Lessons In Conflict (From Someone Who’s Been Through Plenty Of It)
We’re proud to present the first in our upcoming three part series on managing conflict. Part 1 is brought to you by the legendary Janelle Albukhari, aka our Chief Content Wizard here at Shift Yes. Drumroll, please!
“Many leaders would rather avoid tension to create the appearance of harmony. What they don’t realize is that by avoiding tension all together they are unknowingly creating silos and internal disruption amongst employees.
A leader must be expected to neutralize or minimize conflict, not allow it to grow and run rampant.” (Forbes)
“The appearance of harmony”, paradoxically enough, can cause a lot more harm than good.
You know those couples that are super proud of the fact they “never fight”? So much so that they feel the need to tell every stranger they meet just how weird it is that they never seem to argue?
These tend to be the kind of couples that break up about 3-4 months into a relationship. They break up at the first sign of trouble—after just one or two arguments!—precisely because they never learned how to navigate conflict.
Conflict is difficult and ugly, and can often bring out the worst in people. However, conflict is also inevitable. Conflict doesn’t care if you’ve been having a bad day or if Jan in accounting forgot to turn in the W-9’s for the 10th time today. The more you try and ignore it, the more painfully obvious it becomes that it’s not going anywhere.
Maintaining a positive work environment is a balancing act, one that requires proactive communication in order to survive.
As the head of content here at Shift Yes, a lot of what I do is strategy based, which means that there’s no “right answer” per se. It’s up to the creative team to discuss and collectively decide on the best strategy moving forward.
For me, there’s a lot that’s at stake whenever I’m working on something creative. It’s hard not to get feelings or ego attached to the thing you’ve lovingly spent the last few weeks cultivating, which can make it even harder to deal with criticism or feedback.
We here at Shift Yes are communication champions, and work very hard to always make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. But conflict is still inevitable, even among the tightest of teams. We don’t always see eye to eye even though we all want the same thing: what’s best for the brand.
I’m no official expert when it comes to conflict. I don’t have a degree in conflict resolution, and I can get frustrated and emotional at times even when I’m supposed to have my “professional” face on.
All of this is OK, though, because at the end of the day I’m constantly learning from my mistakes.
Since I know I’m not the only one out there that struggles with this, I thought that I would share the few important lessons I’ve learned over the years about how to deal with conflict in a constructive way. I hope you find them as helpful and illuminating as I do.
Lesson #1: Train Your Empathy Muscle
Let’s talk a little bit about the importance of empathy. Empathy is defined as:
“The experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.” - Psychology Today
Empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence. When you experience conflict, it’s easy to create a “them vs. me” mentality in which you take on a defensive stance. Your gut instinct may be to feel frustrated, which can quickly turn into anger. You’re in the right and they’re in the wrong. They become the enemy.
The thing is, this perspective only takes one half of the equation into consideration (me, me, me) and doesn’t consider where the other person is coming from. What are they feeling and thinking? Why are they acting this way?
Taking a moment to stop and empathize is a miraculous thing. It may seem like a small gesture but the impact it can have on a working relationship is huge.
Here’s what happens when you take a moment to pause and consider the other person’s feelings before responding:
When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try and understand the why that guides their behavior, they go from being the enemy to just a person.
You defuse the bomb by removing the sense of impending doom from the situation. You lose the defensive panic. You’re not fighting someone. There are no “winners” here.
You begin to shift your attention towards constructive solutions since dealing with ‘just a person’ is much, much easier than the ‘facing off’ mentality.
Lesson #2: KILL THE EGO.
Nothing positive can come from two egos battling it out to the death.
Your ego will crop up again and again in just about every confrontation you’ll ever have, pure and simple. Ego is selfish. Ego doesn’t care about people’s feelings. All it wants is to reinforce its own importance. You may not be able to control the other person’s ego—in fact, you may even have to occasionally placate that ego—but you do have control over how you manage your own ego.
Try and take your emotions out of the equation.
Differences in opinion are natural; it’s in the way you express them (aka always respectfully) that really matters.
Ask yourself what’s really important to you. This question for me was often am I more concerned with creating the best possible product, or being the “right” one?
Which brings us to…
Lesson #3: Know Your Audience
There have been times where I’ve felt like a boss was personally antagonizing me. Chances are your boss isn’t “picking on” you for no reason at all. Inc writer Kevin Daum puts it succinctly:
“Before jumping to the conclusion that your boss sucks, ask yourself if their "horrid" behavior toward you is a result of their poor communication skills or, perhaps, it's your lack of efficiency that is bringing out the worst in them."
Take a moment to consider your boss’ preferred method of communication. What do they respond most positively to? Are they a fan of meetings, or more impartial to frequent check in texts?
You want to always try and make the other person look good—not make them feel bad for their shortcomings.
A huge realization for me was realizing that there were occasions when my hostility leaked out into my day to day communication with my boss. I had to stop and remember that my boss is a person too, and is just as subject to being flawed as anyone else.
This was a huge epiphany for me and a definite turning point in our relationship.
Lesson #4: Learn how to have constructive conversations
It’s okay to be vulnerable when arguments arise, especially if your goal is to actually want to solve them.
I’m guilty of falling victim to thought traps like black and white thinking, all-or-nothing generalizing, etc.
I quickly learned that starting a conversation with an accusatory “You always…”, is generally set up for failure. Try and start with “I feel like…” instead. Have an idea of a positive end goal of the conversation in mind (for instance, saying “I hope to learn more about this person’s perspective is a constructive goal, whereas “I hope to show them my argument is more persuasive”, is not). Don’t name call, raise your voice, or do anything else mom wouldn’t approve of.
Lesson #6: Don’t complain without presenting a solution
No one likes a whiner. Be proactive about coming up with solutions to problems rather than just voicing them. It’s all about cooperation rather than control.
For instance, Galen’s schedule is pretty hectic, which means we can’t always sit down face to face and talk through our blog post edits.
Rather than let this challenge hinder our progress, I decided to get proactive. We worked together to create an official blog template complete with deadlines for the next month in advance. This facilitated our internal communication on blogs by about 1000%, and greatly helped us hone our final editing process.
Getting better at conflict is a work in progress. One of the only things I can say with certainty is that it takes time and dedicated effort from both parties to make it work.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all made a genuine effort to improve the way we navigate conflict?
I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about my little lessons, because we’ve got a whole series on conflict that’s coming out real soon…