Conflict is inevitable at work. Anyone with a job knows there’s often too much to accomplish and not enough time to accomplish it. With the stress of looming deadlines and overwhelming workloads, even the most easy going employee can get short tempered. Bad days happen. When they do, dealing with conflict is a challenge.
Sometimes, however, a colleague seems perpetually upset. They move from crisis to crisis, and spend the majority of their time venting frustrations or laying blame. Conflict starts to escalate—issues aren’t resolved, they only become more complex. When a professional problem starts to feel like a personal attack, you might be dealing with a high conflict personality. Thankfully, simple strategies taken from the field of conflict resolution can diffuse tension and help make sure you stay happy at work.
Author and conflict resolution specialist Bill Eddy is the co-founder and president of High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He has spent decades as a clinical social worker, attorney and mediator on a quest to understand conflict in families, couples and in the workplace.
Eddy cites four characteristics common in high conflict personalities: laying blame elsewhere; all-or-nothing thinking; unmanaged emotions; and extreme behaviour. “High conflict personalities blame somebody else—almost anybody—when things don’t go well for them,” Eddy writes in his book “It’s All Your Fault” 12 tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything. “Blaming others helps them feel better about themselves.” High conflict personalities allow emotion to get in the way of professional conduct, which is a major drain on both productivity and morale.
Eddy’s strategy works to stop the conflict before it spirals out of control. He advises that you give your colleague empathy, attention and respect. Sounds simple, but it's harder than you think. And in the heat of a personal attack, it will be the last thing you'll want to do.
After feeling the initial brunt of your colleague’s upset, try to make a positive connection and empathize with how they are feeling, instead of getting defensive. Saying “I can hear how upset you are,” goes a long way toward calming someone down. Immediately, they feel heard. When you are empathic you level the playing field, showing you can relate to their experience. You don’t need to agree with the content of what's said, by the way—you’re simply making a connection that acknowledges where they’re at.
A statement like “Tell me what’s going on,” expresses that you want to understand what’s making them upset. High conflict personalities escalate when they feel no one is paying attention to their concern (even if the concern is outrageous). By taking a moment to hear them out while using good eye contact and nodding your head, you can make space for your colleague to cool off and think more rationally.
If you can find something to respect about your fellow worker or the situation itself, this will also serve to redirect high-conflict energy. “I respect the work that you’ve put into this project so far,” for example, is a helpful and positive statement that shifts focus to a more positive outlook.
“Remind yourself ‘it’s not about you!’” Eddy writes in a 2011 article at highconflictinstitute.com.“Don’t take it personally. It’s about the person’s own upset and lack of sufficient skills to manage his or her own emotions.” By giving empathy, attention and respect, you will pave the way for creative problem solving, instead of being on the receiving end of an inappropriate confrontation. And that will make things a lot more pleasant at the office.