HR Management & Compliance

Resolving Conflicts at Work: A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job

Employment law attorney Michael Maslanka reviews the book Resolving  Conflicts at Work: A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith. Review calls book insightful for tips on resolving conflict at work with communication, conversation, and listening.

A Complete Guide for Everyone on the Job

One of your greatest challenges is resolving workplace conflicts. While one goal is to minimize lawsuits, another is to increase productivity and your company’s economic pie. Our favorite chapter in the insightful book, Resolving Conflicts at Work: Eight Strategies for Everyone on the Job, by Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith is “Resolving Conflicts Through Active Listening.” Here’s a summary.

Conversation: more than waiting for your turn to talk

Paul Simon was so right — “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.” Learning how to be an active and responsive listener goes a long way toward defusing workplace problems and moves the ball forward — resulting in greater productivity, less conflict, and a bigger bottom line. Here are some practical pointers on active and responsive listening:

* Encouraging. Make encouraging comments to find out more about what someone is thinking. Statements like “Please tell me more,” “I’m interested in what you’re thinking and feeling,” “I would like to know your reactions,” and “I hear what you’re saying” are examples.

* Clarifying. As a discussion unfolds, ask clarifying questions. That sends a signal to the person speaking that you’re interested in what he’s saying. Also, clarifying questions can defuse a tense situation by focusing on facts, not feelings. For instance, asking “When did it happen?” “Who else was involved?” or “What did it mean to you?” focuses the speaker away from emotions and toward details and meaning.

* Acknowledging. This is not to be confused with manipulating. If you aren’t careful, the person you’re having a conversation with will consider it manipulation (which is bad) rather than acknowledgment (which is good). Let’s say you’re talking with someone who is really angry. Comments like “I can appreciate now why you might feel that way” acknowledge what she is saying and, more important, give her permission to say even more of what she feels. But if you use phrases like “It sounds like you’re angry right now,” chances are you will get a negative reaction, something akin to — we’ve cleaned this up a little bit — “No fooling, Sherlock!” The first example is heartfelt. The second, patronizing.

* Soliciting. Ask questions to solicit advice and identify possible solutions. Say “I would like your advice about how we could resolve it.” Or perhaps “What would you like to see happen?”

* Mirroring. Let’s face it: Although we’re human beings, we’re not all that different from apes in the field. One ape acts aggressively, and the ape across from him behaves the same way. An ape acts calmly; his brother ape is tranquil. People are exactly the same. When you mirror — that is, reflect the emotions, demeanor, and body language of the person you’re talking to — you can control the tone and pace of the conversation and ensure that it’s productive. A conversation is like a tango — it takes two. A hint: Mirroring shouldn’t be confused with mimicking. Mimicking, like the patronizing question we mentioned above, communicates disrespect and makes the situation more, not less, combustible.

* Supplementing. We really like this one. We have a natural tendency when responding to someone to say, “Yes, but.” The authors suggest you try to get into the habit of using “Yes, and.” Something like “Let me build on that and see if I’m on the same track you are” or “Let me support what you’re saying with another point.”

* Summarizing. If you want the other person to know he’s been heard, summarize what you think he said in your own words. Something like “Let me see if I understand what you just said. . . . Is that correct?” Not only does that make the other person feel heard, but if you do it at key points in the conversation, you can correct misimpressions on your part and make sure the conversation doesn’t drift off into peripheral or meaningless issues.

Authenticity: the key ingredient

Cloke and Goldsmith warn against “New Age Manipulation” — when someone acts like she cares, but really couldn’t care less. People use that technique not to move the ball forward, but to put a Band-Aid over differences and make themselves look good. Here’s what the authors have to say:

None of these methods guarantees acceptable communication, and each can be used by an uncommitted listener to give an appearance of listening while holding fast to a private agenda. . . . [A]ll of the words and techniques are right — but the listener does not really care about the speaker or the message they are delivering. Your challenge is to be equally honest and empathetic — to search your soul for your true interests and commitments, and use language and communication techniques that reveal your authenticity.

There’s more

There’s a lot more in the book. There are lessons on how to deal with difficult employees, including those whose work habits sap the workforce of its optimism; a chapter on dispute resolution, “Explore Resistance and Mediate Before You Litigate”; and a great chapter on unearthing the true issues, “Search Beneath the Surface for Meaning” (although it’s easy to get carried away; as Freud correctly pointed out, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”).

As you can tell, we really like this book. It’s written simply, with plenty of bullet points and an optimistic message. And while we know some situations in life require you to play hardball and we don’t shrink from that, we agree with H.G Wells: “The first to raise his fist is also the first to have run out of ideas.”

Michael Maslanka is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison LLP’s Dallas, Texas, office. He has 20 years of experience in litigation and trial of employment law cases and has served as Adjunct Counsel to a Fortune 10 company where he provided multi-state counseling on employment matters. He has also served as a Field Attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Mike is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and was selected as a “Texas Super Lawyer” by Texas Monthly and Law & Politics Magazine in 2003. He was also selected as one of the best lawyers in Dallas by “D” Magazine in 2003. Mike has served as the Chief Author and Editor of the Texas Employment Law Letter since 1990. He also authors the “Work Matters” column for Texas Lawyer.

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