As psychologists, our work is built upon our ability to communicate, understand others, provide interpersonal feedback, navigate conflict, and lean into discomfort – all in the service of our clients. While graduate training programs emphasize clinical theory, research, and application, they rarely teach graduate students about how to use their knowledge and skills to handle interpersonal difficulties within the workplace. Interest in psychology and working with the human condition does not necessarily equate with having the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills needed to be a valuable member of a team. Additionally, psychologists are increasingly working within multidisciplinary teams comprised of individuals from a plethora of professional and personal backgrounds. While diversity of all kinds is an asset to our field and to the holistic service of our clients, bringing different people together also creates space for misunderstandings, differences of opinions, personality clashes, and other ruptures. Given that we use ourselves as tools in psychotherapy, it is important to recognize that these interpersonal difficulties can impact our work with clients. Thus, understanding how to handle interpersonal difficulties is in our and our clients’ best interest so here are five tips for managing interpersonal conflicts within the workplace.
Accept that Rupture is Inevitable
Just as in psychotherapy (Safran, Muran, & Eubanks-Carter, 2011), ruptures with coworkers are inevitable. While unavoidable, many may experience a sense of fear about having conflicts and while this is understandable, it can often both create the conditions that make ruptures so difficult and also contribute to the avoidance that fuels conflicts over time.
Thus, the first step is to accept that they are going to happen and that ruptures occur along a continuum. At some point, you will likely forget or mispronounce someone’s name. You will likely commit an unintended microaggression. You will likely have a reaction to something someone did or said. In other words, you will make mistakes and be human! The point is to accept that it is going to happen and to reallocate any energy that is being spent resisting these mistakes to actually improving and growing as a result of ruptures. The Chinese symbol for “hazard” is the same symbol for “opportunity.” In misgendering a coworker, there is an opportunity to learn about our biases and to allow our concepts of gender to be re-envisioned. In having a difference of opinion with a coworker, there is the opportunity to think about how our values, educational background, and personality influence our thoughts and decision-making.
Additionally, ruptures can set the foundation for honest conversations that may bring a greater level of understanding and compassion into a relationship. Often, we learn more about someone in a rupture than we would if things always went smoothly. Coming from a place of fear has many drawbacks, including a truncation of our natural state of being in the world. When we are afraid, we may not bring a genuine sense of ourselves into the workplace and diversity is most valuable in that it celebrates, rather than suppresses, difference. Accepting that rupture is inevitable allows for us to lead with our humanity and to embrace the opportunities inevitable in our mishaps and conflicts. The energy spent resisting can be better used to improve ourselves and our relationships as a result of conflicts.
As the ancient Greek maxim advises, we must “know thyself.” Mindfulness is an essential part of navigating the workplace, especially when it comes to handling conflicts. First, we must understand ourselves as complex cultural beings. We are a combination of demographics, intersecting identities, histories, personalities, and experiences; and better yet, we are continuously evolving. We must be curious about what we bring with ourselves into new contexts. In knowing ourselves, a second importance factor is knowing our triggers. Do we have a good sense of the types of people and situations that would be particularly difficult for us? Building on the first tip of accepting ruptures as inevitable, we must accept that we are all going to have both blind and tender spots. Third, we must build in reflective practices throughout our day. Are we checking in throughout the day to get a sense of our emotions, quality of mind, and physical sensations?
Ruptures are more likely if we are uncentered, stressed, tired, or unaware of our needs. Too often, I have spoken out without thinking from a place of mindlessness.
This is the difference between reactiveness and responsiveness. When we exercise mindfulness, it does not mean that we will not have reactions. What we create is a sense of awareness and distance. When we can observe our thoughts and emotions, we can make a choice about what behavior is needed, and sometimes that behavior is to say and do nothing! When we can understand ourselves and then to check in with ourselves in context throughout the day and across time, we are best prepared for handling the inevitable ruptures that may occur. A last suggestion is to have a daily mindfulness meditation practice as being aware of ourselves takes practice, consistency, and skill. Over time, we can understand the nature of our minds and develop an ability to observe rather than be swept away in participating without intentionality.
Know If and When to Seek Consultation with Appropriate Individuals
No two conflicts are identical. While we have been talking about the inevitability of conflict in a general sense, it is important to note that some conflicts require additional action. Has someone been sexually harassed? Has an ethical violation occurred? Although interpersonal issues are bound to happen, it is important to not feel like we have to handle every situation alone. Consulting with a supervisor or the Human Resource department can be incredibly helpful in the midst of a workplace conflict. For one, we may not be aware of the various policies, procedures, and laws, and might need additional information. It would be helpful to consult a workplace manual.
Additionally, if we are on the receiving end of hostile workplace behavior or an ethical issue, our heightened emotional state may not be the best mindset for making next steps, especially if legal issues are involved. In situations where a clear offense has occurred, seeking appropriate consultation is critical. However, many other types of interpersonal conflict do not fall under this umbrella category. In these situations, it may be best to strike when the iron is cold. As was previously suggested, exercising mindfulness is an important measure. When I am feeling activated, it is often not the best time to talk to someone else at work about how I am feeling. I may be angry in the moment but after reflection, be more aware of how I contributed to the situation. Sometimes having the time and space to let the emotions subside and gain a clearer perspective is far more helpful than beginning to talk to other coworkers right away.
Most conflicts are best resolved with the person or persons directly. While getting support for the natural emotional responses is valid and important (more on this later), it can be helpful to exercise caution before speaking to others. Conflicts come and go but you cannot take back something you have already said.
Speak Using Nonviolent Communication
As psychologists, we have a wealth of expertise about communication but again, as humans, some of this knowledge may be less accessible to us in moments of conflict. A few key reminders from nonviolent communication (Rosenberg, 2003) include:
- Separating behaviors from judgments. Focus on what you can objectively see and how it impacts you.
- Differentiate between thinking and feelings avoiding criticism and blame.
- Identify your needs in the situation and request for behaviors that could meet those needs in a reasonable way. Be specific and focus on positive actions rather than what you do not want.
Of course, use “I” statements and recognize in your communication that you are speaking from your own perspective, not the universal truth (if there is such a thing). Practicing communication in this state also requires respect for the other individual and a sense of humility and openness.
Take Care of Yourself
While these tips are helpful, it cannot be denied that conflicts are difficult. They can sap our energy and create stress. Thus, it is important to be taking care of ourselves as conflicts arise. Having a coworker chosen for something over you can stir up longstanding feelings of insecurity. Being ignored in a meeting can bring back painful memories of being discredited. Current conflicts can open up old wounds.
Navigating conflict can best be done with self-compassion. Whether we have wronged someone else or whether we feel that we have been wronged, treating ourselves with kindness can be our emotional first-aid. Of course, we may want to speak with the person with whom we are in conflict, but first we need to take care of ourselves. We may need to leave the meeting, take a walk, call a friend, or practice a relaxation activity. If we are in the middle of a workplace conflict, it might take some time for the conflict to be resolved, or we may have to admit that the issue is unresolvable (differences in opinions that will not change). Regardless of the nature of the conflict, when we take care of ourselves, we are able to meet the demands of that conflict with our full and best selves.
While conflict is inevitable, accepting this is our choice. When we know ourselves and practice mindfulness at our workplace, we are better positioned to choose our next steps. These next steps may be identifying a need for consultation or directly communicating with the person with whom we find ourselves in conflict. Remembering to practice nonviolent communication can help our conversations be productive and even more importantly, healing. When we take care of ourselves, we model the kindness, compassion, and respect we are asking for.