Most of us have some resistance to conflict. Instead of addressing issues directly, we try to be “nice” and end up spending an inordinate amount of time complaining, feeling frustrated, or ruminating on something that already happened. You’ll also end up creating relationships that are neither authentic nor constructive, and your health and self-esteem may suffer. Your job loses out as well, as you make compromises with the loudest person in the room. There’s also a loss in the diversity of thinking that’s critical for innovation.
But what if arguments became doorways? What if they weren’t about self-protection and judgement, but rather tools to find unexplored territories and broader realizations? Below are five lessons to help unearth the deeper roots of disagreement. From making sure you’re having the same argument as the other person, to navigating your anxiety, here’s how to turn your tug of war dynamic into something worthwhile.
Aligning your argument with the other person
Have you ever been in a disagreement and thought, “This person just doesn’t get it”? Maybe that’s true; even if they understand the scope of the argument, it’s possible that they don’t realize why it matters so much to you. It’s important that you both understand the stakes of the conversation.
Anxiety spikes are like the needle of an earthquake monitor — they mark the points where something you care about feels threatened. These are the moments when a disagreement starts to feel personal. While they can easily lead to unproductive habits like self-protection and judgement, resist the urge to shut down and, instead, dig into why these spots are so important that they’re worth protecting.
Step back and ask yourself whether this argument is about something true (what we can verify), meaningful (what matters to you), or useful (what situation we’re in). And when the person you’re confronting responds, allow them to do so. It’s a human tendency to interrupt and further justify a statement. You want to listen very carefully to catch the differences between what your initial statement indicated and your coworker’s response. Don’t rehearse responses in your mind, listen effectively and stay open to the possibility that your coworker has a good reason for the actions taken.
Stick to “I” statements and try to stay calm
At the heart of all good communication is the ability to stick to “I” statements. Rather than saying, “You’re so arrogant in meetings and you never even bother showing up on time,” say, “I am concerned about the way you address the group and I feel disrespected when you arrive late.” Avoid being overly accusatory; express what you think and how you feel. Most importantly, take a few deep breaths and don’t let your anger get the best of you — even if the other person lashes out. The goal is to be assertive, not aggressive.
Address one issue at a time
If there’s just one person you tend to avoid confronting — like a particularly challenging colleague — choose one minor issue to address. Don’t pick the biggest problem or bring up a lengthy list of items you don’t like. Start small and see what happens. If you avoid speaking up to everyone around you, pick a safe person to confront first. Maybe you want to start with a trusted friend or family member whom you know isn’t going to blow up at you. By addressing something minor you’ll increase your confidence in your ability to be assertive in other situations.
Rushing a resolution leaves doesn’t remove the office conflict
Conversations start spiralling out of productivity when we fall into the trap of shying away from big questions like “This clearly matters to you, can you help me understand why?” and instead focus on the facts. Unfortunately, boiling a disagreement down to information fails to acknowledge the emotional conversation staring you in the face and likely leaves it simmering for later. You end up spending hours lying in bed at night having fictional conversations with people you’re angry and frustrated with. Not only does this practice disrupt your sleep, your attitude, and your health. It never really resolves the issue and is potentially damaging to your relationships.
Take the time to ask open-ended questions that try to find the roots of the argument.
Change the venue
Finally, the environment sets the tone for a disagreement. Therefore, make sure that yours is neutral. What are the power dynamics of the space? Are all voices welcome? Can anyone leave at any time? Is it okay to change your mind in this space? If your regular workspace can’t accommodate, head out for a walk around the block. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone. Whatever you do, don’t do it over email.
You’ll rarely look forward to confrontation; you may never become completely comfortable with, or even skilled in holding an argument. However, it’s important that you say something when you are frustrated and angry. If you can’t stand up for yourself, who will?