Good day, team.
This week’s challenge is about the importance of disagreeing without being disagreeable in the workplace.
Last week, I acted as a mediator between two colleagues at a client company. Their disagreements had become so polarizing that the project they were working on together had come to a standstill. I don’t claim to be a professional mediator, but sometimes when coaching people, I find myself acting as an objective go-between to help people move forward when they get stuck in their opposite points of view.
Extreme extroverted and introverted behaviors lead to many conflicts. Extroverts rant and rave to dominate and drive others or scare them into submission. Introverts will not respond and often dominate the room with their inaction — what we refer to as “passive aggressive” behavior. Neither of these behaviors is helpful, and you can see how these polar extremes have no middle ground. They not only stop progress, but they can have a strong negative impact on other team members.
We often see behaviors that aren’t quite this extreme but fall into one camp or the other. It can be really frustrating to be part of a team with individuals who like to square off by either dominating or avoiding a conversation.
“The key to handling a conflict lies in how you approach it, not in the conflict itself.” This sage advice comes from “Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable,” an article written by professional trainers Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon. In their piece, they outline examples of how you might disagree with a teammate’s behavior and offer good ways to communicate about it.
Here are some great suggestions for how to deal with disagreements successfully, paraphrased from Baber and Waymon’s article.
Let’s say you notice that many of your colleagues check their e-mail or text messages on their phones during your weekly staff meetings. This activity is disturbing when you’re trying to pay attention to whoever is leading the meeting, and you think it’s disrespectful. If the meeting leader says up front that it’s fine for people to check email, then that’s one thing. But generally meetings are called so that everyone can pay attention and offer input, and that’s hard to do when you’re multitasking.
How would you approach your team members about this? First, you could describe to your fellow team members in a nonjudgmental way that you notice they read e-mails during staff meetings. Second, you could describe the impact you see the behavior has on the rest of the team that is trying to pay attention. “I know that your experience with this project will help us avoid a lot of problems down the road. But I notice that we come to conclusions without your input because you’re often checking e-mail instead. We ask for your input, but because you’re not hearing what we’re saying, we have to repeat ourselves or start over to bring you up to date. Perhaps we should start our meetings later in the day so that you can take care of e-mail before we meet. I bet we could finish our meetings in half the time if everyone was really paying attention and actively participating.”
The four steps taken in the above scenario are as follows:
- Describe what happened in a nonjudgmental voice.
- Explain the impact of the behavior on you, a customer, team members or anyone else associated with the team.
- Specify what you want in observable, measurable terms.
- Explain the results that could come from the solution.
The next example is one that many of us have experienced. You work with someone who takes too many personal calls at work. This situation is difficult because many of us live complicated lives, and calls from family members, babysitters, nannies, teachers, contractors and such are hard to control — and we usually feel the need to answer them immediately. However, if your company has policies that restrict the amount of time taken away from work to deal with personal business, this phenomenon needs to be managed.
If you believe a colleague is taking a lot of personal calls, first observe the person to confirm that this is true. Then find a good time and place to approach him or her about it. Interrupting someone in the middle of the workday by walking up and saying, “I notice that you’re making too many personal calls,” won’t work. All you end up with is an angry, flustered co-worker who feels embarrassed and who most likely will become defensive immediately. Instead, ask if you can talk with the person later in a neutral space, such as the lunchroom or a conference room. During your meeting, let your colleague know that you think he or she is being frequently interrupted by phone calls or texting. Express that you’re worried about the impact this is having on his or her work and ask if it’s possible to keep personal phone calls or messages restricted to two or three a day. Remind your colleague that most of his or her teammates adhere to this standard and ask if he or she thinks it’s possible to keep personal calls to this number. Let your colleague know that emergencies are an exception.
None of us are born knowing how to deal with conflict. It’s something we have to learn. Baber and Waymon offer the following suggestions for communicating more successfully when dealing with conflict and disagreements:
- Choose a good time and place for your conversation. Knowing that the message you’re delivering will probably not be easy to receive, pick a neutral place to meet with your teammate.
- Say what you want. You’ll be far more successful saying what you want the person to do rather than focusing on what you don’t want. For example, “I notice that you take a lot of personal phone calls at work. It would be helpful if you could be mindful of how many calls you take so you’re not interrupted so often,” instead of “Don’t take personal calls at work.”
- Use a firm but friendly tone of voice. Maintain a professional atmosphere and stay calm. This will invoke a similar state of mind and emotional tenor with your teammate.
- Listen first. Don’t be surprised if your teammate is immediately defensive. Listen and ask more questions rather than making definitive statements.
- Lighten up. Most problems and disagreements aren’t so serious if you can really laugh about them. Most behaviors we observe in the workplace are ones we’ve done ourselves, so take a lighter tone with someone you’re asking to change. He or she will get the message — you don’t have to shout or demand it.
This week, trying dealing with disagreements by not being disagreeable. We all have behaviors that are irritating to others at work. Learning constructive ways of dealing with them is one of the keys to success.
Have a good week!
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