On Managing Conflict at Work

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an uptick in teammates getting annoyed, flaring up, or shutting down in meetings. I don’t have data (quantitative or qualitative) beyond my immediate work contacts, but the sociologist in me would hypothesize that my experience is not an isolated one. For many of us, to say that the last couple months have been challenging would be a gross understatement.

When humans are stressed out, we tend to go into fight or flight response. This happens because even after tens of thousands of years evolving into highly intelligent animals we still have the part of our brain that makes us want to run away or attack when we’re scared. While useful when you see a 5 foot long snake on the ground, this is less useful when you’re having a discussion about long-term career goals or what to prioritize as a team.

“Hey Rick, do you have a minute to talk about your future at this company?”

Going into flight or flight mode at work might involve: 

  • getting angry/defensive, 
  • avoiding interactions with others,
  • acting passive-aggressively, or 
  • perceiving or accusing others of malintent.

Doing any of the above will usually stress people out and make them not want to work with you, which is not only harmful for any short term goals you have but also affects your reputation for your career in the long term. You’re also adding stress to the lives of the people you work with during an already challenging period. 

By contrast, being able to navigate and manage conflict in a calm and confident way will help unblock your team’s work, can help strengthen working relationships, and help reduce stress for others, too. 

In this blog post, I document some of the tools I’ve used to manage conflict in my role in Tech, drawing on my background as a social scientist, technical delivery manager, self-help book aficionado, improv performer, and amateur meditation practitioner. My hope is that readers experiment with one or more new ways to more productively manage conflict at work and beyond. While I’ve written this with Engineers and Engineering managers in mind, many of these tools can be used beyond Tech. 

Before you Begin: Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself 

You ultimately can’t control other people’s actions, only your own. Before you do anything else about the conflict at hand, you need to make sure you’re in a good state. It’s usually counterproductive to manage conflict effectively if you’re not able to stay calm and collected. 

If you find that you are angry or scared about something, first off: know that that’s OK. There’s a lot to be angry and scared about right now. What’s less OK is when that anger or fear impacts your effectiveness at work. Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made at work have been because I was angry or scared and I let it affect my actions. Below are a few tools I’ve used that might be worth playing with. 

Check your engine light. 

  • Are you sleeping OK lately? 
  • When was the last time you ate? 
  • When was the last time you exercised? 
  • When was the last time you did something social/playful? 

I find it’s hard to be productive at work if any of the above aren’t taken care of first. One of the benefits of working from home is more fluidity around being able to nap, exercise, and get some non-work activities in during the day. If you ask yourself one of these questions and don’t like or know the answer, prioritize addressing it. 

“I AM SO CALM RIGHT NOW.” 

Because of how our brains work, it’s really hard to manage conflict when your fight or flight response turns on. What’s worse, it’s hard in the moment to even be self-aware of your own fear or anger. Check in with yourself about how calm you currently feel in your physical body. 

Here are a few things I notice when I’m getting worked up: 

  • My voice starts getting louder and louder and I start talking faster and faster
  • My heart starts beating a lot faster
  • My breathing gets more shallow 
  • I start thinking or talking in worst case scenario mode (“I’m going to quit if X happens”, “I can’t handle it if Y happens”) 
  • My jaw tenses

Next time you realize you’re scared/angry, pay attention to where you’re feeling it in your body or how your behavior changes and make note of it. It’ll help you identify more quickly when you’re getting upset. 

Do a reset. 

Sometimes your body just needs a reset to its sympathetic nervous system. There’s a ton of research on how exercise can help channel the fight/flight response and give some release. Usually, the things I’m stressed out about don’t matter as much after I’ve worked out (fun fact: some of my fastest mile paces have followed tough meetings). I’ve also found guided meditations and yoga great for checking in about how I’m feeling, getting back in the moment, and calming the heck down. 

Step away from work as needed.  

Continuing in the face of unmanageable emotions is going to be counterproductive. It can help to step away from work for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days.

