Conflict Is Inevitable – Destruction Is Not

“It goes without saying, you should never have more children than you have car windows.” Erma Bombeck

Face it. If you’re alive, and if you live or work with other people, you will have conflict in your life. Plenty of it.

Unfortunately, most people don’t respond to workplace conflict or harassment as well as they should. They get stuck in one or two ineffective responses that do nothing to improve the situation. That’s what I wrote about in last week’s “Tip.” I encouraged you to AVOID all of those behaviors.

Of course, quite a few of you wrote to me, asking, “WHAT DOES WORK?” I could spend an hour, a half day, or even a whole day to answer that question. That’s why I put together my program entitled, “Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead of Coming Apart.” In fact, you’ll find an outline of the program at the end of today’s “Tip.” You can even call me at 1-800-621-7881 to see whether or not my program would be a good fit for your next meeting.

But let me give you a few conflict resolution tips to get you started.

=> 1. Attack The Problem, Not Each Other.

Avoid attacks, slurs, innuendos, and wise cracks. Be a horse, not a donkey.

Perhaps you remember the story of the sheep herder who observed the behavior of wild animals when wolves would approach. Wild horses, he noticed, would form a circle with their heads at the center of the circle and kick out at the wolves, driving them away. But when the wolves would attack a band of wild donkeys, they would also form a circle. They formed it with their heads out toward the wolves and ended up kicking one another.

You have a choice, you can be as smart as a wild horse or as stupid as a wild donkey. You can kick the problem, or you can kick each other.

=> 2. Back Up Accusations With Facts.

It’s not fair to tell another person that he/she is doing something wrong if you can’t give any examples of that behavior. Without examples, the other person won’t believe or understand you.

So if you need to confront someone, it’s your responsibility to get some examples first. Write them down if you have to. That way you won’t forget or confuse what really happened. Get your facts straight.

=> 3. Stay In The Present.

Make it a rule of thumb or a code of conduct to keep your complaints and confrontations up to date. Outlaw complaints that are more than six months old. And ban such comments as, “I remember last year when you…”

When you bring up old complaints, the other person may not remember the incident you’re talking about. But even if he does remember the incident, he will probably see it a great deal differently. And then you’ll have a fight about the fight, about who said and did what.

I know one businessperson who has a sign on his desk that reads, “Remember to forget.” And I think every person in a personal or professional relationship needs to do the same thing with old, historical complaints. Deal with it now — or forget it.

=> 4. Say It Straight.

Stay away from general statements that have hidden messages. It’s a devious way of hoping the other person will figure out how you feel. It seldom works.

A wife might criticize her husband as he sits at the breakfast table reading the newspaper. She says, “I wish you wouldn’t slurp your coffee.” But underneath her comment is her “real” message, the hidden message of “I feel hurt when you spend more time on the paper than you do talking to me.”

Don’t ever expect your coworkers or your family members to read your mind or read between the lines. You’ll simply end up frustrated and angry, and the other person will wonder what you’re upset about.

Just come out and say it straight. Say what you mean. Don’t be like the woman who hired the well known author James Farmer to write a comprehensive book on her genealogy. As Farmer conducted his research, he discovered that one of the woman’s grandfathers had been electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison, and that information would have to be included in the book.

The woman pleaded with Farmer to find a way to say it that would hide the truth. When the book appeared, it read as follows: “One of her grandfathers occupied the chair of applied electricity in one of America’s best known institutions. He was very much attached to his position and literally died in the harness.”

=> 5. Stay On The Subject.

One issue, one problem or one conflict is difficult enough to deal with. So don’t muddy the waters by bringing up several issues at the same time. Most people aren’t able to handle several difficulties at once. That’s why I tell my clients to stick with one problem one week at a time.

Of course, it’s easy to drift off to other subjects, because one conflict often ties into another. But if you’re not careful, you can be talking about a dozen issues at once, and the chances are very good you’ll resolve none of them.

If that happens, stop the conversation. Say something like, “I think we’ve gotten away from the original issue. Let’s stick to one issue and focus all our energies on resolving that one issue.”

=> 6. Avoid Exaggeration.

There’s nothing like a sweeping statement or a vast generalization to make things worse in the midst of conflict. You need to be very careful of ever using words like “never…always…all…or…everyone.” Avoid loaded statements such as: “You’re never on time … You’re always saying things like that … All women are alike … or … Never trust any of the supervisors around here.” Such words almost always put the recipient on the defensive.

Other people exaggerate their volume. They raise their voices. Apparently, they think, “I can’t get through to you in a normal voice because you seem to be deaf to what I’m saying. So I will turn up the volume.”

Still others seem to think they can make a stronger impression on the other person, or at least get his/her attention, by altering the facts or stretching the truth. It’s a tempting strategy, and on the surface, it seems as though it might be a good strategy to use — because it might pressure the other person to change his/her behavior. But let me remind you that pressure and deceit seldom lead to long lasting, willing cooperation. So don’t use it.

Conflict is inevitable. Destruction is not. When you follow these tips, you will move toward constructive conflict resolution.

Action:  Establish your rules of engagement. Whether it be at work or at home, you should have an agreed-upon list of what you will do and won’t do when a conflict arises.

And then with your rules in place, agree to hold each other accountable when there is a digression from the rules.