Posted by Sarah on

What happens when you are in conflict at work and how to lead yourself through it.

It’s so difficult. In your personal life you can choose to walk away from a relationship that isn’t working, while at work you can’t just choose to withdraw from a relationship in conflict.

You have to get up and get yourself into work each day, whilst your reputation, your future, and your well-being are under threat.

Whenever hostilities have broken out and I have found myself in a conflict situation at work, it always felt as if it came out of nowhere and I definitely did not consider myself to be the instigator. In two situations the conflict was about the unmet needs of the other person. The third was about values.

Work becomes hateful in these situations. But the conflict of values was by far the worst experience. More than hating work, I was afraid of coming into work. I was sick with fear and unable to sleep or eat from the anxiety. But it was only after the conflict situation was over I realised just how exhausted and anxiety-ridden I really was. And it took many months to recover myself.

Conflict is usually created in one of two situations – where you or another feels their values are violated, or you/ they feel that needs aren’t being met somehow. These are both very painful experiences for us humans and this is why conflict is so pernicious to our wellbeing and all-consuming.

Either conflict situation surfaces the three core characteristics at play in all relationships – identity, emotion, power.

Conflict raises questions of identity. Our self-identity is the source of our dignity and self-respect; our security. We go to great lengths to protect our identity through the choices we make and our behaviour to the outside world. At work, when someone else portrays us differently there’s an implication that we have not been able to successfully protect our own identity, and this is a very threatening experience for us. It takes away our power.

Conflict disempowers us. Being seen in a certain light is a source of strength and confidence to us. Our relationship to power shapes our persona – whether we crave the power of authority through position or influence, whether we seek it through our charisma, our expert knowledge or our morality. Our personal power is weakened when our sense of who we are is challenged. How we associate power impacts on the choice we make between co-operation or conflict.

Conflict creates emotional barriers. In a conflict situation, where fear and anxiety are at play the choices are flee, freeze or fight. When emotions are high, they actually prevent us from making good choices, controlling our impulses and considering the needs of others. So emotional barriers play a critical role in how we behave – we literally can’t think straight. This cognitive freezing reduces openness to conflict resolution and delays or prevents peace-making.

This is all deep-seated, complex and unconscious terrain. Our starting point is that often we can’t help getting into conflict and don’t realise we’re there till it’s too late.

“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”

Michelle Obama

When you’re in that place, what can you do to protect yourself and work towards peace of mind?

Making peace doesn’t always require coming to agreement. Sometimes it’s enough to work through the conflict for yourself, make meaning of what is happening to you so that you can take action, draw a line underneath it and move on.

In conflict we’re often just reacting to what we feel. But thinking about others is an important step in figuring out how you want to respond to the conflict and reach a resolution for yourself. This involves getting to a place where you are able to challenge your assumptions about your colleague and then apply some straightforward approaches for helpful and effective communications with them. A good piece of advice is to take the time to write down the problem while you’re at your most emotional and revisit it the next day. If you still feel strongly about, then you need to make some choices and take some action.

You can use the following structure to help you think through what’s going on for you and what might be going on for them.

1. Find support

Emotional support and a listening ear are essential coping mechanisms always chosen by the wisest and most resilient of people. Connect with help. A person you can trust can help you with the following exercise. It is a good process to help you figure out what outcome you want.

2. Test your assumptions

  • Identity
    Ask yourself how you feel you are being portrayed in this conflict and how you would like to be portrayed. And the other person? What are you doing which is about trying to protect your sense of identity in this situation? How might your actions impact on the other person’s sense of identity?
  • Power
    Where is the power in this relationship? Ask yourself what you want to accomplish from this situation? And the other person? What do you need to have in place to achieve your goals and what is needed from you to get you there?
  • Emotion
    How are you feeling? And the other person? How do you want to feel? What could you do to feel better? And what could you do to help them feel better?

3. Apply effective communication techniques

Whether you decide to confront your colleague or seek a peace-making approach respectful communication is essential. In an emotionally charged situation this might need some practice and some work. Your key aim should be to help the other person understand you, and to better understand them.

  • Practice three things – what you say, how you say it and your body language. This isn’t rocket science, but these are the first things to go out the window when you’re in fight or flight.
  • Listen. Listen more than you speak. Summarise. Ask questions. Clarify. Make sure your colleague feels understood first.
  • Allow. Allow their feelings. People cannot take on feedback until they have told their story and expressed their feelings. After all, you would like your colleague to allow yours.
  • Find your compassion. How can you say what you want to say whilst showing you respect the dignity of the other person as a fellow human being? Until you are willing to give this your best shot you may not be ready for resolution.
  • Depersonalise. Keep away from making it about them versus you. Make it about the work, the organisation, the team, the situation, but not about you and them.
  • Simplify. Keep it short, keep it simple and stop when you have said what you planned to say.

4. Lead yourself

The worst thing you can do in the face of hostility is nothing. When a person holds onto conflict for too long it becomes all they know, and they give over everything that they are to unhappiness. Don’t leave it. If you take control of your experience by seeking support, choosing the outcome you want, and working through what is going on with you in sufficient depth, the way to resolution will reveal itself to you and you will lead yourself to it.