Addressing Conflict in the Workplace

Not going well, Public Domain

In Difficult Conversations in the Workplace, we talked about why it’s important to face up to difficult conversations in the workplace (no matter how much we might prefer to avoid them), and how doing so helps improve working relationships, while promoting our own personal and professional growth. In this post, we will look at specific techniques and examples as well as one effective approach to healthy confrontation.

The Essentials of a Good Conversation

There are a number of key factors to keep in mind when preparing for and engaging in healthy confrontation. They range from being emotionally present to staying on task and asking for what you want.

Be emotionally present: When we are “present,” we are fully engaged in the conversation, open and available for dialogue. Ways to ensure you are emotionally present include the following:

  • Consciously strive to understand the other person’s perspective.
  • Be warm. Have a conversation as opposed to giving a lecture.
  • Connect even when there are differences. Remain focused on moving forward rather than “being right.”
  • Be willing to experience some discomfort (but not to the point of accepting abuse).
  • Observe and monitor yourself. Notice what makes you shut down and open up.

Clarify the problem: Make sure you’re focused on the problem you want resolved and that you are clear what the problem is.

  • Avoid gross generalizations by stating the specifics.
  • Avoid absolutes (eg. always, never) since they are seldom accurate.
  • Clarify the effects of the problem on you and on your relationship.
  • Stay focused on the issue at hand.
  • Clarify your desire for change to end on a positive note.

Apologize for your part in the problem: Never confront someone from a deficit situation. In other words, if you owe an apology, apologize first. People will generally find it much easier to hear what you have to say once you do. When you start by apologizing, it models what humility looks like while taking away any shame the other person may be feeling. It also shows that you care, you are not there to be judgmental, and you are not there to “win.”

Avoid “shoulds”: when you aim the word “should” at people, they usually become defensive, stop listening and disengage from the conversation.

For example, instead of saying:

“You should have called me and told me you were going to be late. Do you ever think that maybe I had to be somewhere as soon as my meeting ended?

Try something like:

“I know you’re not often late and I would have really appreciated getting to my daughter’s school concert on time yesterday afternoon. In future, if you think you may be late, it would be a good idea to call to give me a heads up so that I know what’s happening and have time to make other arrangements.”

Intentional Dialogue and Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations, especially when they happen spontaneously, often end up being highly reactive. To be effective, however, it’s essential that these conversations employ an Intentional Dialogue approach. Intentional Dialogue involves conscious communication through which you clarify and confirm your understanding of the message, while actively developing respect for and acceptance of the other person’s perspective. Intentional Dialogue consists of the following three parts:

1. Mirroring: This is a reflective process that reassures the other person you have accurately heard the factual content of their message.

An example of mirroring:

Sender: “I thought we had set a meeting for Wednesday afternoon after work, but you never showed up and you didn’t call. I hate that. Did you forget? Did I misunderstand? It makes me so angry when I get stood up. I feel disrespected and I don’t like it.”

Responder: “So if I am hearing you correctly (accurately), you thought we had a meeting Wednesday after work, and when I did not call or come, you were confused about our plans, and you felt disrespected and angry. Did I hear that accurately?”

Sender (evaluates the accuracy of the communication, and responds): “Yes. I was confused and I hate being stood up.”

Ideally, this mirroring process would be repeated until the sender agrees it is completely correct.

Examples of reacting (non-mirroring):

Criticizing: “You always get so upset about little things and you constantly point the finger at me.”

Being defensive: “What do you mean? We didn’t have a firm appointment.”

Rationalizing/Explaining: “Yeah, well, I had to work late and when I finally finished I was exhausted so I went on home. I didn’t think it was a definite time anyway.”

Distorting: “Well, you had it all wrong. I don’t see how you could have thought that I was being disrespectful.”

2. Validation: This is about acknowledging that the inner experience of the person you’re speaking with makes sense from his/her perspective. It’s about moving forward and maintaining the relationship rather than focusing on “being right.” It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person or surrender your experience or point of view. It simply means you recognize and accept that the other person has also experienced something, and that his/her point of view, though different from yours, has equal validity.

An example of validation versus invalidation:

Validating Response: “Well, I can see what you are saying. From your point of view, we had an appointment and I didn’t show up or call. I can understand why you were confused and angry. That makes sense.”

Invalidating Response: “I don’t see what you are so upset about. You’re always making mountains out of molehills!”

3. Empathy: Being empathetic means being able to “stand in another person’s shoes” and appreciate their point of view. Being empathetic in conversation involves demonstrating that you hear and understand what someone is saying and that you acknowledge what the other person is feeling and that those feelings make sense.

An example of empathetic versus non-empathetic response:

Empathetic Response: “I understand what you are saying and I can imagine that my not coming or calling made you feel disrespected and angry.”

Non-empathetic Response (where there is no recognition of the feelings or, if the feelings are recognized, they are devalued): “I can’t imagine why you would feel disrespected by not getting a phone call, or why you would be angry about that. I would have just assumed there would be no meeting and gone on home.”

One of the most important things you can do to help make difficult conversations less difficult is to get some practice. Hopefully, these types of conversations are not a regular occurrence in your workplace, so you may have to rely on role play with colleagues or friends in order to practice boundary setting conversations and Intentional Dialogue skills. It’s also important to remember that you can only expect to control what you do and say in these interactions. Having said that, your chances of a successful outcome are much greater if you act from a desire to forge stronger connections through mutual respect and employ the “caring confrontation” approach offered by Intentional Dialogue.


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