This article was originally published on the Forbes blog.
I will be professional and interact with Julia only when I need to. I won’t go out of my way to include her, keep her up to date or interact with her unless I have to. I am not going to bring up the elephant in the room because I don’t want to have that weird — not to mention uncomfortable — conversation. If I don’t deal with Julia, then things won’t be uncomfortable.
Be honest with yourself. We have all had those thoughts.
And yet, we know that avoiding conflict is not a productive approach. Avoiding a hard conversation is not resolving a situation. Avoiding does not help a relationship or the problem. In fact, avoiding can harm the relationship.
Conflict is yet another challenge we all must deal with throughout our careers, and it is often not something we were taught how to handle. For many people, the natural reaction is to avoid it or address it head-on without taking into consideration the other person or circumstances.
We have all faced individuals who dig their heels in and won’t budge. They are always right. They don’t listen to your perspective, idea or opinion. It is hard to move them past their stance. You may feel resistant and lack respect for these types of people. The conflict builds and becomes deeply rooted. So rather than try to work through these situations, you try to avoid them.
However, you can handle conflict without going into panic mode. Yes, it may be uncomfortable. But rather than avoiding a tough conversation, I recommend handling conflict by addressing it early on, when it is a misunderstanding or miscommunication and before it escalates and becomes polarizing to the point relationships are irrevocably damaged.
We spend, on average, 2.1 hours a week in conflict. Imagine if you had two more hours in the week! What more could you accomplish? How would you spend that time? I would hike with my dog and read a really good book.
Here’s what I know:
• Conflict is best resolved when it is a win-win situation. To state the obvious, we aren’t happier when we come out of conflict worse off, feeling like we haven’t been heard or have been misunderstood.
• Some people will address conflict right away. They are energized by the conversation and debate that may ensue. Others prefer to prevent conflict, addressing it before it escalates, even if there is hesitation to address it at the start. Which group do you fall into?
• Staying focused on the task allows us to handle conflict professionally so that everyone comes out feeling positive.
My recommendation is to address conflict when you see it. Not immediately — give yourself 24 or 36 hours if your emotions are driving your behaviors. Then, put these recommendations into practice:
1. Focus on the task, not the person.
When you are focused on the task at hand, you can keep negative emotions at bay. You will then be confident that you can come to a resolution that meets both your needs. You will learn from the situation and won’t feel you lost something in the process.
2. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your responses, not impulsive.
Anticipate objections in advance so you can prepare your responses. It does not need to be scripted. Preparing and practicing will allow you to have the most impactful conversation. A thoughtful response may include open-ended questions: ‘Tell me more about X?” and does not make assumptions. An impulsive response may trigger the other party’s hot buttons and will escalate the conflict: “I’m not doing that again; we’ve tried it before.”
3. Share your emotions in a professional manner.
This does not mean displaying anger but rather letting people know specifically how you feel (frustration, disappointment, etc.) and that you need some time to recoup and potentially “sleep on it.”
4. Be a good listener.
Ask open-ended questions, like “What is the biggest challenge here for you?” When someone is venting to you, make sure you clearly understand not only what challenges exist for you but also what is most challenging for the other party.
5. Brainstorm and problem-solve together.
When you are optimistic and concentrate on a positive outcome, you are more likely to stay focused on a solution rather than on the other person. Commit to listening and not judging possible solutions until you can evaluate everything on the table.
We will face conflict throughout our lives and careers. Commit to trying at least one of the tactics above to handle conflict rather than avoiding it. My goal for you is to become “conflict competent” — in other words, to become a nonjudgmental, thoughtful and insightful listener. You will not feel compelled to run away from conflict but rather embrace it with confidence. You will deepen trusting relationships, develop new opportunities, and stop spending time and emotional energy avoiding conflict.