Conflict in the workplace cannot be avoided — it’s the leaders job to deal with it!

Let’s face it, if you put two people together in any given situation, the likelihood that conflict may arise is extremely high. What is conflict? Conflict is disagreement, but contrary to popular belief conflict does not necessarily involve fighting. Conflict exists in any situation where facts, desires or fears pull or push participants against each other or in divergent directions.

Conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace. When it occurs, however, there is a tendency for morale to be lowered, an increase in absenteeism and decreased productivity. It has been estimated that managers spend at least 25 percent of their time resolving workplace conflicts — causing lowered office performance.

One reason there is so much conflict in the workplace is primarily because most people simply haven’t learned how to resolve conflict before it turns into fighting, or more often than not, try to avoid conflict at all cost. This is why we have so many ‘elephants in the room’ which grow and fester. The problem with this is everyone is expending massive amounts of energy trying to avoid these ‘landmines’ and find themselves feeling they are treading on ‘eggshells’, avoiding bosses and peers, ignoring a colleagues bad behavior or poor performance, and seemingly are unable to have productive and fruitful conversations.

I have seen up-close and personal numerous situations where the absence of conflict resolution has led to disastrous outcomes and many wasted hours of employees time and energy. I was made aware of a manager who on a daily basis would appear to be involved in a negative interaction with either a peer or her manager. On one occasion, she took it upon herself to barge into a closed door meeting with her boss who was having a private (skip level) meeting with her employee. She demanded to know from her boss why he was meeting with her employee — even though there was a company wide initiative encouraging skip level meetings, in order to break down communication bottlenecks within management. Neither the manager’s boss or the employee confronted the situation, but avoided the conflict because of either the shock of what had happened, or just not wanting to appear to be a part of the problem. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a contentious situation?

I’d like to provide three steps to moving you and your workplace, and even your home, to working through conflict. I believe this approach may get you the results that may have eluded you to date:

  • Engage both parties in an empathic way. This is, recognizing that both parties have been affected on an emotional level — they may be angry, bitter, wounded, fearful, even disgusted by the other person. If individuals are unable to express and label their emotions (how they’ve been impacted), they will not be able to move onto working through solutions. There is often a danger in these situations to expect people to “act” like professionals. Unfortunately, this approach never works, because what makes us human is our ability to feel and express a very wide range of emotions. Ultimately, when both parties acknowledge the other persons feelings, they can begin to the next step.
  • Allow both parties to explain their version of the events. Sounds incredibly simple. But it is because of misunderstanding — in the first place, that conflict has arisen. When I conduct a mediation session or coaching an individual through a challenging situation, it is without fail, that the parties have a different understanding of what has transpired. And if the conflict has risen to the level to require mediation, then there is significant misunderstanding on many levels. Often times, it can be very difficult to have individuals clearly articulate the events without creeping back into misunderstanding. The ability to listen deeply to both parties and understand how each individual has contributed to the conflict will enable you to identify potential solutions.
  • Create a psychologically safe environment for the individuals. When conflict arises, it will always have an impact on trust between people. It is staggering to me how many times this critical factor is overlooked. Again, the workplace can often feel cold and inhumane when we fail to recognize how allowing conflict to exist amongst co-workers on a daily basis is damaging, if not traumatic, to an individual’s psyche. In a recent study at Google, they found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful. As leaders and managers, it is our job to protect people from work environments that are dysfunctional. We dare not abdicate our mandate to create environments where people can thrive, lest we expose our associates to emotional trauma, anxiety and stress.

So when the conflict inevitably arises, follow these three steps and you will minimize the negative impact of conflict at work.

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Remembering TEDxPasadenaWomen

Last Saturday I was able to attend a monumental and historic event,the first TEDxPasadenaWomen. Leading up to this event, I and my co-coach, Michele Lando, dubbed ‘The Twins’, had the pleasure of working with each of the thirteen speakers. Each speaker told their own story in such a way that the audience was moved to tears as well as uproarious laughter several times throughout the day.So that I don’t forget the powerful messages from our speakers, I thought I’d I recap.

Alyesha White – taught us about our responsibility towards our family members, especially if we have younger siblings, and how we must participate in raising responsible young adults. Her spoken word poetry was passionate and heartfelt. Standing ovation #1!! Allison Gryphon and Lolita Lopez – demonstrated the importance of teamwork, and how two women came together to fight breast cancer, and still remain committed to fighting the battle together forever. Standing ovation #2!! See a trend? Kristin Mascka – vividly illustrated how unconscious bias affects all of us, and how we should all strive to support one another, regardless of gender, race, or other classification, because we all are on the same team, and we must seek to support our fellow humans. Frank Chechel – our first male speaker asked the audience if he was even “allowed” to address the primarily female audience. Absolutely! Frank encouraged both the men and women to ‘rock-the-boat’ on gender-equality issues; for men to hire, support, and promote women, and for women to acknowledge the men who do the things that Frank asked the men to do. Dr.Tess Warschaw – if anyone was qualified to talk about resiliency, it was the indomitable Dr.Tess. Now in her eight decade, she shared how in her darkest moment, she lost her resiliency, but with the help of friends, she bounced back. She was quite clear with us that, if you don’t have real friends, we need to go in search of them. All of us at some point in our lives, will need friends to be resilient for us.

