Dealing with Conflict in the Workforce

Use the four A’s: acknowledge, ask, align, add. Open the meeting with a statement such as, “I understand there is a concern,” or “I believe there may be a problem we can work out together.” Ask for the other person’s perception of the situation or most pressing need. “How do you see the situation?” “What do you think about the problem?” Avoid jumping too quickly to the solution stage by asking, “What do you think we should do,” or “How can we correct this?” Feelings need to be handled first, rapport built and agreement to participate in problem-solving obtained before solutions are explored. Align by emphasizing mutual positive intent. “I don’t like working in a strained atmosphere,” “Do you think we might be able to work together to build a more effective team or less stressful environment?” Add by moving from her needs to what you have in common (the work environment) to your needs.

At this point, you may agree that you will never be close friends, and that is okay. Your goal is improved communications which will become the foundation of a better working relationship and environment. This is a much more realistic goal than expecting the other person to agree with you, adopt your viewpoint, or change her position, feelings and beliefs.

While another is speaking, suspend your judgment and remain objective. Focusing on observations rather than conclusions lets you remain non-judgmental. Empathetic listening means you can relate the other’s point of view as if it were your own. If you can not understand her perception, ask for clarification, “Is this what you mean?” Using the phrase, “what I hear you saying is…” also allows you to be certain you understand what the speaker is conveying.

During confrontation, you may need to pause frequently to let emotions cool down, to separate feelings from the situation. Anger frequently occurs when a person perceives he is being or is about to be rejected. When anger or hostility are encountered, back off. Take a deep breath and consciously relax, even when your blood pressure is sky-rocketing and your stomach tied in knots. Props, such as a pen and paper can be helpful to defuse an emotional outburst. Suggest you both write down your perception of the problem, or possible alternatives. This allows a few minutes to calm down and the lists provide a tool for negotiating a compromise.

Use “I” messages. “I am hurt/concerned/upset by…” You can tell the other person how his behavior, beliefs, expectations or actions affect you, but it is equally effective to use and “I” statement which says, “I can appreciate what you are saying,” “I can understand your situation,” “I accept your feelings about this.”

Remember that an emotionally charged atmosphere may make you feel suddenly powerless and childlike and you may then react as a child. When confronted with anger, imagine the other person as an emotionally troubled child who needs a calming, strongly reassuring parental-type influence. Summon up your inner strength, be firm, but soothing and remain in control of your own emotions. If necessary, end the conversation as smoothly as possible and reschedule another meeting if you cannot continue.

Behavior is a function of a person’s perceptions and people always do what makes sense to them. It is not necessary to understand what motivates a person’s actions when you adopt an attitude of accepting the person, even though you may not agree with his behavior, expectations, perceptions or values. An attitude of acceptance of the other person is more productive than assigning blame and finding fault.

Try to find something positive you can acknowledge as the other’s strength. Respect is an essential ingredient to a successful transformation of disagreement to agreement. You need not like the other person, or be friends. You need not agree with their actions or attitudes. But you can still respect her as a person with certain knowledge, skills, talents and experiences. Tell her what strengths you respect in her, “I have always admired the way you…” or “I know you have the patients’ best interests at heart.”

As much as possible, limit the discussion to one point, being specific, clear and concise. It may be necessary to summarize the conversation frequently to stay on that point. Reflective statements, eg. “what I hear you saying is…”, rephrasing, “let me see if I have this…” and repetition, “so far, we’ve decided…” help to focus the conversation.

Even thought you may have handled emotional content early in the meeting, it may crop up again and again. Clarify feelings, especially anger which tends to cloud issues by covering up other emotions with, “This situation makes you feel…” or “I also feel…” Avoid following the word “feel” with “that” because that changes the meaning to a “I think” statement. “Feel” is always followed by an emotion word. “I feel upset, angry, sad, frustrated, hostile, defensive, discouraged, uncomfortable, etc.”

When feelings are easily and quickly aroused, the “child” state may be hooked. The “child” responds with impulsiveness and emotional outbursts. Learn to identify when you are responding as a child versus as an adult. The adult shows restraint and maturity and maintains control. The adult gathers information, evaluates and stores data and is selective in responses. When your “child” is tapped, take a deep breath, count to ten, and back away from sudden, angry response. (5)

In some situations, you may need to ask yourself whether the other person is operating from real concern, or lacking appropriate information, or acting as a devil’s advocate. She may be an argumentative, negative person, in which case even after a prolonged attempt to resolve conflict, you may agree to continue disagreeing. When there is little likelihood of resolution of problems between you, it may be necessary to turn to a third party for mediation.

Present information only if and when it is requested. Until the emotional content of a disagreement is handled, information cannot be imparted successfully. Advice is rarely welcome during problem-solving and conflict resolution. Giving advice is fraught with negative consequences. If your advice is correct but rejected by the other person and you were right, the other loses face and will reject you again. If your advice is incorrect and accepted by the other as right, she will lose respect for you. If your advice is incorrect and rejected by the other, she will lose trust in you. If your advice is correct and accepted by the other person, the other may respect you, but she may still lose self-confidence. Avoid the impulse to advise by emphasizing joint participation in the problem-solving process.

Seek mutual agreement on the problem before working on possible solutions. Effective communications is the goal of confrontation. You do not have to solve the problem at the first meeting. It may take an entire session just to agree to work on the resolution of conflict and on the identification of the problems. Once communications have been established successful coping strategies can be introduced into the environment.

A break at this point may be beneficial and both parties can retire to consider solutions which will be discussed at a second session. When both parties return to negotiations with a list of possible solutions, they feel a sense of ownership of the compromise process.

The final agreement or contract should reflect solutions agreeable to both. A written agreement gives a clear understanding of the next step in the conflict resolution process. The value of a written agreement is found in the opportunity to return to the negotiation if one solution does not work. The agreement might take on the form of goals with a timetable, action steps and criteria for evaluating when they have been met.

An empathetic confrontation requires patience. People do grow and change and relationships grow and change, but both take time and an atmosphere of respect and trust. Make sure your own expectations are realistic. While you cannot change another’s personality or behavior, you can work on low self-esteem, your own and another’s. The key to both is respect. Be firm about your right to respect as a person and a nurse, and be equally quick to give the other person respect. Ego, rather than subject, most frequently prompts disagreements.

Expectations can cause problems between people, but they can also generate solutions. If you expect the best from another, you will frequently receive the best. As Gerry Jamposky states in Love is Letting Go of Fear, “You can’t raise positive people on negative feedback.” Treat others, not the way you expect to be treated, but the way they want to be treated. An atmosphere of trust and support improves relationships; better relationships are the heart of successful work environments.