Let’s face it; we often spend more hours with the people we work with than we do our family and friends. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, our best friends *are* our co-workers. But even in the best of times it’s not unusual to be faced with the guy three cubicles down from yours whom you’d just as soon clobber than look at again. Fold in a heightened sense of tension due to uncertain job security these days and even the smallest disagreements can turn into firestorms. What you do when facing a conflict at work is critical; especially if you don’t have the luxury of delivering a Jerry McGuire-esque speech to the entire office before making your dramatic exit with Renee Zellwegger in tow. Working it out in a way that calms the situation, improves your working relationship, and satisfies both your needs is ideal. But what can you do if despite every effort to resolve a workplace conflict, you’re just not able?
1) Your Plan for the Future
Consider what’s important and follow a strategy for a period of time that feels comfortable. Your plan may include eventually leaving your current work environment, or you may decide that staying where you are is the best thing to help you reach your goal for a secure retirement, continued health benefits, or simply a good letter of recommendation. Knowing what you want your future to look like helps you look past the current situation and focus beyond your temporary problems.
2) Your Perspective
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in a disagreement that you lose all perspective about the situation. This is especially true when the conflict is at work and you’re experiencing it every single day. Dealing with a persistent difficulty can become the routine — until you decide to change how you look at it. Stop and reassess your point of view. See if you can find a learning opportunity in the situation. Maybe this is a chance for you to step outside yourself and extend a little compassion to the other person. Or maybe if you purposefully and mindfully examine what’s going on, you can honestly say, in the scope of things, that the issue isn’t really that important to you.
3) Your Responses
I’m sure you know from experience that you can’t control the other person’s actions, thoughts, or feelings. Try as you might — and I suspect you’ve tried a lot of different things — your coworker’s behavior remains unchanged. It’s frustrating, challenging, and disappointing to feel like you’re the only one making an effort, but the good news is that no matter what he’s doing, you always have the option to control your own responses.
Try changing how you react to what’s happening, and look for ways to respond to him pushing your buttons that won’t escalate your anxiety or cause your blood pressure to spike through the roof. Consider how you want to be seen by others and choose your responses accordingly.
4) Your Investment
How long have you lived with this conflict and how much effort are you putting into it? Consider that sometimes, in trying to control everything, you lose your ability to control anything! Do you really want to be more emotionally invested than everyone else? If you answer is no (or even a shaky maybe), then try to reduce your investment in the drama. Spend less time thinking about it, talking about it, and engaging in it.
5) Your Role in the Conflict
As difficult as it is to admit you probably have some responsibility in the conflict. Self-assessment — and by that I mean more than 30 seconds of superficial introspection — requires you to consider how your actions and reactions look to others. Ask yourself, “What have I said or done, or not said or done, that has kept this conflict going?” Change may not happen overnight, and you may need the assistance of friends, family, or professionals to help you through the transition. No need to continue being the bully, the one who stirs the pot, or even the victim. If it takes two to tango and you’re no longer willing to dance, the conflict has no choice but to diminish.
6) Your Expectations
When your expectations don’t fit the situation, even though you’ve tried everything you can imagine to make them fit, change your expectations. Notice that I said change, not lower. Is it possible that your expectations are what are causing your frustration and the conflict to continue? I’m not talking job performance issues here, but rather personal preferences for how another person behaves. Your frustrations will decrease when you stop holding others to standards they don’t know they’re being measured against. It may be time to get a new yardstick!
7) Your Energy
Changing where you focus your energy can be a huge stress reliever. Unresolved conflict (and unresolved emotions!) can be a black hole for energy; you can give and give without any guarantee you’ll see that energy investment returned to you. Instead of putting 110 percent of yourself into the conflict, look for a different outlet for your attention and put your energy there. Cleaning out a closet, putting together a proposal for a creative project at work, or jumping back into the classes at the gym are all great ways to channel energy and emotions.
8) Your Own Story
When I read a good book, I create what I call “the movie in my head.” I’m the casting director, set designer, and director all in one. When it comes to the problems at work, you essentially do the same by choosing how you depict the scene to yourself and others. When you’re not emotionally involved in a problem, you can see both sides, so take that ability to be objective and apply it to your own situation. Decide how this particular story will play out and how you’ll speak about it. Give an account without elevating or victimizing anyone. When a coworker or supervisor asks about specifics, consider an honest but hopeful response such as, “It’s a difficult time right now, but I’m learning a valuable lesson about expectations,” rather than, “Yet again I’m the victim and no one cares.”
9) Your Method for Processing Emotions
You can keep the impact of a conflict to yourself and stuff your emotions away, or you can choose to find a constructive way to process what’s happening. Talking with a mentor, family member, friends, clergy, or a therapist can be helpful. Keeping a journal, writing letters you’ll never send (my personal favorite), a vigorous workout, or even slinging rocks at the tree in the backyard are all productive ways to process your emotions and perspective of an otherwise unproductive situation.
10) Your Character
Sure, you follow directions and have job functions you’re responsible for, but no one can make you do anything. When you say, “He just makes me so (fill in the blank) that I had to (fill in what terrible past response or action you took),” you’re giving the other person control over your moral fiber. Take personal responsibility and don’t give anyone else the power to make you behave in a way that is unbecoming, unethical, or dishonorable. Show your best side and not an unchecked series of poor reactions.