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Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Handle Conflict

Conflict in the workplace is a very personal thing, and it can be frightening, paralyzing. We live comfortably with differences, and we can handle disagreement. Conflict, though, is a dread.

When belligerence erupts in my face, directed very personally at me – with no doubt that I am the one deserving of condemnation, contempt and insult – I burn with humiliation.

Someone has displayed an active conviction that I deserve public labeling as a bad person. I re-run the moment, the language, the fierce emotion, over and over in my mind. I can’t stop. It is just as desperately painful every time. I remember every word and expression, and every wimpy response I could summon, each of my moments of hangdog silence.

I can’t stop myself from that brooding, so depressing and debilitating. I feel ashamed and worthless. I know it’s not deserved, and I know every witness to the horrific event knows I didn’t deserve it. None of that helps.

My work is bound to suffer. I can’t perform all functions of an effective worker – especially the higher-level and creative duties -- when I’m distracted and blinded by this ever-present black cloud. My entire life, consumed by this, seems negative.

And, perhaps worst of all, I know I will do no better the next time it happens.

Now, there it is. That puts a finger precisely on the problem. Emotion has paralyzed reason, and you don’t know what to do to make this go away.

You can’t make it go away, but you can turn it into a terrific confidence-builder, believe it or not.

To start with, take specific action to block this malicious mischaracterization from occupying your thoughts so thoroughly that you doubt yourself, lose your momentum and your focus. You have to turn this around.

Never allow yourself to feel helpless. Replace the mental replays of the conflict with replays of your most prideful accomplishments. This will not be easy. We're stuck in the problem. We perversely tend to avoid telling ourselves how good we are, because we’ve been taught to be modest. There’s nothing wrong with modesty, but it’s equally legitimate to privately honor ourselves for hardwon accomplishments.

Essentially, you are taking charge of your inner picture of who you are. The attacker wants to poison your sense of self-worth and the opinion of others about you. Put a stop to that. Your self-esteem and reputation are your property, and you must take vigorous, persistent action to preserve and enhance them.

Here’s the background: It matters to you that you act in ways that respect the worth of those with whom you come into contact. In most of your daily interactions, people generally behave in the same way, or at least are relatively inoffensive in actions and manner. You have not pursued combat as a substantial factor in your approach to the job.

Now, in a business meeting, a social group, a daily work relationship, ugliness has arisen. Maybe it has become a regular factor. It’s awful. You’re not ready for it, you don’t like it, and you want it to go away.

It won’t go away. If it does, it is very likely to come back. In truth, you can expect periodic difficulties throughout life. In response, you certainly should not remake your customary set of behaviors to be constantly alert for attack and ugliness. Instead, you should develop and/or tune up the skills in your adult relationship management toolbox.

Negative situations are so frequent that we should prepare ourselves to manage them. We need broader strategic understanding, plus very specific tactical tools.

The strategy is to build a strong sense of personal value and competence. Make sure to frequently (and privately) review your positive accomplishments, examine your mistakes and correct the causes. Learn how to track and improve your performance.

This is a proactive, conscious continuing campaign to take control of your life. With control comes strength and confidence. You become capable of handling a lot more of life’s difficulties and opportunities. You become far less vulnerable to distraction and damage from negative matters you can’t control.

The success tactics, the action items of workplace relationship management, are constructed on the foundation of that strong personal worklife strategy.

The tactics are developed through observation, practice and – if you’re really serious – formal training and research. The tactics should be prepared, tested and in place for use in both predictable and sudden situations. There is no substitute for preparation.

Predictable workplace events are significant meetings such as those for performance reviews, discipline, promotion and proposal. Each such scheduled situation should be thought through for clear understanding of purpose, participants, persuasive needs and assets, potential problems, etc.

We usually do this for presentations, and it can be equally important – or more so – for other occasions. You should get the preparation down to the level of anticipating potential responses from other parties, identifying possible unplanned turns the discussion could take and even formulating the words and persuasive descriptions that will do the job

Then we need to have, sort of in stock, carefully prepared ideas for immediate use when unexpected conflict strikes. We prepare how we'll detect warning signs, respond to various kinds of negative behaviors and deflect relationship problems. We include tactics such as how to escape from unwanted conversations without giving offense.

Learn from watching how others do this, and from your own successes and failures. Think these  matters through, and make it a practice to never be caught off guard.

Competence at managing interactions with people is so important to job satisfaction – and to career improvement – that it’s worth devoting time and attention to it.

Above all, it provides an immense payoff in how you feel on top of difficult moments, never again a victim. 


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