Is it more helpful to remember or forget past workplace conflict? The famous line from George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” tells us remembering is crucial. But in the current issue of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Barbara Tint opined the opposite; that remembering major conflicts makes them persist.
In my experience, either can be true in the workplace, depending on how and why we remember.
If we remember the past to tell ourselves over and over how someone injured us, perpetuating bitterness and resentment, the conflict remains. And both parties tend to draw in supporters, expanding the conflict further.
But, if we remember in order to examine and change our own habitual patterns of behavior, we can have a positive impact on present and future conflict.
Here is an example. A supervisor asks me to work many additional hours to complete a project. I do it, sacrificing a weekend, and the manager takes my accomplishment for granted. If I burn with resentment every time I see him, if I keep telling myself and everyone else (except the manager) about it, I am stuck and making the problem worse. If the manager asks me to do extra work again, I may feel I have to, but in the process swallow even more resentment and continue complaining until I explode in anger or take other extreme action, not generally a savvy career move.
But, what if I acknowledge my anger, and then examine, without blame, what happened? I can gently explore my share, big or small, and ask myself:
What could I have done differently?
What could I do differently next time to avoid repeating the same pattern?
Whatever the specific strategies I brainstorm, it is helpful to prepare for positive communication through practice or visualization, since it improves my ability to calmly listen, negotiate and set limits. At the least, this process demonstrates respect for myself and the supervisor. It also makes productive outcome more likely.
Many of us weren’t taught these skills in our families or professional training, unless we are conflict resolution specialists. But, if we are willing, it is never too late to learn these skills. Individual or small group conflict coaching, communication and forgiveness workshops, or focused support groups can help.
Then, we will use the power of memory for good rather than being held captive by past conflict.