Long-standing conflict in the workplace can have a profound impact on the people directly involved so let’s take a look at why it happens and how it could be addressed.
It is easy to assume that long-standing conflict is generated by irreconcilable differences but often this simply isn’t the case. During any conversation, each person will take away their own perspective of what was said and I am often amazed at how two people can walk away with such different accounts of the same conversation. The reason for this is not actually our differences but rather, our stories. Simply put, we make stuff up…’he doesn’t value me’, ‘she’s questioning my authority’, ‘he’s so arrogant’, ‘I didn’t like her tone’ blah blah blah. These are our stories… the stuff that we make up. We then need to justify our actions and behaviors so we look for evidence in further conversations to reinforce the story; proving that we were right all along and therefore completely justified in our response. It’s not just you, we all do it and on most occasions, we are not even aware of it.
So how can we fix this? Here are a few suggestions that may help.
- Reflect on the conversation from a detached perspective. What was actually said? Did I understand his/her meaning correctly? Was I being defensive or did I listen carefully to the other point of view? Was I being defensive, causing the other person to react differently? Do we want similar things? Is there common ground to start from?
- Ask for a meeting. This is not to go over old ground but an opportunity to tell the other person how you feel in a calm and non-accusing manner (you will need to be focused here so you don’t fall back into your old stories). If you can manage it, be honest, be open and be willing to hear something different. It’s Important that this meeting should be held in a calm environment where you’re not interrupted and both people have the mental space to be fully present in the conversation, without distraction. Often when you can achieve this you will be amazing at what the other person thought that you said or what they felt you were suggesting. At best you can resolve the issue and derive a plan to move forward and at the very least you will understand each other’s perspective more clearly.
- Engage a neutral third party – Sometimes when you have been going around and around for a long time it may be useful to ask a respected third party to engage. This allows both parties to confront their self-deceptions by having to explain their beliefs and actions to the third person and in doing so, you and your conflict person will likely discover that you have both made stuff up along the way. Providing the space for a different perspective to be considered will create an opportunity for a new co-created story to begin.
- Tired of being tired – Sometimes after long periods of conflict people reach a point where they are worn down and simply tired of being tired. Even though you feel justified in your beliefs and behavior, maybe it is time to just give it up so that you can create a different experience. Take some time to think about what it could feel like to be free of the feelings associated with long-standing conflict. What is the price that you are paying and what would it take to simply cease that story? You may never be best friends and that’s ok but surely it’s in your best interest to have the best relationship with this person that you are able to have. I’m not suggesting compromising on your values or your boundaries but rather, find a way to be in a relationship without destructive conflicting behavior.
I guess the question is, are you willing to make an honest gesture towards creating a new story between you and this other person in conflict? If so, I invite you to try some of the steps above so that you can unwind the story of resentment and anger (or whatever emotion fuels your current behavior) whereby enabling you to cooperatively construct a new way of interacting…and a new story together.