I don't like conflict.
I don't like the idea of conflict.
I don't like being involved in conflict.
I don't even like being around conflict.
When I was in junior high school, there were two boys having a fist fight. I was so uncomfortable with this conflict that I put myself in between them to get them to stop fighting.
Luckily, nobody got hurt, but that was a big physical risk that I took. The conflict didn't even have anything to do with me. I was just so uncomfortable being around it.
Now that's an example of something pretty extreme - but I don't even like the idea of a potentially difficult conversation that might lead to hurt feelings or discomfort.
Many of my clients tell me that one of the biggest issues in their organization is that people avoid having hard conversations.
They report a variety of reasons for this, including:
● They don't know how to do it
● It's too uncomfortable
● They're afraid
● The outcome is too unpredictable
Many people say that it's a cultural issue - that they are part of a culture in which people are expected to be “nice and polite”. They don't want to hurt each other's feelings so they avoid the hard conversation and hope that the behavior changes and that things get better on their own.
I have done that same thing myself. Sometimes it works itself out, but more often than not the conversation is necessary.
If we focus too much on being nice and polite, what happens if we have to give somebody hard feedback or talk through a disagreement?
We're working with people with unique personalities, perspectives and values. There are going to be disagreements or conflict. Having the ability to work through it is essential. And sometimes, the hard conversation has to happen more than once.
I have a friend (let’s call her “Beth”) who learned that her coworker “Brad” was gossiping about her and undermining her behind her back. Upset by this and aware of the toxic culture it could create, Beth had a direct, hard and clear conversation with Brad.
It was uncomfortable. She didn't want to have it. She'd rather have avoided it. But she had the conversation anyway, and when she was done, Beth was relieved and proud that she addressed the issue head on.
A few weeks later, Beth heard some disturbing news. Brad was once again undermining her and saying negative things about her. Beth was tempted to ignore it and say to herself, “You know, I've already had that conversation. Brad is aware of it and his behavior will change.” She felt discouraged and frustrated that the behavior had continued.
And she knew she couldn’t ignore it - that she had to do something. Knowing she had to do everything she could to stop this unhealthy and damaging behavior, Beth engaged Brad in another hard conversation. Eventually the issue was resolved - and it took persistence, attention and commitment.
When we avoid addressing issues, the problem often gets worse. Gossip, undermining and back-channeling behaviors create a toxic environment. These need to be addressed, and sometimes we have to be willing to revisit the conversation multiple times until we see the change we desire.
When we finally pluck up the courage to have a hard conversation, it can be discouraging to discover that things don't always change. Sometimes we have to stay with it and have the conversation again and again until there is resolution.
How do you handle conflicts or disagreements in your workplace?
Have you ever needed to have the same conversation multiple times? And what helped you to stay with it?
I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments below.
Katie is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator and Executive Coach.