There are so many people who are sick of drama, tired of flaky friends, and just fed up with folks in general. I’m not sure if this pent-up anger is from unresolved conflicts that have been brewing all year, or the result of cumulative devaluation but either way, it seems clear that we could use some straight talk about another common mistake: Avoiding Conflict.
Conflict Is Inevitable
Life is full of intellectual, interpersonal, political, and downright petty conflicts. While many may feel comfortable with intellectual conflicts, they struggle to effectively resolve everyday conflicts. Their discomfort in resolving conflict extends across a wide spectrum and includes people who have more power (like your boss at work) and people who have less power (like your children) within your circle of influence. I believe this results directly from the fact that we all have life experience and few of us ever probably ever learned how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in ways that don’t harm our relationships with others.
And, if you’re a minority, the dynamics of racism & sexism mean that in addition to the common conflicts that others may experience, you may also experience disrespect and daily aggression. Let me be perfectly clear; it’s okay to feel angry when people behave badly (even if their behavior is unintentional). Anger, annoyance, and frustration are normal responses to persistent sexism and racism in the workplace. In fact, if you receive subtle daily reminders that you’re different and imply that you only belong in the ivory tower in a supporting role, it’s okay to feel mad about it.
The problem occurs when others respond to conflicts in one of two extreme ways: 1) fighting every battle or 2) avoiding conflict altogether. The problem with fighting every battle is that you will quickly alienate yourself from everyone else. The problem with avoiding conflict is that when you push anger down, it grows, deepens, and expands. This can put you at risk of publicly exploding when triggered by a minor incident, developing stress-related illness, and/or sucking up so much of your energy that you have nothing left.
That said, expressing anger is tricky because we live in a world where there are few socially acceptable forms of communicating anger in the workplace (this is especially true for African Americans in particular). Any expression of anger tends to be interpreted through the frames of race and gender. Even the smallest expression of anger from an African American male or female can result in their being labeled as “threatening” or “unprofessional.” And for women, communicating frustration quickly got them labeled as “emotional,” “out of control,” and/or “a bitch.”
Conflict in your professional life is inevitable, so it’s critically important for all of us to learn when and how to express our feelings in ways that are effective and professionally appropriate. If you’re a minority, you’re likely to have more conflict AND to have your responses interpreted through particular frames, so you have to be extra skilled at conflict resolution. The good news is that learning how to engage in healthy conflict will allow you to express your feelings, retain your integrity, and minimize negative consequences to your professional relationships.
Here are the three questions I use when conflicts arise:
- Should I push back or should I pull back?
- What will I gain, and what will I lose?
- What’s the most effective way to push back?
There are no right or wrong answers here. Sometimes pushing back makes sense; other times it’s better to pull back and then work it out in the gym. Either way, anger is energy so it has to come out of your body. In other words, don’t confuse “pulling back” with “standing down.” Pulling back simply means releasing the angry energy in an indirect way because the costs of expressing it outweigh the benefits.
For the times when you decide to push back, here are some good tricks:
- State your observation of the problematic behavior
- Describe how it makes you feel
- Make your needs explicit
- Clearly request what you want
We can choose to push back or pull back on a case-by-case basis (as opposed to always pushing back or always pulling back as our default strategy). There are a wide variety of possible responses to any conflict and each response has a different set of costs and benefits associated with it. When we let off the steam in small increments, it doesn’t build up or put us in danger of exploding. Once you think about your feelings (when you _____, I feel ______, I need _____, and I want you to _____), you can quickly and easily express yourself in a way that is honest, clear, professional, and opens the space for real communication and conflict resolution.
I’m sure you’ve heard the generic advice “pick your battles.” This week, I want to encourage you to rethink the idea of what a “battle” consists. That will reshape your concept of whether or not things will have to wait until conflicts reach the stage of “battle!” Instead, recognize that conflict is a normal outcome of people working together. As a result, begin to imagine yourself as a professional who is comfortable, confident, and capable of resolving conflicts in your day-to-day life.
I hope this week brings you the ability to assert yourself on a regular basis, the courage to express your feelings in ways that let off emotional steam incrementally, and the deep sense of empowerment that comes from engaging in healthy conflicts that strengthen our professional relationships.