Can’t we all just get along?
Unless you’re Miss Universe dreaming of world peace while getting your bottom pinched by Donald Trump, the answer is no.
Our brains are wired for conflict. Whether at home or at work, we’re on a constant quest to fulfil our personal needs for protection, belonging and significance.
As part of that process, we’re likely to step on the toes of at least a few of our colleagues, clients, family members or customer service representatives – all looking for safety, belonging and significance in their own way.
Once a person senses we provide a threat to their needs – rightly or wrongly – they’ll often answer with a series of obstructive behaviours aimed at protecting themselves, and ultimately at restoring their own sense of belonging and significance.
Most of us will respond to this behaviour in kind – creating a vicious cycle which at best ends with a bruised ego, and at its worst can lead to years of international warfare.
As part of this article, I’ll discuss four different ways to respond to conflict at work. I’ll hone in on one in particular – assertiveness.
I’ll also provide you with 25 rough-’n-ready tips on how to argue like a pro at work.
When ignorance ain’t bliss
Conflict isn’t always bad and certainly shouldn’t be avoided. As long as both parties have healthy personal boundaries in place, any dispute can hold the key to creative problem-solving.
When it comes to expressing anger at work, however, political correctness and the knowledge that we can’t get away with it, usually stops us from going all-out.
Much as you’d like to give it to her straight, Carol from Accounts probably won’t appreciate you telling her to pull her effing finger out – and neither will your client appreciate your passive-aggressive email suggesting that a ‘thank you’ might be in order for you pulling a weekender.
That makes arguing at work a form of art. A dance perhaps even, although one that’s more akin to a waltz than a Paso Doble.
And while taking a stiff upper lip approach may feel nice and easy in the heat of the moment, consistently putting your head into the sand will prevent you from decisively tackling your issues at work.
Worse, by ignoring conflict you’ll lose the respect of your clients, your team and your boss. You may even start to internalise some of that pent-up anger and end up blaming yourself, with plenty of research showing that unexpressed resentment is one of the leading causes of stress-related problems at work.
Fight, flight or freeze
When a conflict arises, our poor little brain is flooded with a nasty cocktail of stress hormones. Adrenaline and noradrenaline enter our bloodstream which causes our body to increase its heart rate and blood pressure.
You become sweaty and hyper-vigilant – with some people literally seeing red, as the blood flow in the capillaries of your eyes increases. If you’re working in a language that isn’t your native one, you may find yourself tongue-tied as you see your otherwise large vocabulary dry up.
These are all typical stress mechanism which are commonly known as the ‘Fight’, Flight’ or ‘Freeze’ response – an evolutionary leftover from the days when a saber-toothed tigre presented more of a danger than a bollocking from your Chief Exec.
And while ‘F*ck’ and ‘Feed’ are considered two additional stress mechanism, you might want to take those out of your repertoire at work.
The three stress responses broadly correspond with three conflict-coping strategies.
Some of us tend to take the path of least resistance when confronted with conflict. By sacrificing our own needs and preferences, we feel we won’t upset those of others.
But this type of ‘selfless’ behaviour can be very bad for you in the long run. Although it might seem easy, simple and effortless in the moment, by not fighting your corner your colleagues and/or clients will begin to feel sorry for you over time. They may even start to take advantage of you.
As a result, you become resentful as you continue to undermine your self-confidence.
If you’re the kind of person who veers towards this behaviour, you’re also likely to be someone who thrives on the approval from others. You probably often use phrases like: ‘Would you mind terribly if…”, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I was wondering…” or you’ll belittle yourself by saying things like: “I’m no expert, but…”.
Aggressive behaviour may well put you in a league of your own when it comes to being an alpha female or male in your organisation.
Sarcasm, swearing and losing your rag may help you to get what you want. People are too scared to push you around, so you’re the top dog.
Remember that bullying or putting yourself above others to get your own way is not a great strategy in the long run.
