Is someone really getting on your nerves at work?

Strategies for Managing Conflict In the Workplace

This article briefly explores Conscious Perception and Empathic State Development (adapted from David Taylor’s Naked Coach: Business Coaching Made Simple, 2007) as two related strategies for better managing conflict in the workplace. An emphasis is placed on how our points of view shape our patterns of interpretation and response.

Ultimately it is proposed that taking personal responsibility for the impact of our limited perspectives and behaviour, while developing alternative and empathic interpretations of others’ behaviour, is the key to better workplace relationships and becoming good at managing conflict in the workplace.

Blindsided

It’s one of those Monday mornings.

A million things to do and you’re running off your feet. Bills to pay, things to fetch, and a very important presentation to make in the afternoon. On top of that you have to get to the bank during your lunch hour.

At one o clock you brave the midday people traffic. Your stress levels are up, but you’re ready to attack those long queues. As you get to the bank entrance you’re distracted and busy rehearsing your presentation in your head. Before you know it a very large man completely runs you off your feet. As you hit the ground you’re filled with embarrassment which eventually morphs into absolute disdain and anger.

As you look up at the towering man, automatic thoughts jump into your head. “What an idiot! Why doesn’t he look where he’s going? Who the hell does he think he is? Does he have no respect for other people?”

You’re about to share some colourful French with the man still towering above you and not offering any help or apology.

But then you notice something.

The man is wearing a pair of sunglasses. You watch him bend over as he searches the floor with his hands. And then you see it… the white cane lying to your right. You reach out and hand the blind man his white cane.

Suddenly your anger and the attribution of negative intent to his actions shift to compassion and understanding.

Why? You’ve expanded your perception… your point of view.

Why we have to take responsibility for managing conflict in the workplace.

Is someone really getting on your nerves at work? Or have you already had a full-on blow up after a long period of repeated frustrations with somebody’s behaviour? Many of us experience conflict or some kind of tension with colleagues who seem to be oblivious of what they are doing to tick us off.

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And here’s the challenge…

Most of us (or rather most of our egos) don’t really take kindly to the idea that it could be our own limited perspectivesassumptions andautomatic thoughts that are contributing to the tension, misunderstandings and disharmony between ourselves and our colleagues.

We all play the blame game, don’t we?

Blame feels more powerful and safe than taking responsibility for how our point of view is complicit in undermining collaborative and productive workplace relationships. We can get stuck in unconscious cycles of automatically attributing negative intent to our colleagues’ actions, rather than looking beyond what is seemingly obvious (to us at least!). Eventually a cycle of blame and defensiveness results (often unspoken) which in turn leads to a growing sense of mistrust and disengagement at work?

And then we are going nowhere fast.

But we all reach a point where we know a different approach is required. The problem with blaming our colleagues for our discontent is that it disempowers us. We lose any sense of autonomy and control in shaping our workplace relationships into more productive and rewarding partnerships.

But we can begin to make more responsible choices… more conscious choices based on empathy and a wider field of perception.

A Catastrophic Voice Message

The bottom line is that limited or partial information of a situation can lead to unhelpful and negative interpretations. Our perception or point of view affects the meaning we attribute to other people’s actions and words.

For example:

Roger’s boss John is a very direct person and can sometimes be quite harsh with his employees. Roger has always had difficult relationships with authority figures and either worships or resents them. Roger’s relationship with John has been everything but easy and has left a lot of unspoken irritation and frustration hanging in the air.

On Friday morning Roger’s boss leaves the following curt voice message on Roger’s cell phone: “Roger, this is John. Check your program for next week. I want to see you in my office before Thursday.”

This short and blunt message sends Roger into a flat spin.

Already feeling overloaded with unmet deadlines after being off sick for three days, he immediately thinks the requested meeting means trouble. His habitual point of view is to focus on the worst possible outcome of situations. Roger unconsciously believes that this worst-case scenario thinking protects him against being caught off guard by unexpected events. So he starts imagining all the potential problems and complaints John could bring up about his recent performance.

But Roger’s catastrophizing habit makes him instantly anxious about the voice message, and this eventually leads to irritation and downright anger at his boss’s way of treating him. Shifting rapidly, and somewhat irrationally, from fear and defensiveness through to irritation and anger, Roger’s attribution of negative meanings to his boss’s curt message has lead to a great deal of inner tension… and potential conflict with his boss.

Although Roger’s defensive point of view – and catastrophizing cognitions – is unique to his personality style, we all have a particular point of view that shapes how we attribute meaning to others’ behaviour. Your point of view, like Roger’s, consists of habitual (and therefore unconscious) patterns of thinking and emotion that help you interpret and give meaning to your experiences. (See the Enneagram Personality System for more information about the 9 points of view people develop).

The thing about a point of view is that it is a view from a point, rather than the only point. Much like a partial map, our limited points of view can’t show us the full territory.

However, we can expand our perceptions to include not only other points of view, but also the experiences and emotional inner states of our colleagues. Neuroscience has shown us that we are hardwired for empathy. We have the capacity for a deep understanding and ‘affective imagination’ regarding other people’s inner worlds. All we need are the right conditions and strategies for developing this capacity for empathy.

Let us consider some practical strategies for developing empathy and a wider and more conscious field of perception.

Conscious Perception and Empathic States

Conscious Perception (CP) is an approach to workplace communication adapted from David Taylor’s Naked Coach: Business Coaching Made Simple (2007). When applied to conflict it encourages individuals to re-evaluate potentially explosive communication by looking at the

  • negative
  • neutral, and
  • positive possibilities in a message.

Very importantly, CP is greatly enhanced by considering the possible states of mind of the other party. Back to Roger…

If Roger was to apply CP to his experience with his boss John, he could firstly ask himself what alternative interpretations of the curt voice message he can come up with. The negative interpretation is well covered! A neutral interpretation could be that John may simply want to check in with him after his long absence. Even better, a positive interpretation may be that John wants to further discuss the details of Roger’s upcoming promotion.

Furthermore, by remembering that John hates speaking into an answering service, Roger can consider how this may be the reason for his blunt voice tone. Instead of reacting defensively, Roger can in a sense ‘enter John’s state of mind’ (empathy) to develop alternative explanations for his curt message. Roger could further stimulate this ‘empathic state’ by imagining the upcoming meeting with John from John’s perspective.

Exercise: Try the following steps for developing an empathic state with someone in your workplace that you have conflict with:

  • Identify a typical interaction between you and the other person
  • Allow yourself to mentally re-experience the interaction with that person
  • Focus on the details of the interaction to make it as real as you can
  • Where are you?
  • Is it dark or light?
  • Is it warm or cold?
  • Where is the other person in relation to you?
  • How does your body feel?
  • What is the other person saying?
  • What is the tone of voice being used?
  • Now imagine that for a few moments that you are becoming the other person in this interaction
  • You can even move across to where in the room the person would be standing or sitting
  • As you take up the other’s position imagine that you have become their age, have their personality and move in their circles
  • Really be in the other’s shoes
  • Now that you are being the other person, answer these two questions: “What is going on in this relationship for me?” and “What will help me in this relationship?”
  • Write down your answers

The combination of Conscious Perception and Empathic State development can open very useful ways of perceiving and responding to conflict in your workplace. If practiced regularly it will become part of your daily dealings with others where you can move from blame to responsibility and from defensiveness to collaboration.

Workplace conflict is sometimes inevitable, but it can become the platform for healthy human relationships and improved productivity.

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