Silence Not Solution to Ending Conflict

by Andrea Kay, copyright 2005

Mention the word “confront” as in “If you don’t like the way your co-worker is doing something, confront him,” and most everyone freaks out. Even the mere suggestion to initiate discussion about someone’s chronic lateness is rebuffed because it could turn into a confrontation. What is everyone so afraid of?

First, no one wants to be seen as a demanding pain in the neck—which is what some people think they’ll look like if they speak up. I have one client who is so fearful of being seen as a “cranky witch”, that instead of assertively addressing issues with others, she laughs and hems and haws about the problem and then complains that no one gets anything done.

People are also reluctant to confront another person because, “You’re initiating a situation where you feel like you have very little control over what will happen,” says Wally Bock, author of the upcoming book, Performance Talk. That could range from hurting someone’s feeling to being physically harmed yourself.

So people clam up. They hope the problem will either go away or by dropping subtle hints, the person’s behavior will stop, says Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts.

The silent treatment makes it worse with your resentment building like a “savings account collecting compound daily interest until it explodes into a needless fight,” he says.

When you do decide to say something, “It carries too much juice behind it and then the confrontation goes south,” says Dr. Carl Robinson, a psychologist and principal of Advanced Leadership Consulting in Seattle.

Most folks also aren’t very skilled in what they say. They may start with something like, “You make me angry,” implying it’s your fault. In return, you feel threatened, and when that happens, “We react like the furry forest creatures that live inside us. We freeze, assess, throw up barriers and possibly take defensive action,” says Bock.

But few of us have role models for confronting someone effectively, says Dr. Tim Ursiny, author of The Coward’s Guide to Conflict. “Few people can say, ‘My parents were great at conflict” and that “’every confrontation brought them closer together and more intimate’” At work, you typically see aggressive or passive people.

To feel confident about confronting someone, you need to know how to handle conflict. So when someone is doing something that’s upsetting you, first, determine the source of the conflict for you, says Ursiny. Is it what they did, the way they did it, a difference in personality or poor communication?

Then be assertive, which as, Nurick says is, “Acting in one’s best interest by taking the other into account.” Your purpose is to inform, not attack. Preserve a relationship while getting your point across. Do that soon after the incident (unless you need time to cool off) by:
1. Focusing on the specific behavior: “You arrived 10 minutes late to our meeting”—not, “You’re unreliable.”
2. State how that made you feel: “I was irritated.”
3. State the consequences: “We couldn’t start because you had the data we needed.”

Let the other person react. Ursiny suggests that you ask for their perception of the issue, collaborate on a solution and agree to have a future talk to see how things are going.

People will be more open if you carefully introduce your comments. In the situation with my client, I suggested she start with, “I want to have a good working relationship. This isn’t easy to bring up, but…” Most people can handle the input and will appreciate your candor, says Robinson.

But this won’t work with everyone. It is, though, almost certain that at some time you will disagree with most everyone about something. Instead of just focusing on what you’re afraid will happen, consider the good that could occur. That is, that when done effectively, your conversation just could lead to a better relationship than you had before.

© by Andrea Kay