus on the person directly, so it helps prevent them from getting defensive.

  1. Offer solutions and a chance for the person to defend him/herself

This final step is straightforward. You should provide a summary of the talk, such as: “Kathy, you’re interrupting people during meetings, and it makes them feel undervalued. In the future, maybe we can make sure everyone gets to be heard by allowing people to finish what they have to say and taking turns while speaking.”

But don’t end it there. Ask Kathy what she thinks of the solution and how she feels about her own behavior. Don’t argue, just listen and ask questions. See if Kathy can’t offer another solution that she feels confident in. This last step gets Kathy involved in the process of changing her own behavior, rather than just being disciplined.

Finally, in every interaction you have, try to be gentle and show empathy for the person. Often, people don’t realize that what they’re doing is upsetting to others.

In the case of a truly malicious person, you still can follow the guidelines above. Just be more firm and assertive, finding a common ground to stand on without shifting blame directly onto the person.


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