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Managing conflict in the workplace: Trust or bust?

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Editor's Note: Do you struggle with workplace conflict? We partnered with Eileen Chadnick for a free webinar on April 14, 2016. Click here to watch the full recording.

When setting professional goals people rarely put ‘managing conflict’ at the top of their list. Who actually enjoys conflict? Most people don’t – and many avoid it all costs. But avoiding conversations perceived as conflict can create even more problems. And while conflict management skills are essential for leaders, anyone in today’s workforce can benefit from a robust level of skill, confidence, and know-how in dealing with conflict (real or perceived).

Giving tough feedback; managing volunteers; handling sensitive issues; navigating change; negotiating diverse approaches; coping with surprises and/or breakdowns in communications; feeling left out of decisions, marginalized and/or disrespected ...there’s no shortage of moments at work that can be potentially laden with conflict, real or perceived. How you handle these situations will have significant repercussions even well beyond the immediate ‘moment’ at hand.

“A word, phrase, interaction, or even silence can have a profound ripple effect – for good, better or worse.”

This opening line on one of my websites rings true for communications of any kind – and especially for conflict. Our words, tone, and approach can make or break a situation by either building trust or distrust. The latter can spiral into unproductive terrain with ripple effects such as persistent distrust, damaged relationships, toxic environments, missed opportunities, and poor productivity.

The inner and outer game of conflict

It’s important to recognize both the inner and outer context when it comes to conflict. Conflict resides in conversations – those we have with ourselves in our minds (either quietly or ‘stormily’) and those with others. Each needs to be handled with great care and skill. You can’t be good at one without the other.

Often people get stuck in situations they perceive as conflict because they don’t know what to do or say to the other person/people involved. They feel uncomfortable, possibly threatened and fearful of the situation and/or in broaching a conversation. While good communications skills are crucial when navigating conflict with others, a place most often overlooked is inside yourself. Your assumptions, beliefs, values, and perspective have tremendous influence in how you size up and respond to the situation. Is the situation truly a conflict or is it a perception of one? Our quick judgments can sometimes serve us well - but often they don’t. Conflict can get messy when we operate from blind spots. There’s so much we don’t see under the surface that impacts our understanding and conversations with ourselves and others.

Conversational blind spots

Conversational blind spots can create and/or escalate conflict. A big blind spot is failing to realize the impact that fear, trust, and distrust has on how we interpret situations; and how this impedes our brain’s abilities to think critically, resourcefully, creatively – as well as our potential for other strategic social skills such as collaborating and connecting with others.

When we feel distrust, we fire up our ‘stress brain’ (the amygdala and limbic area) and default into a protective stance both mentally and biologically. The brain elicits a neurochemical reaction (cortisol and catecholamine) which narrows our focus and perspective and triggers the fight or flight reaction. This diminishes our efficacy in critical, reflective thinking, communicating and relating. Our empathy skills close down. The energy becomes an ‘I versus we’ dynamic. The paradox is that just when we need the best of ourselves to navigate sensitive and complex moments with open minds, good thinking and collaborative ability, our brain primes for the opposite kind of response. We either shut down and hide or act out with unproductive, aggressive communications.

The neuroscience of conversations and conflict

This blind spot leads to other pitfalls - which underscores to how important it is to understand the neuroscience impact in our conversations.

The good news is that there are ways to deregulate this unproductive ‘cortisol response’ and upgrade to better approaches and outcomes. When we understand even the basic mechanics of where and how trust and distrust live in our brain and how they impact our thoughts, words and conversations, we can learn new conversational habits and rituals that can potentially shift conflict (bad, scary, and closed) to opportunity (good, great, open) conversations. The right conversation skills and approaches bring more potential for understanding, co-creation, solution-building, and ultimately, better relationships even long after the conversation has ended.

Of course all this takes new awareness, skills and practice. This is the conversation we will have on April 14th, when we gather for the Managing Conflict at Work Webinar. I’ll be drawing from various disciplines, and notably, the burgeoning new area called “Conversational Intelligence®* which brings new understanding and approaches for creating conversations that build trust, create higher performing cultures, and extraordinary results.

Here are some highlights of what we’ll explore together:

  • Five conversational blind spots that trigger and/or compound conflict
  • The neuroscience of conversational trust and distrust
  • Conversational rituals and tips that can neutralize conflict and prime us for good to great conversations
  • Three levels of conversations and when and how to gear up to Level 3 – the least used yet highest potential kind of conversation to have in conflict situations
  • Actionable ideas that you can try on right away with yourself and others

Between now and then, pay attention to your conversations with yourself and others. Observe your reactions. Name them (e.g. “I feel anxious”) but don’t judge or feed into them. This will give your higher thinking brain a wake-up nudge and come back online. Then bring this open, learning mindset and get ready to learn some fabulous new insights, tools, and strategies to prime you, your colleagues, and your organization for more success in navigating challenging conversations. I can’t wait to see you there!

Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is a certified executive and leadership coach; a communications pro (20+ experience) and principal of Big Cheese Coaching and Chadnick Communications in Toronto. She is the author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of ‘Crazy Busy’, and a contributor to the Globe and Mail Careers. Eileen draws from the science of positivity, leadership, neuroscience, emotional intelligence – and Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ®) in her work as a coach, consultant, trusted advisor and facilitator. * Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ®) is a Trademark by Benchmark Communications. Eileen Chadnick is trained in Conversational Intelligence®.

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