Taking time off is, of course, a good option here. It’s sometimes hard to tell when you’re burnt out, though. For me, I notice that I get weirdly grumpy about inconsequential things (“They ran out of Madeline’s Backyard Pecan coffee?! I can’t handle this!!” *flips table*). I’ve also relied on my bosses and friends at work. If they point out that it seems I’m getting burnt out, it’s probably time to take some time off. 

Name what you’re angry at or scared of and unpack it. 

It’s hard to know what to do about a problem if you don’t know what it is. Sometimes just naming why you’re feeling what you’re feeling can help alleviate some stress. For example, “I’m angry because X didn’t come prepared to a meeting” or, “I’m scared there will be another re-org.”  

A coach, counselor, mentor, trusted work friend, or even a journal can help here. Unpack the anger/fear statement with some curious questions. 

  • Why am I angry that X didn’t come prepared to the meeting? 
    • Because it’s going to block me from moving forward on my own work. 
    • And what happens then? 
    • Then I can’t get it done and I’ll get a bad review 
    • What other data do you have that suggests I’m at risk of getting a bad review? Is that realistic? 
    • … well. None really. My boss actually says I’m doing a good job. 

Despite the weird social stigma around mental health in the US, I’m encouraged that more people (myself included) have started to open up about the benefits of therapy. I’ve found it immensely helpful for giving me tools in my emotional toolkit for dealing with stress and anxiety. Frankly, I’m a better manager and co-worker because of it. My own therapist has moved to offering virtual sessions which have been extremely valuable during the COVID-19 crisis. Tech and non-tech companies alike are increasingly offering free or greatly reduced cost counseling options and Employee Assistance Programs for their employees.

What stories am I telling myself about the situation? 

When someone does something that makes us confused, scared, or angry, it’s all too easy to start thinking in worst case scenario mode. I recently had a friend panic because they’d seen their boss put “quick check in” on their one on one doc. Suddenly, this friend was telling themselves all sorts of stories. “What if they want to fire me or ask me to leave?” “What if I’m not going to meet my goals this quarter?” In reality, the boss had a lot of positive feedback to share and wanted my friend to keep up the good work. 

Assume positive intent. What’s the best case scenario? Usually the truth is something completely unexpected, or something more in line with the best case scenario. 

How to Manage Conflict More Effectively

Once you’ve gotten your own stress managed and identified what you’re concerned about, it’s time to move forward on the conflict at hand. At all points, your goal is to be the calmest, most curious person in the room. In brief: 

  • Use a calm voice.
  • Pause as needed.
  • Seek to understand and empathize. 
  • Don’t deny someone else’s reality with “No”
  • Negotiate through a mutual purpose. 
  • Clearly express what you want without blame or criticism. 
  • Give and receive feedback effectively

Let’s walk through each of these below.

Use a calm voice.

Chris Voss, a former expert hostage negotiator for the FBI, refers to this as the “late night FM radio DJ voice” (For example, think Jay Trachtenburg from KUTX‘s Sunday Morning Jazz). It’s a lot easier for others to stay calm if you’re modeling it for them. 

Anyone who has interacted with me for more than 5 minutes will tell you that I tend to be about as animated and excitable in my typical day-to-day interactions as a golden retriever. Spoiler: this tends to not translate well to tough conversations. I’ve found that even just taking a deep breath and turning on my calm voice helps me get into a head space for better conflict management. 

Pause as needed. 

If the situation feels like it’s becoming too tense, take a break and table the conversations as necessary. This could even involve excusing yourself from a meeting with a quick excuse or even saying, “I’m having a hard time with this information right now. Let’s table this for later. I’m going to step out to cool off for a minute if that’s alright.” Or, if you observe someone else becoming tense, something like, “I’m worried this conversation isn’t going to be productive right now. Let’s table this and come back to it when we’re ready to talk again.” 

Seek to understand and empathize. 

