When I say "workplace conflict," what words come to mind?
For most of us, our answers include: "Stress," "anxiety," "dislike," "loathing," "avoidance," "fear"... you get the idea.
Workplace conflict is inevitable. Yet many professionals feel high levels of anxiety or stress around the idea of engaging in disagreements or conflicts.
For many, stress or unease around conflict is to be expected because their first role models - their parents - may not have modeled healthy conflict strategies.
In our culture, workplace conflict can be especially challenging for women professionals to navigate. Our society reinforces - from our earliest years - that girls with strong opinions are "bossy" (while boys with similar traits are showing "leadership potential") and "good girls" are quiet and follow rules.
Most of the women professionals with whom I work express worries about how they manage (or don't manage) conflict.
Some lack conflict management skills, but most are concerned about how they will be perceived if they push back "too hard." Pushing far outside the boundaries of what is "accepted" can have long-lasting workplace penalties. For women of color, this challenge can feel even more complex, nuanced and suffocating.
What women (and many men) in the workplace need to know is how to navigate conflict with greater skill and confidence.
This email newsletter is too short for a full course in conflict management. So, where can you start? Start here: Know how to RESPOND not REACT.
When we are in a stressed state, our bodies and minds are trained to REACT. We fight, flight or freeze. We get tunnel vision and retreat to our point of view. We stop listening. We lose ourselves in our own narrative.
However, when confronted with a disagreement at work, reacting can be career-limiting. What you need to do is thoughtful and skillfully RESPOND. To RESPOND, you have to know how to quickly calm your reacting body and mind.
Start by recognizing the early stages of a stress response around conflict. Think about the last time you had a tough conflict at work with a peer, boss or direct report. What happened in your body? Did you flush in the chest or face? Did you sweat or feel your heart race? Did your stomach clench? What happens in your body during conflict?
Once you know what too look for, you can do something to short circuit your stress response when it starts to happen in a conflict.
So what do you do when you are in a conflict and need to manage it skillfully RIGHT NOW?
Breathe. Really... breathe.
My favorite approach is to try the 4-box breathing technique.
4-Box Breathing: Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and repeat the exercise again. Do this for two or three cycles.
The beauty of this exercise is that no one will know that you're doing it AND you will lower your stress response AND get your body and mind back under control. All by breathing!
(You can find more tips in this HBR article too.)
Once you have greater control, you can begin to think about how you want to RESPOND:
Do you have questions that will help you understand the problem or his/her point of view better?
Do you stand up for your position and not compromise?
Do you try to find a middle ground?
Do you ask for a break to gather more data or give them time to collect themselves?
Are you missing something?
Do you concede since the battle is not really worth the fight?
You have lots of options - but you will only recognize your options if you get into a RESPONSE space first.
Nicole Provonchee is an executive coach and strategist that works with women leaders and teams across the nation.
After 20 years climbing the corporate ladder, she started Bright Blue Consulting, where she can combine her skills as a coach with her practical experiences as a leader and executive.
Nicole is a sought-after speaker and can bring her "get out of your own way", self-advocacy, negotiation skills workshops to your organization or company. Learn more on her speaking page. Or, reach out to her today.