Conflict at Work: Four Foolproof Phrases to Avoid it

There are now 68 million refugees and displaced people in the world.

My teenage daughters and I heard this shocking statistic the other day from a UN spokesperson in a breakfast interview as we headed off to school, exams and coaching.  It stopped us in our tracks.

What the interviewee said next was scary. “The most obvious reason (for the increase) is that we have become unable to resolve conflicts.” The implication being, that as long as this situation continues, refugee numbers will rise and rise and rise.

Conflict resolution

Clearly conflict resolution is a complex global-scale challenge. And I am no expert. It’s not my area.

What is my area, is helping leaders in the non-profit sector nip conflict between colleagues in the bud before misunderstandings becomes a major problem. Conflict at work is one of the main reasons people leave their jobs. It stifles innovation and creativity and makes work, well, not much fun.

Non-violent communication

I teach all my clients a truly brilliant four-part communication process for communicating what they want in a way that minimises the risk of conflict and misunderstanding. It’s taken from a process called ‘non-violent communication’ developed in the 60s by Marshall Rosenburg. You can find out more about it here.

It goes like this:

  1. When you…
  2. I feel/felt…
  3. Because…
  4. I want.

And that’s it. Nothing else. It takes practice and feels unnatural to start with, but it works. Teaching my coaching clients this technique has allowed them to clear up long-term misunderstandings about what is expected of their reports, smooth over tense relationships between siloed teams and much more. It really is transformational.

So much of what happens in the workplace is about communication. This method is, in my view, the most useful communication technique you can learn.

conflict at work isn't inevitable

So, here’s an example

  1. When you interrupted me in the meeting this morning
  2. I felt dejected
  3. Because I need to express what I have to say if I think it would be helpful to others.
  4. I want you to let me finish when I am speaking in a meeting.

And another one

  1. When you didn’t get your proposal in on time
  2. I felt alarmed
  3. Because I need to be able to trust you to organise your own work.
  4. In future, I would like you to let me know if you are falling behind with your schedule so I can support you.

Some useful guidelines

  • Keep “When you…” to one, very specific incident. Don’t blame, criticise or generalise eg ‘you never’. Make your point about a concrete action that you observed yourself and stick to the facts.
  • Keep “I feel/felt” to what you felt in relation to what you observed. Use feeling words eg disappointed, annoyed, concerned. Avoid “I felt that…”. Obviously at work you’ll want to be thoughtful about the feeling words you use. “Angry” may be appropriate sometimes, but will have a powerful impact.
  • “Because” should be about what you need in that situation. Resist ‘because you this or that‘. Stick with what you need, desire or value. Unmet needs are at the bottom of most conflicts.
  • The final phrase should be a request for one specific positive measurable change that will make life or work smoother or more pleasurable for everyone. Avoid giving a whole list of unclear demands you want or don’t want.

There are ways to make each phrase easier to say or your message easier to hear. For example, you can speak in the passive tense in the first phrase to allow your message to land more comfortably with the other person. Instead of ‘when you interrupted me’ it then becomes ‘when I was interrupted’. Or in the final phrase, you could use language such as ‘are you willing to…?’

Take care that you are not muddying your message though. One of the biggest challenges I find when using this with my clients is that they are tempted to keep talking and add in a whole load of other points. To make the biggest impact and achieve the result you’re after, keep it short and to the point.

Over to you

How do you deal with conflict in the workplace? Could using this framework help? Do let me know what you think in the comments below, and if you think this technique might help someone you know, I’d love you to share this blog post with them.

What next?

Changing the way we communicate at work isn’t easy. If you’d like some support, call me on 0208 772 7808 (or 07958 501 427) or drop me an email here.

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