In my recent blog 4 common responses to workplace conflict that can damage your business.  I stated that we often deal with work place conflict unproductively.  In this blog, I will explain the ABC of interpersonal-conflict or why we often struggle when stepping up to a difficult conversation…  Some choose to ignore the issues, hoping they’ll go away, they rarely do! Others choose to confront the other person and put them in their place.  This can often make things worse. In my next blog, I will outline strategies to adopt when having to step up to a difficult conversation.  However, I am aware that on some occasions avoiding or confronting is the right thing to do. Appropriate conflict modes will be the subject of a blog in the near future.

Sometimes disagreeing with or correcting other people can be difficult. These conversations are often difficult due to differences of opinion about what is the appropriate thing to do. We may also have strong feelings and emotions regarding the matter being discussed, and often the outcome of the “difficult conversation” will be important to us.

It is worth remembering, when we step up to a difficult conversation, it isn’t other people who annoy or upset us.  We annoy and upset ourselves! On the face of it that sounds crazy! But to quote Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In other words the facts don’t speak for themselves. It isn’t the objective reality that winds people up, but their subjective interpretation of the objective facts.  It is how we feel about an event that cause the emotional and behavioural response rather than the event itself.

I call it the ABC of interpersonal conflict:

A:        The actual event. The facts, what was said and done.  The objective reality.

B:         The beliefs that filter the facts. The subjective “reality”, the stories people tell themselves. The “spin” they put on the facts.

C:         The consequences of the beliefs, which create feelings and emotions. These feelings and emotions create physical responses that drive behaviour.  Behaviour is what we say and do in response to a particular situation or event.
To give an example a team member is late for a meeting called by the team leader:
A:         The actual event. It’s five past nine, the meeting was due to start at nine. The team member hasn’t arrived yet.
B:         Potential beliefs that filter and interpret the facts, i.e. he  (the team member) is 5 minutes late:
  • He’s lazy
  • He’s trying to take advantage of me
  • He’s got no respect for my position

C:         The consequences of the beliefs on the emotional response of the team leader:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Confusion

These emotional responses may create a physical reaction: adrenaline, stomach churning, nausea. These physical reactions drive behavioural responses:

  • Avoiding
  • Confrontation
  • Passive-aggression

Unfortunately, when we are wound up or upset, we are likely to be ill prepared to step up to a difficult conversation. When angry, frustrated, fearful or confused, we are no longer our normal selves. When faced with a perceived threat, our primitive self feels under attack. When this happens, our basic instinct is to either kill the threat or avoid it.

When dealing with conflict, we are often at our most primitive and least effective.  Consequently, if we interpret another person actions or behaviours, as some form of threat or challenge, our emotions of fear and anger will often drive our behaviour.

When faced with a perceived threat or challenge we often choose to deal with it in one of two ways:

  • Clam up:  We try to avoid the difficult conversation.  We hope if we ignore it, it will go away. We choose to avoid the conflict or repress our differences. When we do this we never have our needs met, and the problem is never properly acknowledged or resolved.
  • Come out fighting:  We choose to confront the difficult conversation.  We believe the way to sort it out is to attack, insult or belittle! We may “win” the encounter, and get what we want, but it will often be at the expense of trust and the long term relationship.
This article has been posted by Sean McCann, the Managing Director of People Based Solutions an HR consultancy specialising in developing emotional intelligence at work, team building, and workplace conflict resolution. If you would like to know more about how we can help you develop an assertive approach to workplace differences by:
  • Ensuring your managers are skilled with people
  • Helping you to recruit people who have an assertive approach to conflict and difference
  • Helping you to develop a culture where differences are acknowledged and addressed courteously
  • Train your managers to handle conflict effectively
  • Delivering workplace mediation
People Based HR