Workplace conflict has been making the news a lot lately.
We have seen ructions among councillors at Dunedin City Council resulting in a code of conduct hearing, and in other local government news, Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell has resigned amid ongoing discord and governance challenges at that city’s Council.
Even the perennial Tim Shadbolt is under pressure following a report released this week that identifies a leadership void and a council that is “in trouble because it does not appear to have a shared culture, is struggling to work together cohesively, has a number of councillors who are at odds with the CEO.”
Very few people like conflict, and therefore most tend to actively avoid it, which leads to tensions and resentment simmering and building below the surface rather than issues being addressed and potentially solved. It is completely natural and understandable for people to dislike and avoid conflict.
Our brains are wired to try to stay connected to our groups, be they family, friends, colleagues or sports clubs. For most of human history, we have lived in groups that provide safety in numbers and a division of labour – we have relied on others for our very survival.
While a workplace conflict may be over the capability of a new IT system, appropriateness of a new recruitment process or someone’s leadership style, our ancient brain sees it as a potential threat to our safety – if we are no longer liked and accepted by this group, they may cast us out to live alone on the dry plains or the Arctic tundra. Therefore, our brain sends us urgent signals through discomfort and anxiety to encourage us to remain a part of the group and not cause any trouble.
What makes it more complicated is that while we are feeling anxious about our place in the group, we are also possibly feeling angry or indignant at the treatment we have received. Big, uncomfortable, conflicting emotions – it’s no wonder we avoid raising contentious issues and having those hard but necessary conversations!
Emotions are essentially the biggest road blocks to both solving conflict and having the awkward discussions that might prevent a conflict occurring in the first place. They are why people often end up responding to conflict in natural but unhelpful ways. We can think of the range of possible responses on a continuum from passive to aggressive. These relate to whether, in any conflict situation, you have had a flight or a fight response to the threat. Not only does our brain see conflict itself as a threat, it also may have identified a secondary threat, such as to your reputation, identity, authority, autonomy or ego.
A natural flight response to a threat is our brain’s attempt to literally or figuratively run away. Since most of us would not literally run away, we try to escape in other ways: we go quiet, agree and accept in the hope that the threat passes us by. We adopt a passive approach to the conflict and disengage from it.
A natural fight response is preparing us to overcome the threat by being the bigger, louder, stronger, scarier combatant. We are trying to keep ourselves safe by winning. When we have a fight response to conflict, it results in an aggressive approach to engaging with others, such as shouting, being hurtful, levelling accusations, and becoming physically intimidating.
Neither of these natural responses get us a positive outcome. They are likely to simply elicit passive or aggressive responses in others and the conflict will remain unsolved. This is why managing our emotions is absolutely key to being able to work through a conflict. We have to force ourselves away from our natural passive or aggressive response at either end of the continuum and into the middle ground – to an expressive or assertive response.
Expressive statements give others an insight into our feelings, thoughts, opinions and needs. Some useful expressive statements begin with:
“From my perspective it looks like…”
“What I need from this situation is…”
“I think the best approach would be…”
“I assumed that…”
“Whenever this happens, I feel…”
If we can practise expression on a daily basis, it makes it easier for us to move into the expressive part of the continuum when faced with a conflict. It also has the added benefit of making us more open and transparent to our colleagues.
Sometimes, despite being expressive, we can find that our thoughts, feelings or opinions are not adequately considered or respected. Again, instead of going to the extremes of passivity or aggression, we can move slightly up the continuum to assertiveness. This is when we stand up for ourselves, but in a controlled and respectful way. Some examples of assertive statements are:
“I understand what you’re saying but I have to disagree.”
“I’m concerned about … and would like to talk with you about it.”
“What I need from you in this situation is…”
“I’m not going to be put in a position where…”
It is important when asserting yourself to remember the three ‘Cs’ – be clear, confident and controlled.
There is of course, another ‘C’ involved in effectively working through conflict: courage. It takes courage to raise the contentious issue or have the awkward conversation. If you are in the position of being on the receiving end of this issue-raising, you can reward that courage by managing your own emotions and staying in the middle of the continuum too.
This article originally featured in Sarah's "Connections" column in The Otago Daily Times on 1 December 2020 under the headline "Managing emotions key to solving conflict"