Author Michael Shields says that when dealing with conflict, we must figure out why the person is frustrated or angry. It is often because he or she feels that some basic need, such as feeling valued, is not being met.
Work toward collaborative negotiations
If you are in a leadership role, you are automatically in a position of being questioned about your decisions, whether you are a school bus driver and the students are questioning your authority, an office worker and the public is questioning your answers, or a supervisor and the employee is questioning your motives or intentions.
People today want answers, and they want facts that support answers. For example, the public is upset with a bus driver, and they want written documentation that something was done. Or the bus driver writes up a student and wants documentation from the principal indicating that something was done.
All of us are in some leadership role and may have experienced this lack of trust. I believe it stems from people feeling they are losing control, and they want that control back. Another example: The public is starting to vote down levies because they are frustrated with government in general. Why? Because they feel they do not have control. One of the ways we can try to offer people the feeling that they are regaining control is to get them involved in the process. Find out what their interests are. Try to understand their wants. Then work together with that information toward a solution.
The most impressive techniques I learned were at a three-day workshop put on by John and Carol Glaser. The purpose was to train the district teams for collaborative negotiations. These teams were from both labor and management. People donated their weekend to complete the training. What was the training? The prime focus, in my opinion, was to understand the other person’s interests and then work toward a collaborative solution that addressed both sides’ interests. The second focus, again, in my opinion, was to stay tuned in on the interests and not on the person or people.
Reducing risk in a tense situation
There are several things you can do to reduce risk to yourself in the workplace when someone is angry:
• Meet him or her before the person comes into your office. Position yourself so you will have an exit. If you remain standing, it will let the person know that the meeting time is short. If the person comes into your office, remain standing. Be sure to stand at an angle to the person’s body or with a desk between you. If the person sits down, sit squarely facing him or her.
• The greatest defenses you have are your thoughts and emotions — or they can be your greatest weakness. Use self-discipline to control your thoughts, and you will then control your emotions. Keep in mind that their emotion is not yours. Once you become emotional, your thinking becomes clouded and your judgment impaired.
• Are your thoughts under control? Next, control your mouth. The most effective tool is making a concentrated and focused effort at trying to understand. Stop thinking about your response. Watch their body language and facial expressions, listen to their tone of voice, and try to understand the message behind the words.
• When you think you have an understanding of what they are trying to say, repeat it back to them.
• Do not commit to something you cannot deliver. Walk your talk. Use even, gentle tones in your voice. Remain confident with a positive, friendly attitude.
• Find agreement on some issues. Remember to smile genuinely when the time seems right.
• Avoid taking positions before you find out interests. Gather all the information you can.
• Use phrases like “Tell me more” or “What I hear you saying is …”
Defusing conflict and getting past our positions
“Making Teams Succeed at Work” from Business Management Daily suggests trying the following strategy when two employees are having a conflict at work that they can’t resolve on their own: Ask each employee to paraphrase the other employee’s point of view. This will go a long way toward determining if each employee understands where the other is coming from. It may be that it’s a simple misunderstanding that can be easily worked out.
Also, people often take positions (position = what they want) and dig in their heels. What you can do is find out their interests (interest = why they want it). Too often we all try to move to a solution before we clearly understand the “why.” Listing their interests and yours on paper will help everyone understand the “what” and the “why.”
Michael Shields is director of transportation and auxiliary services at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Ore. He is also a member of SBF’s editorial advisory board. He can be reached at email@example.com.
See the following page for more tips on managing conflict and problem solving.