There’s a reason Alison Green has been called “the Dear Abby of the work world.” Ten years as a workplace-advice columnist have taught her that people avoid awkward conversations in the office because they simply don’t know what to say. Green’s new book Ask a Manager is a witty, practical guide to 200 difficult professional conversations. Here, she gives librarians five principles that can help you approach conflict in a more productive way.
As a workplace advice columnist–I’ve written the Ask a Manager advice blog for 11 years now–I hear a lot about workplace conflict. Whether it’s an employee who’s frustrated with a micromanaging boss, or a coworker whose head will explode if his coworker takes one more call on speakerphone, or a manager who doesn’t think an employee’s workload is really that high, our workplaces are full of conflicts and potential conflicts.
And because so many people dread conflict or handle it badly, an awful lot of these conflicts are never getting resolved. Instead, people are staying quietly annoyed while their frustration festers, or letting the problem go on so long that by the time they do speak up, it ends up being far more adversarial than it had to be.
In my new book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, I delve into 200 of the most common workplace conflicts you or others in your workplace might need to navigate in your career. Here are five principles from the book that can make conflict easier and constructive–and more likely to get you the outcome you want:
- Assume that most people are reasonable. Most people do want to know if they’re doing something that’s aggravating you or if you’re deeply unhappy about something. Most people won’t be upset that you initiated the conversation and you aren’t going to come across as a jerk to reasonable people. Of course, some people are truly difficult, but the majority of the time, speaking up will probably go better than you think it will.
- How you speak up is key. Your tone and the way you frame the conversation will play a huge part in determining the outcome. When you’re trying to resolve a conflict, aim to sound calm, matter of fact, and, collaborative. Think of the tone that you’d use if you were trying to solve a less charged work-related problem with a colleague, and in many cases your coworker will take her cues from you and respond in kind.
- Own the message. Sometimes people get tempted to borrow the authority of a group when delivering a difficult message, which leads them to say things like “you’re annoying everyone when you get so off-topic at meetings” or “none of us like having potlucks this often.” But even if others feel the same as you, framing things that way can alienate the person you’re talking to. It’s okay to just speak on behalf of yourself (“I’d rather not have potlucks so frequently”).
- Sometimes being self-deprecating can make things easier. For example, if you want to ask a touchy-feely coworker to stop hugging you, you could say, “Please stop hugging me”–but that might cast a chill on the relationship. You’ll likely cause less awkwardness if you instead say, “Hey, I’m not a hugger. I know you mean it warmly; I’m just not very touchy-feely.” Framing it as “it’s me, not you” can sometimes get you results with minimal awkwardness. And if it doesn’t work, you can always take a more serious approach. (Of course, this tactic makes sense in some situations and not in others. You needn’t pretend it’s your own idiosyncrasy that makes you not want to, say, hear racist comments.)
- Try to make things normal afterwards. After an awkward or difficult conversation, try to find an opportunity soon afterwards to have a normal conversation with the person about something else. That will reinforce that you’re not upset and should help to reset the dynamic between you.
Of course, not everything needs to be raised. Working with other humans means that you’re going to be around other people’s annoying habits. It’s okay to speak up when something is making it harder for you to do your job, seriously impacting your quality of life, or having unintended consequences, but some annoying things that coworkers do come with the territory of working with other people. If the offending behavior is relatively minor, sometimes it just makes sense to live with it, or at least to try for a while before deciding you can’t.