This article first appeared in The Business Woman Media 6/04/2017

Workplace conflicts steal your energy and motivation at the office. Not to mention the additional stress you take home and negative impacts on your overall health and well-being. Business savvy requires recognising conflict risks early and being prepared to embrace difficult situations, rather than fear or avoid them.

We can be unaware of how we maintain tensions and contribute to escalating disagreements. We may unconsciously respond in ways that keep workplace tensions simmering, and even act in ways that push the temperature to boiling point.

How do you increase your chances of success to lower the temperature and lead the conversation to more effectively resolve office conflicts?

1. Recognise the first 3 minutes are everything

Begin with the end in mind. Research shows that how you approach the first 3 minutes of a conflict conversation will determine the outcome. Conversations that start abruptly, with blame, dismissiveness or criticism, will derail your efforts to resolve matters. Giving advice or direction too early risks sounding condescending. These all reduce opportunities for cooperation. Raise your concerns early, gently, and directly. Demonstrate an attitude that this working relationship is important to you. To create the opportunity for starting off on the right track to jointly issues:

  • Take responsibility: Accept some responsibility for the problem. Find ways to share the problem and therefore the solutions.
  • Focus on forward thinking: Where can we move to from today? Small steps and repairs build over time.
  • Be prepared to yield to win: When you allow the other person to achieve small gains in the opening stages of your negotiation, you help establish a foundation of trust and cooperation.

2. Gain influence from the start

You increase your influence by clearly demonstrating you are interested in the other person’s perspective. Be strategic and compassionate at the same time. Learn the key concerns of the other person’s position before you talk about your views. To do this you need to LISTEN. Hold back your opinions, keep a leash on your reactions to the things being said. Acknowledge the other person’s viewpoint when they have finished speaking by summarising their perspective. Ensure you capture statements about their feelings. You don’t have to agree with them, but do let them know you understand their position. This is essential to creating enough goodwill to move from a gridlocked problem towards positive change. Keep to your own perspective when you respond. Don’t leap to sharing your responses to the other person’s comments, or suggestions for solutions. Ensure you both understand each other’s positions and views before you explore solutions.

3. Defeat defensiveness

We become defensive when we feel judged, unheard, and if we hear blame in the conversation. Often, the response is to over-explain and justify your actions, or to be dismissive. Unfortunately, the other person won’t see your discomfort or fears. Defensiveness almost always looks like anger, and your responses may seem aggressive to the other person. Our brain set us up to mirror other’s emotions and behaviours. Without realising it, we tend to mirror bad behaviour and bad moods more easily than positive ones. Hence the other person is likely to feel defensive as well. The conversation gets derailed by fresh criticisms, or the other person may start to withdraw. You both end up feeling increasingly frustrated with a conversation going around in circles. Defeat defensiveness by consciously looking for the positive qualities that you know about yourself, in the other person. And conversely, try to see those negative qualities, so obvious in the other person, as possibly being a part of your own habits. There’s always something to learn.

4. Make positive shared proposals

All too often we raise our concerns with a list of things we don’t want the other person to do, say, or think anymore. Just as saying “Don’t think of an elephant” will keep you thinking of pachyderms, saying what you don’t want will bias you towards thinking negatively. It is crucial to ask for the changes you want and state this in positive, future orientated terms. Negotiate for the same with the other party. Give your counterpart ample time to make important decisions, this has the advantage of calming tempers. Identify the positive actions you can undertake to help resolve matters. Each of you should consider at least 3 possible outcomes, more if possible. (In fact, 5 is an ideal number for generating creative options.)

  • Proposal A: What you would ideally like to offer and what ideally you would like to ask for.
  • Proposal B: What you could reasonably compromise on, and what you could settle for from the other person.
  • Your bottom line proposal: Decide your clear “No” position. This is not open for negotiation.

5. Put your heart into it

Your heart rate equals your thought rate. As tensions increase, your heart beat increases, and so does you thought rate. Once your heart rate is at 100 beats per minute, your stress rate hits the ceiling and your objectivity goes out the window. It is almost impossible to accurately read the other person’s behaviours or interpret their comments at this point. You may either want to explode, or want to get right out the room. Your thinking will remain clear if your heart rate is slow and steady. Your breath rate is the key to a Mindful approach to conflict resolution, and staying calm and focused, rather than overwhelmed and reactive. Consciously measure your breath down as you progress difficult discussions – you can often unconsciously hold your breath when situations are tense. Slow your breathing to remain calm and take time to respond with an enquiring mind. Moreover, the brain’s mirroring tendencies mean that as you practice that steady heart beat and calm breathing, you increase the opportunity for the other person to be more composed as well.

Use these 5 tips to increase your awareness of nipping potentially escalating conflict in the bud, and your confidence to make your workplace a productive and positive place to work.