If it hasn’t already, your relationships with colleagues are about to get sour very quickly. And while you might fancy yourself at the top of the tree, you’re operating from a place of isolation – with plenty of volunteers queuing up to shake that tree once the time’s right.
If you find that your ‘good guys always come last’ approach makes it impossible for you to build deeper relationships at work; or that colleagues avoid eye contact with you and never genuinely include you in activities or conversations, it’s probably because you’ve successfully established yourself as the office arsehole.
Passive aggressive behaviour
There’s a special place in hell with slow WiFi, smelly lunches and a broken photocopier reserved for people who display passive-aggressive behaviour at work.
Most of think of sarcasm, jibes and Post-its inside the fridge when we talk about passive aggressive behaviour, even though those are actually more typical of aggressive behaviour.
Passive-aggression works by manipulating others into doing what you want them to do by making them feel guilty or by shaming them. You sulk and embarrass someone to the point that they feel sorry for you. You drive them to the point where they simply want to get away as quickly as possible from your injured and unhappy aura.
Just like being passive or aggressive, it’s a fairly successful tactic in the short run. Do it too often, however, and you’ll gain yourself a reputation as the office ‘victim’. People feel they’re walking on eggshells when they’re around you, and the initial sympathy vote quickly turns into resentment.
If you fall into this category, others might describe you as irritable or disagreeable. Sometimes you intentionally sabotage or delay the requests of others, simply to make a point. You complain about not being appreciated by others, while showing resentment over the demands of others. You’re quite a hit at office parties.
If you’re a fan of Catherine Tate, you’ll probably know who I’m talking about.
Disagreeing like a pro
Being aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive are valid responses in limited number of situations.
But generally speaking, a fourth response will get you much further in any type of disagreement – assertiveness.
Many people equal assertiveness with aggression, but nothing could be further from the truth. While an assertive response may well be firm, it is never inflammatory.
Being assertive means you express what your needs and your wants are in a way that’s direct, open and honest. You own what you say (or write); you stand up for what you believe in, but you never do it at the expense of others.
Assertiveness works on the basis of negotiation. Instead of ‘I win, you lose’ (aggressive), or ‘you win, I lose’ (passive), or ‘we both lose’ (passive-aggressive), assertive behaviour seeks out a workable comprise where ‘we both win’, or ‘we both withdraw’.
Acting assertively isn’t baked into our natural fight, flight or freeze response. This is why most of us instinctively struggle with it. It is learned behaviour which means it requires practice.
There’s a link between having high self-esteem and being assertive. When you have a strong sense of your own self-worth, the opinions of others aren’t likely to bother you quite so much.
In fact, assertiveness isn’t so much a way of being; it’s more a way of communicating. So, even if you’re on the lower end of the scale when it comes to self-esteem, practising assertive communication can massively boost your confidence and self-worth.
Starting from the premise that you’re willing to resolve the conflict, assertiveness means you take a direct and diplomatic approach where you stand up for your thoughts and feelings, while staying aware of those of others.
As we’ll see below, whether you deliver your message in person or in writing, the language you use when crafting it is absolutely vital if you want to resolve the conflict successfully.
25 ways to be more assertive.
What follows next are a series of easy-to-implement phrases and behaviours. If conflict is imminent for you, I challenge you to try at least three of these techniques before the day is over.
Before you communicate what your needs are in a particular situation, check in with yourself first as to what those needs are. Then convey them in a direct and respectful way.
If someone surprises you with a request, tell them you need time out before answering. Simply respond: ‘Thank you, I need to have a think about this first before I give you a response.’
Be direct and use so-called ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I want...’ or ‘what I need is…’. Fully own what it is you’re saying, and don’t use roundabout ways to express it.
Use positive statements like: ‘Tell me how you feel about this situation. I’ll tell you how I feel and then we’ll come to a way forward’; or ‘I can see we don’t agree on this. How are we going to sort this out?’; or ‘I would like you to…’; or ‘I want…’
Remember that nobody can take away your power at work – unless you decide to give it to them. In other words, nobody can do to you what you refuse to have done.
