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The art of elegant disagreements at work

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life. This month we look at how to cope with difficult colleagues

by Psychologies

The project

Fighting with your colleagues is no fun. Yet the worst part about workplace conflict isn’t when conflict happens, but when it doesn’t; when you’re so desperate to avoid confrontation, you fail to stand up for yourself. Learn the art of constructive conflict instead.

The aim

What is it about disagreements that causes a racing pulse? Usually, it isn’t simply the topic at hand: contradicting your boss, asking for a pay rise, or pointing out a colleague’s mistakes. Rather, as negotiation expert William Ury points out, it’s the fact that egos are involved. You’re worried about being judged harshly, your boss is worried about losing face... The crucial thing is to separate the issue from the egos.

The theory

When faced with conflict, or fear that you may trigger one, start by being clear about your true goal. Separate it from more ego-centred motivations, such as ‘proving the other person wrong’. (If that is your goal, it is a sign this conflict is not worth the effort.)

Seek ways to reframe the disagreement as a problem that you are both tackling. Conflicts turn toxic when they are focused on ‘positions’ – you want X, the other person wants Y and someone has to lose. Focus on the core values behind your positions, and you may find the disagreement evaporates. 

If you feel attacked, remember what psychologists call the ‘spotlight effect’. We all assume others are more focused on us than they are: that obnoxious office mate is probably motivated by troubles you have no clue about.

With an argumentative colleague, separate the issue from the ego by not responding to attacks, and asking them what their desired outcome is.

Now try it out:

  • Resist the urge to apologise. Some people should say ‘sorry’ more often, it’s true, but many of us say it too often. When you head into a difficult conversation compulsively apologising, the listener gears up for something he or she doesn’t want to hear, making conflict more likely.
  • Use the ‘What would you do?’ tactic. As an alternative to arguing, writer Brooke Allen suggests asking: ‘What would you do if you were me?’ This generates empathy, plus, it’s a flattering way to appeal to the other person’s problem-solving skills.
  • Get some perspective. It is an old trick, yet it is worth asking yourself if the clash you are engaged in will matter in a few weeks. Conflict brings a blinkered outlook, where nothing seems more important – but it pays to save energy for battles that really count.

Oliver Burkeman is the author ofThe Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking(Canongate, £8.99).

Photograph: iStock