You’ve probably had tense exchanges with others at work — and know how draining, stressful, and
time-consuming they can be. Difficult interactions are inevitable in the workplace. They may crop up between you and a peer; between members of your group; or between you and a vendor, customer, employee, or boss.
It’s tempting to just avoid dealing with interpersonal conflict. Who needs the hassle and the prickly emotions that difficult interactions trigger? But avoiding such situations will only cause them to worsen and even escalate until they’re out of control. To succeed on the job, you need to learn to address these situations. When you handle them skillfully, you can actually strengthen bonds and discover better ways to get work done.
How to manage difficult interactions? Apply three strategies:
First, assess the facts
Second, acknowledge and address powerful emotions, and
Third, handle threats to self-image
Let’s look at the first strategy for managing difficult interactions: assessing the facts. Isabelle, a
manager in a services firm, observed interpersonal conflict developing between Bruce and Louisa, two members of her group. They indirectly criticized each other’s competence during team meetings, and their subtle sniping had spilled over into a public e-mail exchange. Isabelle took stock of the facts. She suspected that the conflict was distracting them from doing their best work. And their comments were causing tension at meetings, upsetting the rest of the team, and threatening overall team performance. As a result, the work atmosphere was becoming less pleasant — not a good thing.
Isabelle set up a meeting for the three of them. She began by describing the destructive behaviors that Bruce and Louisa had been demonstrating. She also shared her concerns about the damage that their conflict was having on their own productivity, as well as the group’s performance and morale.
Bruce and Louisa immediately started defending their own positions — in increasingly heated
language. Isabelle stopped them and asked them to take turns explaining the facts from their perspectives. Louisa went first. With her fists clenched, she complained: “It’s so frustrating. I feel like I have to do Bruce’s work for him when he doesn’t hit his deadlines. I often end up staying late. He’s not carrying his weight on the project.” With mounting anger, Bruce quickly replied: “I’ve had it with this situation. I often have to redo my work because Louisa doesn’t give me the information I need in advance. If she worked with me instead of against me, we could get the project work done on time —
and done well.”
At this point in the meeting, Isabelle had the opportunity to apply the second strategy for managing
difficult interactions: acknowledging and addressing powerful emotions. She listened intently to
Bruce and Louisa as they individually presented the so-called facts — as they saw them. Then she
summarized: “I can see that each of you is extremely frustrated. But notice that you each mentioned the project and obviously want it to succeed. You both have high standards and feel strongly about not letting those standards slip. Let’s concentrate on that.” The emotional intensity in the room began to drop as Bruce and Louisa started focusing on their shared interests in standards and the project, rather
than their frustrations with each other.
Before the meeting, Bruce and Louisa had expressed their emotions indirectly through sniping at one another. Each felt attacked — so they went on the attack. As the old adage goes, “The best defense is a good offense.” During the meeting, Isabelle broke that cycle by first allowing Bruce and Louisa to express their viewpoints and then focusing the discussion on their shared priorities. Still, the conversation triggered some defensiveness in Bruce. He added, “I still feel I’m not the cause of this
situation. I certainly made it worse by attacking Louisa in team meetings — but I didn’t start it.”
His comments prompted Isabelle to apply the third strategy for managing difficult interactions:
handling threats to self-image, whether someone else’s or your own. Isabelle understood that
Bruce’s defensiveness stemmed from what he saw as an attack on his professional reputation. Louisa had accused him of not carrying his weight on the project. Bruce prided himself in being the person who worked the longest hours to bring a project in on schedule. He had also felt angry with himself for missing some deadlines. And he felt embarrassed about having to ask Louisa to stay late. To help Bruce handle these threats to his self-image, Isabelle commented, “Bruce, you’ve been one of
the most steadfast members of this group. When things need to get done, you get them done.” Isabelle then helped Louisa handle possible threats to her self-image. She went on, “And Louisa, you’re a
voice for quality. You’re never satisfied with just getting by. You do everything you can to ensure our customers are satisfied.”
Isabelle continued: “So, we’ve agreed that we have the same priority — producing excellent work on
time. Now, let’s figure out how we can improve and speed up our processes, given our tight schedule. The two of you have exactly the skills we need to achieve our goal.” Reassured by Isabelle’s words, Bruce and Louisa began exploring ways to work together more productively.
Isabelle skillfully managed the difficult interaction between Bruce and Louisa. First, she assessed the facts. Second, she acknowledged and addressed powerful emotions. And third, she handled threats to both Bruce’s and Louisa’s respective self-images. By applying these strategies, she turned a
destructive interpersonal conflict into an opportunity for new and more productive collaboration within her group.
The next time you observe interpersonal conflict brewing between members of your group, resist the impulse to avoid the discomfort of dealing with it. Rather, address the situation and see if these strategies can help you turn an unproductive situation into surprising and welcomed collaboration.