Life is full of conflict and changes whether we like it or not. Look no further than the last two years across the world to see how change and conflict have impacted each of us in a personal way. While we generally don’t like conflict on a personal level you are guaranteed to encounter it as you continue to grow in your leadership.
Here are some steps to help you navigate those times of conflict and change well.
Know which battles are worth fighting
Sometimes we consider ourselves peacemakers or a neutral party and want to get involved to mitigate the conflict and help find a resolution. While rooted in great intentions, your involvement may actually make the conflict worse by adding an unneeded layer of complexity to the situation.
If you’ve got two people on your team that are in conflict, step back, and assess when you need to get involved. It’s better long term if they can work it out amongst themselves without your involvement. They will both grow from the experience and lead to less of a reliance on your intervention in future flare-ups.
Not all conflict requires your involvement. Guage when the appropriate time to enter the conversation is. Jump in too early and people begin to rely on you for every little conflict. (Think of a child running to his mom every time something doesn’t go their way) Wait too long and you lose trust and credibility as a leader as the problem grows and escalates.
Steer clear of assumptions and investigate instead
Assumptions can get us in trouble with other people because the picture is often not as clear as we think it is. We then fill in the blanks based on our perspective or experience. Think of any normal change or conflict as a giant color by number picture with some of the numbers missing. Yes, it’s easy to fill in the spots that are clearly labeled, but it becomes a bit more difficult to fill in the rest.
Some questions that you may ask yourself to help fill in those gaps include:
What am I missing, or what else should I know? This is a great starting point of self-reflection to understand which pieces of the piece you are missing as you look to have an informed perspective on what action needs to be made.
What is the other person asking me to do? Is the request really from a true need or is it rooted in self-interest? Sometimes there really isn’t an ask from you. The person just needs someone to vent to.
Would the other person agree with what is being said? Many times when an issue is brought to you, it’s from one person; one side of the story. Put your empathy hat on and think about the other side. Would they agree with the situation that is being laid out or would they have another opinion? Do you know about some challenges that the other person is going through that could be a contributing factor?
Openly listen and move forward
Once you hear about or observe and conflict that requires your attention, take time to listen to both sides individually if possible. Come into the conversation with care and empathy to set the right tone with the person. “Scott shared about a billing issue that happened yesterday. What’s your take?” As you listen, ask a lot of questions for clarity. Taking an inquisitive and curious approach will keep the person’s defenses down and allow you a chance to hear their honest perspective on the situation.
Once you have all the information you need to decide your next step and level of involvement. Some of those roles include:
Moderator of a discussion between the parties
Decision-maker to end the dispute
Table the discussion for a set later time
Make sure that you don’t take too long to get to and through this phase. Unresolved conflict only hurts other areas of the business and relationships.
Find the balance in intervening in the conflict. Know when to stay out of it and when it’s time to jump in.
Someone recently asked the Reddit community why people are rude, loud and aggressive towards frontline employees in retail, food, and service industries. By far the most common answer was because they felt like it got results. You’ve likely run across this person at some point in your life and may even have this person in your work environment today.
Tips to deal with aggressive people
Give them time to cool down. If possible don’t address in the heat of the moment. Give them a chance to cool down and then talk to the person. If this is not possible, move the person to another location and then address the situation. Pull them into a hallway, a different conference room, etc to remove them from the environment that they were in.
Keep a healthy distance. Make sure that you are not violating their personal space (4ft +) when you talk to the person. Conversely, do not let the person invade your space. Step back or ask them to. Violating this space during this instance causes more non-verbal tension.
State the impact of the behavior and your expectations. Start the conversation off by stating the impact of their behavior. How has the outburst hurt productivity, working relationships, and their reputation? What is your expectation on how they should respect you and other members of the team? Stay calm and don’t fight aggression with more aggression.
Keep the spotlight on them. The person may try to shift the blame on others for their outbursts and behavior. Keep the focus on them and keep the power of the conversation.
Ask for commitment and don’t avoid conflict. Once the situation calms down, ask the person for their commitment to cease the behavior. Again state your expectations and consequences should the behavior continue. Don’t avoid conflict. You allow the behavior to go on, and passively approve of it when you fail to address it.
Other things to do
In addition to dealing with an aggressive person, there are other things you should consider as well.
Document incidents. You can do this in a number of ways, but I recommend emailing yourself and keeping a folder on it or creating an electronic copy that chronicles the behavior. With email, it will be timestamped when you send it, with an ongoing document, make sure that you include dates on individual incidents.
Cataloging these incidents will help you recall them better if asked, gives you a written trail and can help you see just how big of a problem that it is.
Involve HR. HR is there to protect your rights and to ensure that you are having a great employee experience. If the aggressor is your boss (or they aren’t addressing the issue), you may need need to reach out to a partner from the HR department.
Tips for dealing with aggressive customers
First, acknowledge their anger and perceived slight. This often catches them off guard because they are expecting an argument or fight. Next, acknowledge how you’d feel in the situation and then move quickly to resolve the problem. Be sincere and authentic during the exchange, while keeping your cool.
In-depth insight on conflict can be found in these past episodes:
The aggressor wants all of the control in the situation, even if they begin to lose control of themselves. Keep your power by being a calm, confident, and matter of fact leader. Document and involve others if needed to bring a long term solution. You are stronger than the aggressor.
Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional. -Max Lucado
Conflict! You have dealt with it, you currently are dealing with it at some level, and you’ll be dealing with it in the future. Conflict always comes from two groups. Those groups can be as small as one person all the way to millions of people. When two groups have conflict and begin fighting it out, it will typically fall into one of four categories.
Power: This is mine.
Data: My numbers are more legitimate.
Opinion: My opinion is more valid than yours.
Unnecessary: How I position myself and protect my area.
We’ll look at the one reason we can knock down the most and then a couple of ways to lessen the other three types of conflict.
Our language, tone, body signals, and the words we choose can cause many unnecessary conflicts. If you are a student in Emotional Intelligence, this would fall under self-management. Do you raise your voice often or when you get worked up? Do you use demeaning terms or phrases that challenge others? Are you offering up solutions, answers, or conclusions early in the exchange? When you offer the solution first, people will often challenge it instead of defining the problem. Be sure to pick words that are about the issue and not the person. You are likely shattering trust in your goal of getting your point across. Avoid direct blaming, instead describe the problem and how it impacts others.
Have a strong sense of Emotional Intelligence
I’m teaching a class for leaders on Emotional Intelligence as I write this letter. What we have learned is that because of the way that the brain is built, information travels through your emotional portion before it reaches the logical part of your brain. That means that emotions always get the first say in things that happen to us. This can quickly escalate a conflict if not handled properly. Our emotional responses come from personalizing the issue. Separate the personal issue from the actual problem at hand. Deal with the personal issue later if warranted.
Do certain things just push your buttons, set you off, shut you down, or generally make you lose your cool? Think about the last several times that you didn’t handle conflict well and learn what the triggers were that got you derailed. Once you discover what sets you off and what your nonverbal ticks are (face gets flush, your temperature rises, etc) rehearse how you would handle it in the future…..it’s bound to pop back up again.
You cannot stop conflict from happening. It’s part of life. You can, however, learn how to minimize it and work through it in a professional and efficient manner.