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Managing Conflict at Work

Marielena Sabatier is the CEO and founder of Inspiring Potential, a UK company that helps people achieve their full potential in the workplace through executive coaching, NLP and leadership and development training.


One of the new management challenges emerging from the current financial crisis is handling conflict in the workplace. In companies across the UK, managers are delivering bad news to employees whether it is to do with pay cuts, headcount freezes or job losses. These are very difficult conversions that can lead to conflict with angry staff.

Many have not had the training to cope with such situations and don't know how deal with angry employees and restore calm.  So what techniques can be learned by managers to stay calm and rational at such a time and deflect conflict in the workforce?   

NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), the study of the structure of subjective experience, the modeling of excellence and the art of modeling provides a number of excellent tools and concepts which could them cope better in these situations.

NLP focuses on understanding how people form their perceptions based on their experiences. It helps them understand too that their values and beliefs are unique and different to others, and therefore the assumptions made about other people's intentions are usually not accurate. It provides tools and techniques that help managers communicate more effectively, show more empathy and avoid conflict when they are having difficult conversations with employees.

It teaches people that a positive intention lies behind every kind of behaviour – and sometimes that intention doesn't have anything to do with you.  This helps people not take things personally in challenging situations. For example, if you have to tell someone they are about to lose their job and they have a family to support they will probably become angry, much of which may be directed you. However, understanding their perspective, showing empathy and not taking things personally in this situation will help you remain calm and rational.

One of the main reasons that conflict occurs in the workplace is that we assume we know people's intentions, but in reality we don't. Sometimes people behave out of mixed or confused intentions, sometimes they have no intention regarding you, and even if they have a good intention, their action still hurts you. We don't know what people are thinking unless we ask, and communicate effectively.

We tend to process the other person's behaviour based on our values and beliefs and therefore our interpretation of the situation. In most cases we believe we are right and the other person is wrong, we tend to blame them for the way we feel and want them to apologise for their behaviour. In general, the conflict was likely caused by behaviour in both parts. As the saying goes "It takes two to tango".

Let's say for example that one of your team members owes you a report he is late once again. You are tired of hearing his excuses; every time he is late you have to work late to prepare your own work, but he doesn't realise this. This time you get fed up and confront him; you feel he doesn't value or respect your time.

However, if you had taken a step back and examined your part in the situation, you may have realised that you hadn't mentioned anything to him before and he is oblivious to the fact that you have to work late because of his actions. Part of the reason you are angry is because you have interpreted his behaviour as a lack of respect, however, you may find really you need to first ask yourself if he is even aware of the impact of their behaviour on your work. To get him to value and respect you by delivering his reports at the committed time, you may need to find a more effective way of communicating.

This is true of most situations.. Any time that conflict occurs, you need to think first and ask yourself what you have assumed about the circumstances that may not be correct. How can you learn from this? How can you prevent it from happening again? You also need to look at how you could communicate more effectively; it's not about taking 100% responsibility, but about acknowledging that you have contributed to the conflict in some way.

NLP teaches people to think about a situation and its potential outcomes before it occurs. If you know you have some bad news to deliver to someone, then think about the purpose and goal of the conservation and how person is likely to react – try to put yourself in their shoes.  Ask yourself if you need to change what you were going to say, modifying your language and behavior to avoid potential conflict.  How could you achieve a positive outcome?

Building rapport with someone also helps deflect conflict and a useful tool to practice to achieve this is mirroring - gently copying a person's body language and speech in order to build rapport and trust. It can help people feel at ease with you and for clearer communication to happen at a conscious and unconscious level.  When people are in a good relationship or are in love, they naturally copy each other's body language. NLP teaches how mirroring techniques can be used in the workplace to make people more receptive, willing to listen and to be persuaded.

In addition, understanding mirroring means that you will also learn to 'read' other people's body language, gauge their reaction to the news you are delivering and then you can change your body language to show more empathy, break down communication barriers and take away any unintended aggressive body language of your own.

Another essential tool for managers is anchoring, which can be used to restore a calm frame of mind in a stressful and challenging situation.  Anchoring is all about using a gesture such as squeezing your arm in order to recall the emotional state you want to achieve, such as enthusiasm or calm.  By practising visualisation techniques people can create powerful anchors that can be called upon in difficult times to ensure a calm and peaceful state of mind before or during a confrontation.

Here are some NLP tips for handling and deflecting conflict:

Think before you act – ask yourself what did the person actually do? What was the impact on me?

Understand that impact and intention is not the same thing.  Did you make any assumptions about their intention?

Turn the situation around. Ask yourself how would the situation be different, if you assumed their intention had nothing to do with you?

Learn from the every confrontation - be curious about what could you do different to avoid the situation in the future.

Communicate honestly and openly at all times - when you confront someone, communicate how their behaviour made you feel and what you'd like to happen in the future.

Be empathetic – use mirroring techniques to build rapport and trust

Stay calm at all times – use anchoring to ensure a peaceful and open frame of mind

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