Originally published on Jan. 29, 2018 on Inc.
Have you ever had a conflict with a co-worker? Of course you have. If your company employs more than one person, workplace conflict is inevitable. And even if you’re a sole proprietor, you’re going to have challenges with clients, vendors, industry colleagues and others. Unless you only surround yourself with people who think, speak and work exactly like you (and how boring would that be?), you are going to come up against people who challenge your ideas–and who challenge you.
That’s a good thing. Disagreements can lead to diversity of thinking, improvements in products and services, and greater productivity. Disagreements can also lead to better working relationships, but only if everyone involved fights fair.
Let’s assume you already do–you communicate directly and thoughtfully, you are considerate in your language and tone, you engage others in a dialogue rather than a monologue, and you are focused on achieving a good outcome and a healthy relationship. Good for you!
But how do you get your colleague to do the same? How can you work better with someone who may be working against you? By acknowledging and thanking her for demonstrating “agreeable disagreement” behaviors every time you see them.
Here are three healthy conflict behaviors to look for so that you can say “thank you” when you see them.
1. Telling you directly.
In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.” As uncomfortable as it feels to hear negative feedback or be confronted directly, it is significantly more uncomfortable (and less productive) to have a colleague who is secretly seething, holding a grudge, acting passive-aggressively towards you, or telling everyone but you that she has a problem with you.
When a colleague tells you directly that they’re frustrated with you, seeing a situation differently from you, or otherwise feeling disgruntled, consider it a gift. If you know, you can do something about it (or make an informed decision not to do anything about it). If you don’t know, you’re in the dark.
Try saying this: “Thank you so much for telling me directly that you [didn’t like my decision/felt disrespected by me in the meeting/wished I had consulted with you]. I appreciate you trusting me enough to share that feedback. Would you like to discuss it further?”
2. Using a respectful tone.
In the face of an interpersonal conflict, our brains register a threat in approximately 1/5 of a second. We immediately go into fight, flight or freeze mode, and it’s easy to become snippy, short-tempered, sarcastic, surly – or even go silent. It’s reacting rather than considering how to respond.
If your colleague is willing and able to stop his automatic reaction, and demonstrate emotionally intelligent self-management by speaking to you calmly and with care, thank him. It likely took some work to be able to do that, and some respect for you to be willing to do it.
Try saying this: “I just want to thank you for the calm tone of voice you’re using right now, even though I know you’re upset. It makes it easy for me to really hear your perspective, and to have a productive conversation.”
In the words of legendary radio host Bernard Meltzer, “If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along–whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.”
3. Being curious.
Healthy communication navigates and balances between two practices: advocacy (promoting our own ideas, perspectives and points of view) and inquiry (being curious about the other’s ideas, perspectives and points of view.) In a conflict, we tend to over-rely on advocacy–telling the other person what we think and “know”, why we’re right, and why they’re clearly wrong. Inquiry tends to go out the door. We’re often more committed to getting our way than to getting new information that could sway us (or, heaven forbid, reveal that we were wrong).
When you hear your colleague asking you questions like “How do you see it?”, “What do you think I’m not understanding here?”, “What would you like to see happen?” or even prompting you with, “Tell me more…”, thank her for being curious.
Try saying this: “Thank you for asking me. I’d like to tell you how I see it, and then I’d like to learn more about how you see it.”
And if she also really listens to your answers, thank her again. As Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
A conflict doesn’t have to hurt people’s feelings or slow down productivity. In fact, a conflict where both people care about the relationship as much as the outcome can be a catalyst to interpersonal and organizational progress.