Becoming really good at managing conflict at work has many benefits. You will be seen as a natural leader, someone who can handle difficult situations, and this is good for your career. But the biggest benefit is for your mental health. If you can master dealing with conflict in the workplace, your life will be a lot easier and you will be happier.
Let me tell you a story…
From screaming down the phone…
When I am not writing about wellbeing, I am a business lawyer. A few years ago, I used to describe my job as a constant battle. When I was going to work, I felt like I was going to war.
I was working in a very high-pressure environment, negotiating contracts all day. A very high volume of contracts and a fast pace. Most of the time these negotiations were over the phone, and in an open space too. I could be doing 2 or 3 negotiations a day, 5 days a week.
Sometimes the client’s lawyer would be polite and professional, and we would focus as a team on getting a deal that worked for both sides (i.e., what a negotiation should actually be like!). But sadly, most of the time the client’s lawyer would be on a mission to get the best deal possible that they could, even if what they were asking for was unreasonable.
In the legal world there is also a lot of ego. Many lawyers get validation from being the cleverest, knowing the law best, and so on. For them, it is all about winning. This type of attitude does not help.
And so, I was once dealing with a really difficult client, who was extremely emotional and would often end up screaming at me down the phone. And sadly, I ended up doing the same.
That was the day I decided I had enough of that particular job and started looking for another position internally.
To not being phased out by insults
A few months later I was starting a new role in a different part of the business. It was a different type of role. Much bigger contracts, lower volume, slower pace of negotiation. But only one client. And therefore, always the same lawyer on the opposite side.
Unfortunately, this lawyer could be emotional. He would always start the call in a very friendly manner, but his mood could change very quickly. After a couple of years in this role, there was a day where he was out of arguments and ended up telling me I was either “incompetent or thick”.
By then I was so used to his changing mood I wasn’t even phased and continued calmly to present my arguments. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised fully what had happened. The head of my team had received a request from one of my colleagues who was on the call to put in a formal complaint against the client’s lawyer for unprofessional behaviour. The entire team was outraged, and I hadn’t even noticed.
How had I changed so much?
Between episode 1 and 2 I did a lot of personal development. This was not motivated by these incidents by the way. Me becoming zen at work was a side effect. I went on a couple of retreats where, amongst other things, I learned how to manage conflict in the workplace.
And lucky for you, I am going to share everything I learnt with you today 😊
Managing conflict 101
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When someone really gets on your nerves, it is because they have actually hit a nerve, that you need to heal.
Between episode 1 and 2 there was another incident. Or rather a lesson learned.
My line manager and I were supporting the business through a protracted negotiation. And the business wanted to just give the client whatever they asked for. But being lawyers, our job is to protect the interests of the company first and these do not always align with the client’s requests.
This created an internal conflict that lasted for months. There was one particular colleague who was really getting on my nerves. I was becoming less and less patient with her.
One day the managers decided we needed to resolve our differences so that we could focus on finding a solution all together as a team. They organised a team day so we could all express our opinions and discuss better ways of working together.
During this day, I found out this lady was scared of me. She was always worried that I would shut her down. I realised I had unknowingly made her cry. I looked at her and I saw a grown woman in her fifties in a senior position whom I had terrorised. I felt terrible. And I felt compassion for her. Suddenly all of her annoying traits dissipated, and I saw a vulnerable woman, a human being.
That day I decided that regardless of who was right or wrong, I never wanted to be the person who makes her colleagues, or anyone, cry again. This is when I decided that I had to learn to master my emotions better.
Dealing with your emotions first
So my tip number one for handling conflict at work is to learn to manage your emotions. If you are becoming upset, annoyed, angry, ask yourself: why is this behaviour triggering me so much?
Because when we truly believe in ourselves, it doesn’t matter what people do or say to us. This is why I was unphased at being called “incompetent or thick”. I deeply know that I am competent and smart enough to do my job, so it doesn’t matter what anyone says to me.
Tips for dealing with your emotions fast
Below are my go-to tools for dealing with my emotions quickly. I have presented them in order of efficiency for me – it might be different for you.
