Managing Conflict (When You Are Both Right!)

Written by Miriam Yates, Psychologist at Within Consulting

Have you ever had one of those moments where you were unequivocally convinced (i.e., you’d bet your last $5) that you were right?  I have. Last week in fact.  

Let me paint you a quick picture… I was driving home in the early evening and felt quite hot.  Usually this time of year, particularly mid-May where the days are warm but the nights are ‘cold’, I’m partial to complaining about the chill (classic Queenslander, I know).  In this instance, it was very unusual for me to be complaining about the heat and my car passenger who just after hearing me complain about being hot, decided to turn the air-conditioning up (to make it warmer) because they were so cold, and turned to me and said “now you know how I feel” …  

Wait, what? I said I was hot. This was about me being unusually hot. Not them being unusually cold.  

I responded, “more like now you know how I feel because you always turn down the heater and I end up freezing!”.  Needless to say, we spent the next five minutes debating whose experience was the point of comparison: mine as the normally cold person, or theirs as the normally hot person.  Now, I could outline all my points for you substantiating why I was right in this debate (I missed my calling as a Lawyer), but its probably easier to say that we quickly realised we were both right.  My passenger’s experience of heat was as good of a comparison point as my experience of the cold.  

This really got me thinking about workplace conflict and how to reconcile a conflict when you’re right, and there’s a real possibility that the other person is as well!?   

This one is a doozy, and actually quite common in the workplace.  You see, conflicts often arise on the basis of a difference in interpretation and opinion.  I’m sure you’ve disagreed with someone about something, and you are both right, but approaching the situation through a different lens.  Now it’s tempting to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and just ‘agree to disagree’ but this really doesn’t work in the longer term.  There is real potential for disagreements to impact organisational culture and business bottom-line.  Thus, it is pretty important to get this right.  

A few caveats prior to me launching into the different strategies I’ve drawn on to assist others in managing conflict at work.  The first is, these suggestions work for minor differences of opinion or small-scale workplace altercations only.  The ideas presented are definitely not going to assist for long-term conflicts, situations in which employees are being bullied (or feel victimised), nor contexts in which there is a culture of disengagement and antipathy.  The second, these suggestions are short-sharp ways for you to take responsibility of your behaviour.  They are in no way suggested as ways to change the behaviour/s of others.  

1.    (Really) Actively Listen.  This may sound like a “Duh!” suggestion – but often this is the first part of the equation to be neglected.  What is the other person actually saying?  Are you legitimately hearing the other person? Are you understanding exactly what they are saying?

2.    Repeat what you hear.  This flows for the first point…  Start with saying exactly what you hear and understand the other person to be saying…  This is one I’ve learned from Tamara here at Within Consulting.  A good starting point is “so if I’m hearing you correctly, a, b, and c” or “it sounds as though what you’re saying is p, q, and r”.  Now there’s a chance you might be wrong, and that’s okay.  This is your counter-parts opportunity to correct your understanding.  Often you might realise that you have mis-interpreted what was being said in the first place and then the process can sometimes stop here. 

3.    Articulate your boundaries.  What transgression did you perceive? What upset you?  Good starting points are “When you said X, I felt Y” or “I interpreted A, as meaning B. To avoid this in future, I’ll look to do X”.  Some prompting ideas to consider here… Did you feel heard? What part of the experience is prompting your response? Now, it is incredibly important you dig deep here, in an honest and authentic way. One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, is that those who irritate us do so because of something within us, not them. What is that ‘thing’ for you? What can you do to lessen the cognitive burden this has for you in future? Finally, what do you need within future interactions with the other person to feel engaged/involved/cooperative? 

4.    Take responsibility.  What are the implications of your actions for the other party? While really challenging, just ask the question. Trust me. Sometimes you mightn’t like the answer, but to move forward and understand one and other, this is a vital step. Accept and take responsibility for your role.   

And, if this all sounds a little tough, remember: 

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

 – the ever-wise Dr. Seuss!