Workplace conflict generally arises from two sources – different opinions or different perspectives. I’m defining an opinion an an idea or thought influenced by beliefs, experience and knowledge and a perspective as a judgement of the world around you or your context, largely based on information available to you, which may or may not be complete or valid.

Throw personality styles, poor communication and assumptions into the mix and you have a recipe for misunderstanding and conflict. What often gets lost in this mix are facts and the realization that a difference of opinion or perspective isn’t necessarily personal. As a leader, a lack of understanding of the personalities on your team can lead to more frequent conflict.

How do you know if the conflict is related to the above? If you’re experiencing or observing the same type of conflict repeating itself–either over the same issue or the same type of conflict in different environments–it’s likely something is being missed.

If people are responding to you the same way over and over and you can’t figure out why, it’s time to look at the common factor in the situation–you. Try to take an objective, unbiased look at how you’re showing up.

You might not be aware you’re showing up as arrogant or analytical, or that you’re people pleasing. You might not be aware, but how other people perceive you could be just that…being more aware of the environment you’re in or potential conflict-causing behaviours is a huge step towards reducing friction–and stress.

For example, a leader who is pretty reserved comes into works, says a perfunctory “good morning” and then closes their office door might give the impression of being aloof, standoffish and not a team player. The leader is completely oblivious, to how they’re showing up. They’re not a morning person and don’t feel ready to engage until they’ve reached optimal caffeine levels and have some time to settle into work. To the leader, they are doing the right thing in not trying to engage until they can be 100% present, to the staff, the leader is unapproachable.

Solution? The leader starts coming into work 30 minutes early to gather their thoughts, sip some coffee and shift into the work day in the way they need to. By the time everyone else comes in, their door is open and they are open for conversation. Educating the staff through dialogue about their behaviours would also go a long way to reducing misunderstanding, assumptions and judgements.

This seems like a small change but the ripple effect can be significant. Those perceptions easily become the filter through which everything else is perceived. Suddenly the entire workplace dynamic is filtered through the experience of the leader as aloof and closed off. Without an awareness on both sides, the potential for conflict is high.

If you’re a leader observing conflict arising among staff, look at what is going on underneath the surface of the behaviour. The question to ask is “Why?”. Behaviour is the vehicle, what is the underlying motivation, goal, want or desire? Ask for their perspective – get curious about why they want to do something or show up a certain way. Use language like “I notice” or “Tell me more about”.

When I first joined a nonprofit board, I would arrive 30 minutes early to secure a seat at the head of the table, opposite from the board chair. Sitting at the side of the table meant I’d have to spend the meeting craning my neck to see others during the meeting and after my accident that meant headaches and pain. Sitting at the head of the table meant I could see everyone and be pain free. I didn’t express that though. Without communication or context others thought I was searching for authority or power. It wasn’t until someone made a negative comment to me about it a few months later did I realize how I was showing up.

At the next meeting, I acknowledged and explained the reasoning. There was a perceptible shift in the room that came with the understanding. I was completely unaware that in taking care of myself I was creating this perception in others.

There’s always a cost to unresolved conflict, not to mention the stress and the social and physical effects. These all percolate down into relationships, creating complication and conflict that can often be solved through curiosity and communication.

What can you do?

Get curious and judge less. Look at the problem–including either your individual role or the role of the individual–then expand the focus to include the context in considering how others may be impacted or influenced. Try it with a small problem and I guarantee you’ll be amazed with the results.

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