CONFLICT & How to Handle 3 Types of Difficult Conversations

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Research shows that you can’t avoid office politics. Instead, you have to participate in an ethical, team-building and responsible way. See this research on how to handle three types of situations, including colleagues that go ‘postal’ on you, how to bring up criticism in a public meeting and what do to if you are mad about a decision that affects you.”

By Karen Dillon, Harvard Business Review, 12/29/14 (adapted from The HBR Guide to Office Politics.)

Many of us find ourselves in professional situations where we believe someone has wronged us, treated us badly, or just plain made us mad. The expert advice often is to have the courage to have an honest conversation, air the grievance. No one can help you solve a problem if she doesn’t know you have it. But that’s easier said than done, right?

It helps to have guiding principles to call on when you need to work through something difficult with a colleague. But the context of your discussion also matters. Do you need to take a stand on something? Deliver bad news? Do you have time to prepare, or are you caught off guard? Here are some specific tips for navigating the most common scenarios, including the wrong way to approach the issue and a better way.

If you’re mad about a decision that affects you . .

… waiting until you’re calm, and framing how the decision is bad for the company — and not just you — will put you on a more productive path, says Jeanne Brett, director of Kellogg School of Management’s Dispute Resolution Research Center.

The wrong way: “I just found out that Peter got double the raise I got. Are you kidding me? I work three times as hard as he does…”

A better way: Take a broader view of the issue. If you’re unhappy about a decision, might others be, too? If so, why? What’s the larger issue for your team or organization? Brett advises framing the conversation as, “I’ve observed something that’s not good for the company, and I’d like to help address it” rather than “I’m really mad this decision has been made about me…”

If you need to make critical comments in a public forum . . .

Speaking up is challenging enough. But speaking out in front of everyone in your company? It’s fodder for nightmares.

Still, it doesn’t have to be. Preparing thoroughly, framing the issue with a company focus, and positioning yourself as a problem solver will help make the daunting task of raising concerns at a large meeting, such as a board meeting or all-staff meeting, more palatable and productive.

The wrong way: It’s unwise to make a statement like this in front of everyone: “I think this is a stupid idea for the company. If we keep proceeding down this path, prepare for a death spiral!”

A better way: Before you stand up, prepare to take some heat. Making a critical comment in a public forum is likely to generate anger in people who don’t agree with you. So say explicitly that you’re trying to do what you think is best for the company. But also recognize, Brett says, that you’re probably not alone: “In every case, you’re not likely to be the only person who has these concerns.” If possible, find a like-minded colleague before the meeting who might be prepared to back you up…

If a colleague goes postal on you . . .

Do not respond to raw anger. Let your colleague’s words wash over you. See whether the scene will wind down. Here’s where managing your thoughts and emotions will help you navigate this challenge successfully. “Most people reciprocate other people’s behavior,” Brett says. “It takes discipline not to get angry in response. But it’s effective.”

The wrong way: “What are you talking about?! You have no idea what work went into this project! Next time I’m not going to bother to ask your opinion!”

A better way: You don’t need to go to the other extreme and cower, or apologize for something you didn’t do, but simply choose not to engage in the battle. If your colleague is so emotional that you can’t get a word in edgewise, sometimes merely labeling the situation helps deescalate the tension: “Listen, we can trade threats and insults here, but that’s not going to solve our problem. We’re not getting anywhere this way.” You’re much better off removing yourself from a situation than trying to fight back. Suggest you meet later to discuss the problem. Do whatever you need to do to stay calm and avoid having an emotional conversation.

But because you can’t always dictate the timing — and trying to do so can make some people even angrier — it helps to respond in the most neutral way possible without conceding or escalating. Neutral in this case sounds like this: “I don’t know what to say. This is unexpected. What shall we do next?” suggests Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them. You haven’t placated the person, you haven’t conceded; instead, you have calmly acknowledged that your colleague is angry. The conversation may not be pleasant after that, but you haven’t made anything worse for either of you. You’re now thinking together, rather than just reacting.

On the other hand, if you are in the wrong, and you know it, apologize immediately, says Weeks. “I’m sorry. I meant that to be funny.” That’s it, you’re done. Don’t keep piling on the explanation. Just own it.

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