When conflict arises at work, do you spend your energy fighting, analyzing, or understanding?
We often focus our efforts on attempts to change the situation, skipping over important introspection into our automatic behaviors.
Using the below exercise as a guide, we can gain understanding into what’s going on within us when conflict arises.
Observing trends and themes can help us anticipate when conflict will derail us.
Exploring alternative possibilities and aligning to our values can help us determine what changes we’d like to make.
We’ve all been there: we’re in a work meeting and someone pushes our buttons.
We take a deep breath and try to endure or move past it, but they keep at it—as if they know exactly what to say or do to push us.
We maintain our composure but they jab again, and we finally break.
Maybe we yell or shake or say something we later regret. Maybe the other party yells or maybe one of us shuts down completely.
The tension in the room mounts and eventually, someone claims this should be “taken offline,” or some other short-term intervention.
We walk away from the meeting angry, wounded, ashamed, hurt, and exhausted. We feel neither seen, understood, or resolved.
Worry fills the air. People worry about what this means for the parties and for organizational culture. We worry about how we came off and how we’ll ever work with the person again. The other party has similar worries—but can we see it?
We all avoid what happened and try to “be professional” in future meetings, but there’s an unspoken divide and discomfort.
What do we do?
When Considering Conflict, Do You Focus on The Fight or The Understanding?
What do you think about after experiencing conflict? If you’re like many people, you might spend time spinning in the anger, thinking of ways to stop the other party’s behavior, analyzing and working to anticipate their moves or our responses to those moves, and/or strategizing on how to make structural changes to reduce the need to work together.
There are many types of conflict—some healthy and some not—but one universal we can examine is the themes that bring out our reactions and what those reactions are.
Everyone has a breaking point, but we often focus so hard on behavioral or structural changes that we don’t take time to consider what’s going on in ourselves.
Do you know what emotion(s) conflict brings out in you?
Do you know what about the dynamic is making you feel the way you do?
Do you recognize the conditions that make you bristle?
Are you aware of your typical response under stress or when you feel painted into a corner?
While the topic of how to approach others while in conflict is very important, this post will focus on an equally important—and often overlooked—first step: noticing what’s going on in you.
When we deepen awareness of ourselves, we can create some distance between the situation and our response. We can also begin to get curious about our automatic behaviors, consider whether they’re serving us in these situations, and decide whether we might like to experiment with new approaches.
Below are several questions that can be used to start the process of identifying how you experience conflict, your common “triggers,” and your frequent patterns of behavior when those triggers are activated.
I invite you to take a few deep breaths before reading on, and spend some time journaling on each exercise. Although journaling is not for everyone, the act of writing your thoughts down can help make the situation more objective, and can help begin an introspective practice that you can carry out at work to deepen your awareness.
A few notes:
This is an investment in learning about yourself, which isn’t always easy. Remember that this is only for you and there’s no one reading or judging your responses. The more honest you are with yourself, the more you’ll get out of the exercise.
Remember to practice self-compassion whenever needed. This may be a very new way of viewing your interactions. None of it makes you wrong or flawed—the exercise is about gaining awareness into your automatic behaviors, rather than looking to place blame or “fix” things.
Scenario: think about a recent time when you’ve felt yourself in conflict with someone.
When you have the memory ready, take out a journal or blank document and write out the scenario that came to mind.
How did you respond?
How did the other party respond?
How did you both walk away from it?
You don’t need to judge either party right now—just capture the facts.
Once you have your scenario written out and feel ready, continue along through the following introspective questions about yourself. This will be a chance for deep reflection on what went on in you, not analysis or correction of the other party. I invite you to suspend that part of the work for a future exercise.
Question 1: What’s This Bringing Up in Me?
This might sound easy, but it can be very difficult to truly notice what conflict brings up in us. It’s much easier to notice and label the content and person we’re disagreeing with than it is to look inside ourselves.
Caution: if you find yourself going down negative thought roads about the person (or how you might put a stop to their behavior), you might be trapped in the upset the conflict is causing. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging those feelings, but once you do, see if you can shift gears and move into self-observation.
Take out your journal and note:
What’s the conflict bringing up in me?
What are the physical sensations I feel in my body?
Where do I feel them and what word(s) describe them?
If I were watching myself in the meeting, what behaviors would I see myself doing?
What values does it feel like the conflict is attacking?
Question 2: Can I Notice When It Happens and What Conditions Bring It Out?
Looking at your list in Question 1, the next step is noting trends in real-time. Keeping a log throughout your daily work interactions, your job is simply to collect data. Notice when you feel the sensations or participate in the behaviors you listed in Question 1 and record in your log:
What situations brought out the feelings in me?
What happened that started to activate me?
What happened at the moment I broke into reactivity?
What are the common themes going on in these situations?
Question 3: How Is the Other Person Feeling?
To get some space from our own reaction, it can be helpful to notice what might have motivated the other party. This is still simply data collection about the conditions that bring out conflict in us.
Without moving into analysis and strategy, see if you can notice the other party’s motivation in the interactions that tend to bring up your reactions.
What were the other party’s words or behaviors that brought out my reaction?
What might have been going on in their work life to motivate their behavior?
What do they wish they’d asked for if they’d made a clear and calm request?
What matters to them about that?
What might have made this situation stressful for them?
Additionally, it can be helpful to write in your journal a story narrated through their eyes of what was going on in them in the situation where the conflict occurred:
Make them the subject
Place them at the center and see the interaction as if looking through their eyes
Make them the protagonist of the story; convey it with them feeling they are doing the right thing
Notice and record what perspective this gives you
Question 4: What if Their Story Were True?
Following your journal exercise of writing the narrative through their eyes, ask yourself some questions in response to the question: “what if their story is true?”
How would I now see them?
How would I now see myself?
How would I now see the dynamic between us?
What do I want for them?
What do I want for myself?
Question 5: What Would the Person I Want to Be Do?
Staying open and using a narrative format that keeps your mind connected to the story, rather than a directive style that puts down or builds up a particular party or behavior, ask yourself:
If I were watching myself in the room during this dynamic, what would I wish I did in the moment I felt provoked?
How would that look and feel?
What values do my desired behaviors align with?
How did my actual behaviors fit into my values?
What could be a middle ground behavior that weaves together all aspects of my values?
Take some time to write out these thoughts in your journal. Remember, it isn’t an action plan, but a self-exploration with the goal of gaining awareness, opening up to new possibilities, and expanding options.
What Do I Do with This Information?
Before considering what you might like to do differently, really take the time to consider where you are today and what you want for yourself. Without knowing our baseline and how we’d like to be different, we can’t take on sustainable change.
Future posts will discuss strategies for challenging your automatic approach to conflict that might open new ways to dealing with difficult situations, but for now, you’ve done the important work of introspecting on what activates your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is a crucial foundational step toward activating change.
Summary: Before Analyzing or Correcting Others, Look Inside Yourself
This approach focuses on strategies for helping you consider your role in the conflict, and whether you’re playing the role you want to play. It’s a sustainable first step in understanding your baseline state and contemplating what is and isn’t working for you.
Look out for future posts with tools and strategies for handling the conflict themes you identify, or feel free to reach out.
How does this resonate for you? Feel free to post thoughts in the comments or on social media.