You know that one coworker who always seems to bring out the worst in you?
If someone’s face came to mind, you’re not alone. Many of us have a person equivalent of a pet peeve at work (or home). Someone who never seems to know where you’re coming from, who doesn’t understand what is so obvious to you, who seems to have a mission of getting in your way–somebody who is just a problem.
Perhaps you fight out loud or silently, inside your own head. Either way, it’s a fight, even if nobody can see or hear it.
When we’re locked in conflict, we typically focus on the content of the argument. We go over the issues and our justifications: “I’m so right! He’s so wrong!” Sometimes we might realize the fight is over nothing, and yet it still seems so important.
Under the surface of conflict lies much that fuels the fight. In their book Resolving Conflicts at Work, Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith outline six “beneath the surface” drivers of our conflicts:
interests, needs and desires
self-perceptions and self-esteem
unresolved issues from the past
For instance, when I experience conflict with a coworker (or the boss), any or all of this can add fuel to the fire. Perhaps their personality is more vocal than mine. Perhaps I felt angry or nervous before we even started talking. I have needs for appreciation and belonging that I don’t always articulate. I might even be feeling doubtful about myself and my contribution, or have hidden expectations that others will automatically think like I think and see what I see. Sometimes there’s just so much history between us that I can’t let it go of it and hear what they’re saying now without those filters made up of previous experience.
The iceberg of conflict offers us a useful path to identifying what’s really going on with ourselves when we are in conflict. It may take time and practice to be able to do this in the moment, but you can begin by reflecting on your experience and thoughts after the experience of frustration:
- First, focus on yourself as you review the iceberg and ask yourself what’s really going on. It’s important that you come to understand your personal iceberg.
- Second, be curious about yourself and that other person. Open-ended questions and empathic listening help as you probe the depths.
- Third, take a risk. Probe for that deep level of honesty within yourself, realizing that greater self-honesty will allow and impel you to be more honest with others.
- Finally, be accepting. Accept new understandings of yourself and others without shame, anger, or judgment.
These are simply stated even though they may be challenging to put into place. Take your time, but try not to let yourself off the hook. The more intentional you are about reflecting on your experience and working at changing your thinking, the more quickly you can shift directions–even under the gun. I’ve found questions like the following to be helpful (and please excuse my awkward attempt at gender-neutral pronouns):
- What bothers them about what I did?
- How did they feel when I did that?
- Have I shared how I felt before, during, or after our conflict?
- What’s really going on for them?
- What did they really mean when they said __________?
- What is most important to them in solving this problem?
- What if I’ve heard them wrong?
- What solutions might be acceptable for both of us?
- What do they actually want me to do?
- Have I shared with them, directly and calmly, how I want them to communicate with me?
- What kind of relationship would he or she like for us to have?
So much can happen just by becoming curious about the other person. To even consider these questions is likely to engender openness rather than closed-mindedness and compassion rather than anger. Even a subtle shift in your thinking as you approach conversation can result in a significant change in outcome.
The next time you’re drinking a beverage over ice, take a look at that ice in your glass. Let it remind you how much lies beneath the surface in both yourself and the people with whom you live and work. What lies beneath the surface that is driving those issues that bob up above? It could be anything.
Image by Flickr user ttstam.