Loretta Whitesides – the astronaut from Stanford University  who realized with the help of a mentor, that developing your leadership skills and self-development was more important than accomplishments and accolades. How sad would it be walking on the surface of the moon and still have the feeling that she didn’t belong? She encouraged the audience to find your mission in life, and that is when you have the feeling of belonging. Alex Cohen – KPCC news correspondent and retired Roller Derby player illustrated the similarities between the rough and tumble sport of and motherhood. She pointed out some of the ways that mothers failed to be supportive to other mothers, and asked whether if its time to rewrite the manual on motherhood? She began her own support group with other mothers, who have played Roller Derby. Ron Florence – an investment executive challenged the audience not to confuse net-worth with self-worth. A very bold and powerful concept you don’t hear very often. He then helped the audience think about financial decision making with the following three questions. What is the money for? What are you worried about? What is going to make you happy? Joelle Casteix – a victim of sexual abuse, however, she made it very clear to the audience that she is not defined by the abuse. She taught us that becoming a victim is the opposite of taking responsibility. Joelle has taken her experiences and is a published author, speaker, and national expert on child sexual abuse prevention, detection, and education. Nancy Bennett – has always been the first to try new things. Growing up in a family of accomplished scientists and artists, and extremely supportive parents, she developed a curiosity for how things work. And that curiosity led to the development of empathy for others.Her work is always about collaboration, whether it has been producing and directing television shows, music videos, and now creating virtual reality films.

 Tembi Locke – an accomplished actress gave a moving account of how one day her life completely changed from what appeared to be an extremely promising one, to one she couldn’t have imagined. Overnight she became a caregiver to her husband who was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. She told the audience that what matters most in life is unconditional love and connection. Cristi Hegranes – founder of Global Press Institute told the audience that her lifelong dream to be a foreign correspondent journalist, her dream job, was shattered when she realized she wasn’t qualified to tell the stories of the native lands she visited. But instead of giving up, she started an organization that now trains local people to become journalists who can accurately tell these stories all around the globe. Consuelo Martinez – our closing speaker challenged the audience to find their voice and speak up, because she has experienced the power of words and ideas. She closed her talk with the very first talk she gave, just a few months prior that rocked her world and her school audience. In her words, being Latino, female, public school educated, and seventeen years old, may not look like she has the best chance in this world. However, Connie’s powerful talk showed everyone in the room what a difference we can make when we find our voice and use it!

Give the Gift of Listening Well

Have you ever taken the time to reflect on an enjoyable conversation? It is very likely that if and when you have had the pleasure of such a conversation, it is because both individuals are listening intently to the other. I was recently reminded by a speaker that, people living in the twenty-first century are the most overly stimulated and distracted at any time in human history. This implies that we are extremely busy and preoccupied, and frequently distracted when we spend time with others.

Recently I found myself eavesdropping on a few conversations at my local coffee shop. What has struck me about some of these interactions are a) the participants do not appear to be enjoying the others company, b) the tone can be tense and somewhat frantic, and c) each person walks away with a ‘look’ of dissatisfaction or ambivalence.I have a sense that these kinds of interactions are far too common place which I believe are a direct result of our inability to give ourselves completely to others – to be present – in conversation or otherwise. I recently listened to a group engaged in such an interaction, and noticed that they did not seem the least bit interested in what each person had to say, but rather were looking for openings where they could ‘throw in their two cents’! Why would anyone choose to spend their time in such an unrewarding way? Do you want to have a conversation with someone who isn’t listening? Emphatically no! Listening well requires us to be genuinely interested in what the person we are speaking with has to say.

For several years, I have come to believe that the most important communication skill, is the ability to listen well. Think for a minute why relationships end, or wars start, or the source of conflict in the workplace; is it not true that one party fails to understand or ‘hear’ what the other is saying or even chooses deliberately not to listen? Most people who consider themselves to have achieved some level of success in their relationships recognize that this ability to listen well is the lubricant of healthy relationships. And yet I am not aware of any school or university that teaches children and young people the importance of learning this major life skill. Many of us do not learn this personally until we are sitting across from a therapist trying to understand what went wrong with a partner or our children. Or equally confounding is when a supervisor is providing feedback which doesn’t match our version of things – an indication that one of the two parties has not heard the same thing. I recall coaching a client who was adamant that the contents of her disciplinary action was ‘completely inaccurate’. Clearly another example of the inability of two individuals to communicate and listen well to each other.

As I reflect on this important life skill, I am reminded that some people make it more difficult than others for us to practice this skill. During the holidays, we may find ourselves pushed to our emotional limits which leaves next-to-nothing in our self-control reservoirs. It is this emotional intelligence skill which we need to draw on, so that we can choose how we will interact with those close to us in those moments when we are challenged to listen well. According to Mary Mitchell, author of Class Acts: How Good Manners Create Good Relationships and Good Relationships Create Good Business,  “Listening not only shows respect and consideration for another human being, but is the first step to truly understanding their concerns, needs, and wants.”

As you approach the holidays, fully recognizing that we may find ourselves squeezed in many ways, I believe that we can experience very enjoyable conversations with others if we can apply a few principles to our listening.Try the following: Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

  • Use Empathy vs. Sympathy
  • Suspend Judgement 
  • Don’t Interrupt
  • Tolerate Silence
  • Experience the Total Message
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions
  • Show That You’re Listening
  • Remember Why Listening is Important