You’re perfectly entitled to give a simple ‘no’ to a request. It’s neither rude nor unfair, and you shouldn’t have to explain your decision. Saying no works better than making excuses anyway. If you make an excuse, it’s likely the same request will pop up again at some point in the future.
Avoid using generalising statements like ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’ They come across as blameful and they often act as an emotional red rag. They’re also unhelpful because it’s usually quite easy to come up with evidence to the contrary.
Be specific about what action you want the other person to undertake. Don’t lose your temper and stand your ground. After you’ve communicated that you recognise their viewpoint, simply repeat your request.
When you’re on a difficult call or in a difficult meeting, avoid the fight or flight response when the going gets tough. Focus for a couple of seconds on your breathing, instead of your thinking. And remind yourself it’s perfectly within your abilities to handle that situation well.
Give the other person space and let them speak their mind. They’ll run out of steam eventually. But remember that you’re not a punch bag. If you feel the person is overstepping your boundaries or is rude, politely say so and inform them you’ll end the conversation unless they tone down.
Be empathic and show the other person you understand their viewpoint. Understanding someone’s viewpoint doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with it.
By throwing in verbal softeners such as ‘likely’, ‘possibly’, ‘occasionally’, ‘perhaps’, ‘I wonder if’, or ‘typically’ in your conversation, you can create a better environment for agreement and cooperation.
If you’re talking face-to-face with someone, make sure you meet on the same eye level if you want the conversation to be amicable. If you’re making a demand, make sure you place yourself at a slightly higher level than the other person.
Practise keeping your voice at a low pitch and volume. It’ll help you exude more confidence.
Be absolutely clear and specific on what you want done. Say how you feel. Explain why you want it done. Then follow through with a ‘What we’re going to do next is xxx’.
Avoid undercutting yourself and negating what you’re asking for by using stop phrases such as ‘I’m sorry to ask you but…’ or ‘Sorry to be so blunt, but…’. Seriously, ban them from your vocabulary. Instead, say what you really want, and say it clearly.
If you’re leading a meeting where conflict is likely to arise, start it by clearly stating some of the ground rules – such as raising one’s hand before speaking. Also, make sure everyone is able to contribute during the meeting so that a single person doesn’t dominate.
If you spot someone displaying early non-verbal signs of disagreement in a meeting, invite that attendee to make their point as soon as possible.
Use empowering and constructive phrases such as ‘When you ask me to do xx without checking in with me first, I feel like xxx. Instead, I propose we do xx from now on. How does that sound?’
Use the ‘broken record’ technique in which you keep repeating your point until the other person recognises or acknowledges what you’re saying. Consistency is key if you want to be taken seriously.
Don’t give big egos a chance to ‘bait’ you in a conversation. You probably won’t win that battle and it will make you look bad for trying. Ease the situation by letting them exhaust themselves and run out of steam.
When dealing with large egos, always use their first names in the conversation, but also not too often. When applied in a subtle way this is a great technique for taking command and control of a conversation.
Find out what it is about someone’s specific behaviour that’s triggering you emotionally. Be open to the fact that you may well be projecting some of your own insecurities and inadequacies onto someone else.
Practise speaking your mind outside of work too, but make sure you do so after preparing some solid arguments. Always concentrate on discussing the argument at hand, and not the person’s character.
If the conflict relates to your manager, provide them with specific and supportive feedback on how you feel you’re being managed. Be friendly and upfront, and remember to be critical of the behaviour, rather than the person.
Conflict at work is simply inevitable. And even though instinctively most of us will seek to avoid it, in the long run this flight mechanism can seriously undermine our confidence and credibility at work.
Being more assertive means you learn to bring greater awareness to what your needs are in a particular work situation. You become conscious that those needs are as valid as anyone else’s, and you communicate them in a way that encourages cooperation and negotiation, rather than conflict.
Remember that assertive communication doesn’t come natural to anyone. It is learnt behaviour. It may take some time to practise, but it has become an essential professional skill.