- Emotional freedom technique (EFT), also known as tapping, is an alternative acupressure therapy treatment used to restore balance to your disrupted energy. It is extremely efficient at bringing you back to a place of calm when you are feeling highly emotional. This method can work in a few minutes. If you want to explore tapping as a way to calm yourself, you can follow along any of Brad Yates’ videos on YouTube. I have inserted below links towards videos that relate of managing conflict, but he does cover many topics.
- Meditation is another brilliant fast remedy. Take yourself to a quiet place. Put your phone on do not disturb. Sit up straight in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and breathe. Focus on your breath: take a deep breath in and a full breath out. Repeat as long as necessary. This can start working very quickly or take a little longer depending on the strength of your emotion. If you prefer to follow along a pre-recorded meditation, you can try this meditation by Deepak Choprah.
- Gratitude can be a powerful tool to manage your emotions, but this is best used with people you know well or with whom you work closely. Take yourself to a quiet place and write down everything you appreciate about the person you are having a conflict with. After a short time, it should bring you back to peace and this will help prepare for the conversation too.
I would rather be happy than right
Have you ever bet on something thinking you were right at 100% only to find out you weren’t? Me too! Most of us have been there. In the grand scheme of things, being right isn’t usually that important. But the way people feel around you is worth a lot. People will not remember what you say, but they will remember the way you make them feel.
So when things get heated, ask yourself this simple question: what is my outcome? What do I want to get out of this discussion? In the example about the internal conflict mentioned earlier, my outcome was to find a solution to the client’s request that would be acceptable to the company and to have polite and professional exchanges with my colleagues.
Once you know what your outcome is, and you are calm, you can start the conversation with this opener: “I might be wrong, I often am, but my view is…”. This will diffuse the tension immediately. Always worked like a charm for me, thank you Dale Carnegie.
Another way to say this is: let your ego at the door and listen to what the other person has to say. The solution to the problem might be easier than you think.
The sandwich method
This is a well-known management method, usually used for giving feedback, but it works extremely well to handle conflicts at work. It is a simple 3 steps method: start with a praise, bring up the issue to resolve and close with another praise.
Example: You know what I like about you Dave? You are always on time. I like it because I know I can count on you to make us look good with our clients. But lately I have noticed that you have been late on a few occasions. I was wondering if everything is ok as this is so unlike you.
See how this is much better than: Dave! You are always late! This is making us look bad with our clients and it needs to stop now! You are more likely to get the behaviour change you want with option 1 than with option 2.
Managing conflict advanced
The best way to deal with a conflict is of course to prevent it in the first place. You can do this by proactively working on your relationships with your colleagues on a daily basis. Here are a few tips to get your started.
Give people honest and sincere appreciation
We tend to be quick to tell people when they do something wrong because it is impacting us, but we rarely tell people when they do something well.
So when someone does something well, tell them. It only takes a minute, and it will make their day, so why not!
Give people something to live up to
Tell someone they are funny once and they will be so pleased to have been called funny that they will embrace their new identity and make it their job to make you laugh every time they see you!
Equally tell someone they are useless and what their confidence and performance degrade fast. Your choice!
Help your colleagues out where you can
We can be so focused on our own tasks that we forget to look around us. Sometimes we are in a position to help out a colleague by taking a small action that might take us only a minute but that could greatly assist them.
People will be more inclined to help you out the day you need support if you have done so for them before.
Check your mood
As the saying goes, manners don’t cost a thing. Be polite and friendly with your colleagues and do not take your problems out on the people around you.
It is not their fault if you are having a bad day because of something that is happening and is unrelated to them.
So before you engage with anyone, take a deep breath and check that you are bringing positive energy to the table.
If you are wrong, admit it
Showing that you are a human being capable of making mistakes goes a long way. People are more likely to admit theirs if you do it first. Also, if you give a genuine apology for doing something wrong, this usually diffuse the conflict immediately.
- Deal with your emotions first so you can communicate from a place of logic and calm
- Focus on your outcome – what do you want to get out of this situation/ how do you want this to end?
- Being happy is more important than being right
- The sandwich method
- Build good relationships with people to facilitate conflict management in the future
I always love to hear your stories! Let me know if you have had some success with this method or with another in the comments below.
My favourite books on dealing with people