Nerves of Steel: Resolving Conflict

I talked about conflict at work in yesterday’s post, and outlined some factors that pushed me over the edge. Today’s post will look at some ways to mitigate the conflict. Here’s a few things that could have helped:

Attitude shift. Don’t approach the situation when you’re already angry, defensive, or stressed out, because the other party will mirror this behavior. If I come out of my corner swinging at you, the natural instinct is to swing back, even though we’re supposed to be on the same team. Try to agree to a collaborative, professional discussion BEFORE you enter the room. In the situation I described, an undercurrent of tension had been building for several days prior to the meeting. Since we never diffused this tension, it took very little for the situation to escalate into an unproductive and volatile situation.

Fight fair. The agreement to “fight fair” is also part of an attitude shift, and you should set up some “rules of engagement” prior to the meeting. Know your fighting style and trigger points, and discuss these trigger points with the other party or a neutral third party. Agree not to intentionally push someone’s buttons, and agree to stop the discussion if things get out of hand. Know how you and the other party define “out of hand”! Make an exit plan, and agree beforehand that if someone leaves the table to cool off, that person won’t be penalized for a show of weakness or defeat, and that person will come back to the table to finish the discussion.

List the goals. Ultimately, the goal is for the company to make money, but in this case, we had different ideas about how to do that. Instead of focusing on, “I want it done my way”, both parties should have said, “I improve sales using this function, and I think these 3 changes will help me sell better”. Don’t get blinded by the details when you aren’t even in agreement about the goal.

Involve the real decision-maker. In several instances, two non-decision-makers were doing the negotiating or discussing. Instead of leading to a solution, this just led to fighting and blaming. Since neither party was responsible for resolving the problem, we needed a decision-maker there to help navigate the conflict. Decision-makers should also step in to make sure the goals are congruent within the organization. As in the case of one dispute mentioned yesterday, some people didn’t know that my actions were the result of a management decision. Once management stepped in and clarified the strategy behind the decision, people were much less upset and defensive about the way I was handling the situation.

Recognize and compensate. This advice is true anywhere, but particularly in high-emotion situations, all parties need to recognize when the situation is becoming unproductive, and compensate by either leaving the room, bringing in upper management, or re-framing the facts. It’s not weak to clarify a position, request a recess to verify your facts, or suggest that a neutral third-party join the discussion. Honor the agreement to “fight fair”! Tell the other party, “That comment is not relevant to the discussion, please don’t use that reasoning again.” I framed these types of comments as a, “separate issue that is not part of the discussion” before moving on to my point.

Fortunately, my managers felt that I responded as well as I could, given the situation. After having time to reflect, I believe that I can avoid this situation in the future, and ensure a more productive discussion about company issues. I have learned, however, that “nerves of steel” is a myth. I’m human, and no amount of logic or jaw clenching will change the physical response to stress. My heart will pound in my ears, my eyes will start to water, and my voice will shake. Even steel bends under high heat, so my advice is to stay out of the boiler!

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