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Things that Make Conflict Worse

Written by Intersol Group

I see a lot of conflict in the workplace. And I’m sure that you have had to face conflict at one time or another in your life. Sometimes it’s a minor problem that gets fixed quickly. And other times the conflict just keeps getting worse and worse until it seems like it can never be fixed.

The pattern of conflict goes something like this:

  • A colleague of Sara’s says or does something that bothers her.
  • Sara doesn’t think it’s worth making a fuss about, or she’s afraid to say anything. So she sits and stews about it instead, and maybe talks to a few friends about how badly she’s been treated. And they, being good friends, commiserate with her and agree with everything she says.
  • The other person does it again, maybe once, maybe more than once, and Sara gets angry. She complains to her boss about it, but the boss doesn’t do anything.
  • Then the person does something else that really bugs Sara, and she assumes that he’s out to get her because she complained to the boss.
  • By this time Sara and her colleague have stopped talking to each other, but Sara complains about him all the time with other colleagues with whom she gets along.
  • Things become so bad that Sara starts having health problems and is seriously thinking about quitting her job.

Sound familiar to you?

Even if it’s never happened to you, I’ll bet you’ve seen this scenario play out at some point in your life. What you may not realize is that almost every step of the way, Sara, her friends, and her boss have made things worse instead of better. Let’s take a closer look.

Here are some things that make conflict worse and what to do differently:

Not dealing with the problem early on.

The best time to resolve a conflict is at the beginning. By avoiding an uncomfortable conversation, Sara missed an opportunity to improve the situation. She could have asked her colleague why he had behaved that way or used feedback to get her point across and avoid a similar situation in the future. By ignoring the situation, Sara’s boss also missed an opportunity to stop the conflict from getting worse. Small problems often grow into big problems; deal with them early, when you’re still calm enough to work through them in a positive way.

Not exploring different perspectives.

It is natural for us to see our own side of a situation. It is much harder to imagine what the other person is seeing or thinking. When Sara talked to her friends about the problem, instead of agreeing with everything she said, they could have helped her think of different explanations for the behaviour and ways to deal with the problem constructively. A good friend gives you a shoulder to cry on; a great friend stops you from blowing things out of proportion.

Involving others.

When we’re in a fight, we want people on our side. But when we expect people to take sides, we’re only making the problem bigger and harder to fix. Sara started involving others early, and she did it more and more as time went on. She made the problem so big that it became almost impossible to fix, and chances are the other person was doing the same thing on his side. If you need advice on how to deal with a conflict, find someone outside the situation who can be trusted to keep a secret. Don’t pull in others; you’ll only make the problem bigger.

Assuming bad intentions.

When we react to things other people do, we’re often more upset by what we think they intended than by the thing they did. If you slam the door on my hand, I will be a lot more upset with you if I think you did it on purpose than if I think it was an accident. When Sara assumed that the other person was out to get her, she actually had no idea if that was the case or not. But once she started thinking that way, she got more and more upset with him. And when we get upset, we stop thinking clearly and do and say things that we might regret later. Give people the benefit of the doubt; it doesn’t cost you anything, and you will find that in most cases it isn’t about you, and they really weren’t trying to give you a hard time.

Conflict is a fact of life in any workplace. How we deal with conflict will determine whether or not it becomes a huge problem.