You’ve tried to avoid the conflict that’s brewing. You may have tried to head it off at the pass, but maybe not. Either way, you’re in the thick of it… now what?! Let’s talk about what you can try to find your way back out of the conflict and onto more productive communication.
Ellen’s Example. Which you should NOT follow.
A few years ago, I was working with another facilitator to do an event. Let’s call him John. I was the lead, as it was my contract. John was supposed to wait for my requests of what I needed him to cover and what I would handle. The way that dynamic is supposed to work is just understood in the company we were contracting for. At least, that’s what I assumed (can you see where this is going already?).
The event was a couple months out, which is pretty early to start conversations with the contact, unless that’s the client’s preference. But this was a client I’d worked with before, so I knew they would be comfortable starting our preparations about three weeks out.
When I reached out closer to the event, the contact told me John had been in touch with her for nearly a month and that they’d gotten all the logistics worked out. I was dumbfounded. And furious. I calmly asked her a few follow up questions to try and fully understand what they’d discussed and planned, and what was left to do. I thanked her for her time, apologized for the lack of coordination between me and John, and hung up.
(I probably should have waited and followed the suggestions I’m going to share with you here, but I did not. I learn most of my lessons this way—the hard way.)
I picked up the phone and immediately called John. I lit into him as soon as he answered the phone. “What the f*$% were you thinking? You don’t reach out to the client! That’s my job! It’s my f*$%ing client! You made me look like an amateur!”
John was immediately defensive. I’m sure he thought he’d been helping. “Well, when I reached out to her initially, I figured you would already have everything arranged. She said you hadn’t even reached out yet, so I figured I would get started on that.”
I couldn’t stop myself from exploding further. “Well, you thought wrong! That’s not how this works! I am the lead facilitator. This is my client. I have worked with them before. You are out of line. Your job is to wait for me to tell you what I want you to cover!”
John remained defensive. I don’t blame him. I was yelling. “Geez, calm down! Sorr-yy! What exactly would your highness like me to do?”
I didn’t think I could get any more angry, but I was wrong. “First of all, when has telling someone to calm down ever, in the history of the world, actually helped that person calm down? You really are a moron! Second, I don’t want you to do anything! I want you to back the f*$% off!”
Whoa, Nellie! That was uncomfortable.
I think in most workplaces, most conflicts happen more quietly. This kind of escalation might be more of an exception. Both John and I behaved in ways that were counterproductive to stopping the conflict. My biggest missed opportunity was right up front, before the conflict ever started. I should and could have left nothing to assumption. When the contract came in, I should have immediately reached out to John to go over the tasks we would need to do, and came to an agreement about who would do what by when. But that was in last week’s post.
Some of the same strategies for trying to head conflict off before it starts can also come in handy here. Asking questions to help you understand what’s happening, how the other person is feeling, and what to do to fix the problem are useful.
In the middle of the conflict happening, I should and could have also asked more questions. When I called John, I could have led with an explanation of my surprise at talking to the contact and realizing he’d already been doing a lot of work on preparations. I could have expressed my confusion about his actions and asked him to help me understand his thinking. I could have acknowledged his perspective and actions, and proposed that we come to agreement about how to move forward from there. Neither of us should have engaged in name-calling or cursing. Most importantly, I could and should have remained calm.
Don’t be like old me. Be like the better version of myself who has learned from my mistakes.