Those of you who have read my articles before can probably envision me embroiled in numerous conflicts. To keep from being killed or killing someone, I have acquired fairly effective survival skills. I’m not a pacifist; in fact, people who say “fighting never solves anything” make me think they have been on the losing end of every fight they’ve been in. Or, it makes me think they have probably spent their lives running from fights.
In my experience, fighting solves a lot, but let me be clear here, when I say “fighting,” I am not talking about slapping around Kenny in accounting because he shorted you $2.36! When I say fighting, I am talking about conflict. Conflict is neither good nor bad; it can be handled functionally or dysfunctionally.
You can't say that!
We’re not on the playground anymore, and in a post-Columbine, post-going postal world, even joking about workplace violence can be a serious offense. I have worked at several companies that had incidents of workplace violence that ended in death; so I don’t want anyone thinking that I am making light of the very real threat of workplace violence. But there is a right way and a wrong way of addressing it, and in my opinion, the best way to avoid workplace violence, even mere workplace unpleasantness, is by de-escalating dysfunctional conflict before it becomes a problem.
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De-escalation of conflict isn’t the same as conflict avoidance. De-escalation of conflict is the act of removing heightened emotion the antagonists are feeling about their disagreement. Disagreement is healthy in an organization; moreover, squelching it leads to dysfunction, from simmering frustration to malicious obedience. Malicious obedience is one of those terms I learned when I was working for a man I still affectionately refer to as “the Devil.”
You told me to!
Tired of having him second guess my every decision and then ordering me to do something that I knew would be a disaster, I would do exactly what he told me to, knowing full well that it would create chaos. Doing so made him incredibly angry and frustrated because I had in fact done exactly what he told me to do. I fully admit to doing in those days what I expect now of a benighted employee, escalating our dysfunctional dynamic.
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I would sit smugly in his office watching the veins in his temples bulge and throb, in hopes of seeing one burst, while he frothed at the mouth and sputtered his disappointment with my performance. I can see now I could have (should have?) handled things better. Mea culpa. But when dealing with a dysfunctional environment, it is hard to behave like an adult. Or, maybe I’m making excuses, but I know better now.
You talking to me?
It may seem silly, but de-escalation of conflict begins with the language we use. I used to work for an organization where so much as joking about violence was an offense for which one could be fired. For my money, the organization took extreme and ridiculous efforts to avoid any implication of aggression. There was an Alice Down the Rabbit Hole absurdity to its efforts.
We couldn’t use the term bullet point because bullet, it was believed, denotes violence. No, actually. In this case, the term bullet is derived from the word bulletin (a bulletin being a series of bullets), a usage that predates the invention of the gun. We had to call them dot lists. Predictably, this devolved into a bizarre workplace lexicon that would have made Aldous Huxley proud. We could say positive, but negatives became deltas. Ironically, we could say head shot; something I never understood because it seemed not only violent but graphically violent.
You can't say that, either!
The thing is, mincing words and weaseling around the point is not really helpful when trying to de-escalate conflict. Quite the opposite, I find it tends to infuriate an already aggravated and aggressive dynamic between the parties. Clarity, understanding and resolution become impossible. And business people want clarity, and seek it intuitively. They coin graphic terms like “one throat to choke” (look it up) to express a common business concept, even as it may create the subtle impression that workplace violence is acceptable -- or perhaps only upon outside vendors.
So these things don’t work, what does? I found a simple formula work of the de-escalation:
1. Begin by a acknowledging each other’s frustration.
Conflict tends to build-up and as it builds so does frustration. The primate inside us wants to either fight or flee; neither are options that de-escalate the conflict. Vocalizing the knowledge that both parties are frustrated and potentially angry allows them to stop focusing on communicating how they feel and to start focusing on what they can do to move forward.
2. Assume goodness of intention.
When we assume that the other party is perfidious, escalation results. When I think they have the best intentions we can discuss our positions dispassionately and assertively. I admit it can be very difficult to give someone the benefit of the doubt, especially if they have screwed us over the past, but you really have to get beyond that if you’re going to achieve any mastery of conflict de-escalation.
3. Make sure all parties have expressed how they feel.
This may sound soft-headed, but it’s really important. Unless we talk about the emotions we’re feeling, they will always get in the way of trying to solve a problem. Maybe you have experienced, as I have, an exchange where the other person keeps deflecting or trying to change the subject, to rationalize their own dysfunctional behavior. As goofy as it may sound, too many people get so wrapped up in winning that they cannot see a compromise is anything but a defeat.
An apology can go a long way in mending a relationship, even when you’re too pig-headed to admit you’re wrong. You may actually feel as if you have done nothing wrong, and maybe you haven’t, but the fact remains that your actions created the perception of an attack or insult, and I think we can all agree that we want to prevent kind of this perception.
5. Fess up when you mess up.
Sometimes our egos prevent us from doing what’s right -- in this case, admitting when we screwed up. Something this simple can greatly reduce the heightened emotional state.
You gotta give a little. De-escalation relies on both parties being able to see another person’s point of view. They must be willing to give a little bit. By becoming able to compromise, they free themselves and each other to work toward the win/win.