At the risk of sounding like Stephen Covey, your first goal should be to understand where the other person’s coming from. Ask clarifying questions. “Is it that you want __? Am I understanding correctly?”

You can also use an approach from couple’s therapy of stating back what you understand as the other person’s concern. “I want to make sure I understand where you’re coming from, so I’m going to replay it back for you. You want to make sure we run regression tests before we deploy because you’re worried about the effect on other parts of the product, right?” This will give your teammate an opportunity to either confirm or correct your understanding. 

If folks are expressing a feeling or getting worked up, label that. “You seem [frustrated, upset, worried]” This can help folks reset a bit or even open up about why they feel the way they do. You’ll also want to empathize if it feels authentic, with comments like “That would be frustrating” or “I can see why you’d be upset about your code not getting released with this deploy.” 

Don’t deny someone else’s reality with “No”

Saying “No” in a defensive or angry tone is one of the fastest ways to shut down a conversation and get the other person to stop listening to what you have to say.  In improv, we learn the concept of “Yes and”. When we say “Yes and” we validate someone else’s perspective of the situation and add our own point of view to the mix. For example, “Yes, we should have a second code review, and if we do that it will take another week before we deploy and begin A/B testing in production.” 

Negotiate through a mutual purpose. 

It can help to remind people that you’re a team and trying to work together, not two wrestlers in a cage match. I’ll often draw from Crucial Conversations’ concept of a “mutual purpose” for this, which “means that others perceive that you’re working toward a common outcome in the conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values.” Some examples for establishing mutual purpose might be, “We both want what’s best for the team”, or, “I want to make sure you feel supported as you work on this difficult project”. 

Clearly express what you want without blame or criticism. 

None of the above tips necessarily mean that you forgo your own goals in the conflict. If you’re finding that the other person doesn’t understand your view or aims, you can label that. “While we’ve talked about your concerns, I don’t think we’ve addressed mine yet. Here are my three main concerns [X, Y, Z] Does that make sense?” 

You’ll also want to make it clear when someone has said something hurtful. Oftentimes, people don’t realize that what they’re saying is hurtful. Reminding them of this in a calm way can help them take a step back and reset the conversation. 

Learn to give feedback …

Sometimes during (or after) a tough conversation it might be worth giving your teammate some feedback. The most effective framework I’ve found is, “When you [concrete, specific, observable behavior], [impact on the business].” For example, “When you give too many negative stylistic comments in code reviews, people might not want to ask you for feedback again and you’ll miss opportunities to help catch bigger things.” For more resources on giving feedback effectively, Radical Candor and this podcast are both solid. 

Before you jump into giving someone constructive criticism, make sure it’s actually constructive. Is there actually an effect on the business? Or is it just annoying to you personally? If the answer is the latter, see some of the “unpack” steps above and figure out why. 

… and receive feedback effectively

If you’ve received feedback, take a breath and try not to get defensive. In my experience, people are usually afraid of giving direct feedback. If they’ve given you direct feedback, it demonstrates that they care enough about you despite that fear and want to see you be even more effective. If you’re given feedback, thank that person, and check in with yourself. Are you overwhelmed by the feedback? If so, a quick, “Thanks for the feedback, can I take some time to think about this and get back to you?” If you’re in a relatively good place, get curious. “I want to make sure I understand the feedback. Is it that I’m not engaged enough in Zoom meetings? What would you like to see me do differently?” 

Some Concluding Thoughts

Managing conflict is tough even in the best of times, let alone in the face of so much fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the state of the world right now. It’s all the more vital, then, that we learn to do so. We owe it to our co-workers, our families, and ourselves to be able to show up authentically and keep moving forward. 

Additional Resources

Note: As a white woman without kids who’s able to work from home, I realize I’m writing from a relatively privileged position during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put: it’s easier for me and others like me to have the time, space, and energy to action on this guidance right now. This guidance was written for managing conflict around work projects, so it might not translate well to difficult conversations around bias or micro-aggressions (which all too often unduly fall on the victim to initiate).

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