Conflict is Inevitable. Here’s What to do About It.

In a previous post, I shared with you four steps to help you resolve conflict. Conflict is an unavoidable part of work-life. Maybe you won’t want to do what your boss wants you to do, or your coworkers don’t like the decision you made about the schedule. Conflict is everywhere, and resolving conflict is the only way to keep the peace. 

In this post, I will give you a few strategies to help you deal with conflict. The truth is you can argue, discuss, disagree, and resolve differences. Conflict doesn’t have to divide us. It can connect us. 

A Helpful Way To Handle Common Complaints

Complaining is one way that customers and coworkers show their dissatisfaction. They’re unhappy about something and if you’re anything like me, you’re unhappy with the complaining. For a long time, I was judgemental of complaining, and I decided I had to find a way to deal with this very common form of conflict. 

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” This is another way of saying that you can’t understand something until you’ve experienced it. But you can’t possibly experience everything. There has to be some common ground here. No one really tells you HOW to give yourself the experience of having walked in someone else’s shoes. 

If you work with customers, you probably have a good idea of what the common complaints are. Take a piece of paper and write out the top few complaints people have. Then write down what feelings these people are likely experiencing. The last step is to write down a time where you felt those same feelings. You now have some common ground with the customer. A connection that can keep you out of judgment. When we judge complaining, the other person can feel it and we can too. It doesn’t feel good for either person. 

In the pharmacy, we would often receive complaints about price and wait times. I wrote down the feelings that someone would have if they felt inconvenienced. I wrote down the feelings someone would have if they didn’t have money for something they needed. I came up with embarrassed, frustrated, annoyed, and angry. I then wrote down a few times I had felt those exact same feelings. 

Common ground and understanding is a place you can spend time in during all your interactions with complaining people. It keeps your mind open to solutions and keeps you out of judgment which fosters good feelings. 

Match the Energy 

Imagine an eighty-four-year-old woman that is about 4 foot 6 inches tall and 90 pounds approaches your counter leaning on her walker. She starts to speak in a very soft voice. What would you do in order to effectively communicate with her and to show her you are listening and trying to understand. You would probably make yourself smaller by bowing your head, leaning in toward her, keeping your hands in front of you, and speaking softly with a gentle tone. We do this naturally. We match body language, voice volume, and level of animation. 

What if I told you that you should do the same with someone who is big, loud, and angry? I’ve actually put this approach into action. It takes practice and control over your emotions. Imagine a tall large angry man gesturing with his hands and raising his voice. What would happen if you tried to approach him hunched over and with a soft voice? He is going to feel like you are trying to manipulate him and get angrier. 

Even the angry person wants to feel understood and have his voice heard. Letting the other person know you hear them and want to help the first step toward resolving the conflict. You must face this man standing tall, legs apart, and arms moving. You must speak as loud as he is. You can’t be frozen either, you have to move if he is moving. If he is gesturing, you can gesture as well. A few years ago, a very large man was speaking so loudly that I could hear him 30 feet away. He was angry about something. He was disturbing the other patients. I knew I had to act. I was inexperienced with matching the energy, but I had to try. I practically marched out behind the counter to where he was standing, stood right in front of him with my legs wider than shoulder-width and my hands on my hips and I looked up at him and said in a stern voice, “Sir, you’re mad about something, that’s clear. Maybe you’re mad at me. And we haven’t even met!”  He stopped yelling, dropped his arms, lowered his voice and looked at me gently, and said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” I asked him to wait his turn and that I would take care of him. 

DISCLAIMER: Don’t try this if you are truly out of control emotionally. In those cases, it’s best to step away and let someone else handle the situation.

Two of The Most Powerful Words in the English Language 

“You’re right.” Sometimes these words are hard to say. Sometimes you say them and they may not be entirely true. When you say, “You’re right,” you’re letting the other person win. It’s ok to lose the battle every once in a while to win the war. Even if you have a good argument, it doesn’t mean you have to always make the choice to argue with someone. On many occasions, waving the white flag saves you energy and time.  

In the past, I’ve tried the common strategy of not letting people getting to me as if I have an invisible wall around me. This doesn’t work for two reasons. First, you’re human. You have emotions and do get bothered by things people say and do. Second, it’s exhausting trying to hold up that wall. It’s almost like a dare: I WILL NOT LET YOU GET TO ME! It’s almost like a silent dare to those around you. 

You can let people win an argument without even starting the argument. If they say the wait time was too long, then it was too long. If they don’t like that you change generic medications too often, then they’re right, it’s too often. If they say it’s ridiculous that their copay has gone up month after month, then it’s ridiculous. 

From there, however, there may be room to move to a solution or compromise. If my husband says I spend too much money on Starbucks, then for a moment to keep the peace, I may agree. He may be right, he may be wrong. It doesn’t matter at that moment. If I keep trying to make him wrong, he won’t listen and then I won’t listen to him. We need to set the stage for listening and one way to do that is to let them have the win and then address the issue later as in a few hours or a few days. 

 No One Will Argue with Their Own Logic

Sometimes we try really hard to make irrational people understand rational thought. There are people who seem to like to argue. They often create problems for themselves and then try to blame you for those problems. 

One day a customer called me four times to fill a prescription for his son. He said we weren’t doing our job, his son was going to have a seizure and we were going to just let that happen. He was rude and hostile toward me and the staff. There were no refills on the prescription, it was a weekend and we had quite a time getting the on-call doctor to allow us to fill the prescription. We were just about to close for the day and this man had not shown up to pick up his son’s seizure medication. 

Two minutes before closing he called and started yelling at the clerk, demanding that we stay open until he gets there. I took the phone and before he could even speak, I said in a very energized tone, “Sir, where are you?!? Your son needs his medication! I am very worried that he is going to have a seizure!” He said, “Well, I was busy and had things to do.” I said, “What could possibly be more important than your son’s medication?” He admitted that they did indeed have some medication and that they would be in first thing in the morning. He then apologized for not doing a better job getting his son his medication.  This man had no argument to make. He had already made them for me and my staff. I simply reminded him of the arguments he himself made and he came to his senses. Hearing his own words from someone else’s mouth must have snapped him out of his rudeness and obnoxious behavior.

Final Thoughts

Conflict is unavoidable and uncomfortable. We have an innate need to connect with our fellow human beings. There must be something we are supposed to learn from the conflict. Maybe we can use conflict as a way to better understand each other. We are similar in our emotions, what we care about, and what we value. We can actually use conflict as a way to strengthen a relationship. Resolving conflict builds trust and loyalty. It’s a skill good leaders are brave and caring enough to master. 

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