Confusion Abounds in Workplace Conflict

Conflict is fraught with misunderstanding. Managing it effectively takes concerted effort to slow things down and understand how others are seeing the conflict. One example of the confusion is illustrated by recent research by Dr. Gabrielle Adams from the London Business School and Harvard University.

In her studies Dr. Adams found that people who feel attacked often miscalibrate their interpretations of the incident. Victims typically see the actions of the other as more intentional than they may actually and underestimate the degree to which the transgressor may feel guilt and wish forgiveness. When victims are encouraged to try to understand the other’s feelings, it can help overcome misunderstandings and lead to forgiveness.

The effort to facilitate better perspective taking and empathy is challenging. When people feel attacked and are upset, they go into defensive mode. In such settings learning how to cool down and regain composure is a critical first step. Once this is accomplished, the next step is trying to better understand how the other person is thinking and feeling about the matter.

Many people may say, “Why bother? It is the other person’s fault. They should apologize first.” This is certainly understandable. At the same time, if you want to become competent in managing conflict, it is essential to be able to understand what is happening in the conflict. This includes discovering more about the other person’s perspective.

You can do this by stepping back and thinking about how they may be seeing the situation. Ask yourself about why they may have acted the way they did. See if you can think of some non-hostile reason behind their actions. Go further and speculate about how they may be feeling at this point. This process will often change your own emotional reaction to the conflict and open your eyes to new ways of solving it.

It may turn out that the other person was actually acting in a hostile manner and still harbors bad sentiments towards you. In these cases you can take steps you protect yourself. More often that not, though, you will find that the other person feels sorry about their actions and may wish to be forgiven. This might be the key that unlocks the door to new solutions to the conflict and improved relationships.

Craig Runde is a conflict management consultant and is author of the LinkedIn Learning course Improving Your Conflict Competence.


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