Unresolved Conflict: The Elephant in the Room

As a restaurant owner and Human Resource professional over the past 20 plus years, I’ve seen plenty of unresolved workplace conflict.  It’s like the kitchen garbage can with rotting shrimp shells in the bottom; everyone smells it but no one wants to deal with it.  So we let it fester and things fester.

Blood pressure rises, people start avoiding each other, less eye contact; our mind goes wild with what we figure the other person is thinking.  We think we know their true motivation as the paranoia mounts.

There were countless times I was brought in to end the avoidance….to get to the bottom of the smelly mess.  So how do you handle the conflict?  Here are some tried and true maneuvers:

1. Timing is everything.  Don’t talk to someone when they just get back from vacation and are buried in email and return phone calls.  Give them a day or two to dig out and take a temperature check.  Read their body language.  A little tension in the shoulders? Using short curt sentences? Relax and wait.  Sense of humor is back?  Just got a great sales report?  This might be your opening.

2. Privacy.  This  cannot be emphasized enough.  Don’t bring up the smelly issue in front of or within ear shot of any other human being.  Never.  Ever.   Their listening skills will be out to lunch and their blood pressure will shoot up.  No one likes to be embarrassed and if there is even the slightest chance that UPS delivery guy might walk by; relax and wait.

3. Facts.  Research your smelly issue thoroughly.  No hunches.  No assumptions.  No jumping to conclusions.  Do your best reconnaissance, you watch CSI, investigate.  This is especially true in the “he said, she said, they said and we said” type of smelly issue.  Find any and all witnesses and alleged witnesses (I can’t tell you how many times in a harassment investigation that the “alleged witness” wasn’t even at work that day).  Don’t go at fact finding to just make sure you are“right”.

4. Suspend Assumptions. This goes closely with #3 but it’s imperative that you don’t decide the other person’s motivation; their ulterior motives.  You’ll have them being one step below Bernie Madoff if you’re not careful.  Empty your head of all your negative stereo types, like “Joe is always out for himself” or “Suzy is out to get me”.  Really?  You know all that?  As Byron Katie says at her website “the work”, “Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” Turn off mister ego and shut down your assumption machine.

5. Craft.  Think it through.  How are you going to broach the subject?  Maybe test the waters with another agenda item that isn’t confrontational like “I want to thank you for your help on the turnover report.  It really saved me some time and I got a chance to work on a more pressing project”.  A sincere, specific compliment is a nice lead in.  I can hear you nay-sayers out there…but I can’t think of anything nice to say.  Revisit #4.  Phrase the issue in terms of the other person’s viewpoint.  What is a reasonable explanation for their egregious act?  Give them an out like, “I’m sure you didn’t realize that when I was excluded from the finance team, I felt like you didn’t trust me”, or “I don’t think you are aware but when you told Suzy about the layoff plan, she assumed her job was in jeopardy”.  Think it through and craft the one or two sentences (no more) to summarize and present the smelly issue at hand (stay away from Never, Always and Should).

6. Love.  What are you crazy?  Love my co-worker, boss, workplace nemesis?  I don’t know why it works but if you decide you love someone, even your worst enemy ,the whole thing just works better.  Maybe it’s ch’i, but mentally embracing the other person (do not do this literally…for obvious reasons) helps you to be open to the possibilities; love your enemy.  Bob may never include you on the email with the financial reports but if you love him, it dampens down the resentment and blasts open the possibility of resolution. This also helps with #4.

7. Do it.  When you have completed the preceding steps; just do it.  Have the conversation.  Stay open minded and believe in a positive outcome.  Sometimes, OK a lot of times, it’s a complete surprise to the other person.  But it’s amazing how often people tip toe around an issue, especially a smelly one, and the offending person, had no idea that they angered you or that several people were avoiding them.  Most of the time people don’t realize how they are perceived and want to do their best.  Nine times out of ten, they apologize.  Give them the chance.

This might be messy the first, second or third time around.  But this is going to build trust in the long run.  You will be the Go-To person for conflict resolution and honest constructive feedback.  Slay the elephant.

Let me know what you think.  What workplace conflict are you dealing with?


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