You are currently viewing 5 Ways to Handle Career Conflict (And Thrive)

5 Ways to Handle Career Conflict (And Thrive)

This last month, I’ve seen more and more of my clients experiencing career conflict. As I’m supporting them, I help them understand that these are emotional challenges as well.

  • Sarah is running a thriving side-hustle alongside her day-job and needs to tell her remote team their help isn’t helping…
  • Rebecca is reeling from the revelation that her new boss is bad news for her career (and sanity!) and was thrust into a contentious conversation about that..
  • While Faye is negotiating out of a role she didn’t choose and proposing she move to an area that would feel fulfilling. If not, she’ll leave.

We recognise when issues are important in our career context, but I notice people are sometimes surprised that they feel as emotive as those that show up in close relationships.

I know why. So much of our self-identity is tied up in what we do for our career or business. We are all more than the work we do, but a violation of values or threat to our self-perception will feel personal – and pivotal.

There’s lots of advice out there about accepting the others’ point of view in a conflict. It bothers me because, well it’s wrong. The only thing you must accept is that you can’t enforce change. Think about it. As a conflict-response strategy, is blanket acceptance really advisable?

Whose side should you be on when conflict situations show up? Surely your own!

The single most helpful lesson I’ve learned is that our typical response to career conflict looks alot like avoiding it. And that seems very acceptable somehow – too much so. It is deeply unhealthy to go along with something if you feel strongly against it.

And while accepting it (that includes submitting silently) might stop the conflict escalating at the time, the issue won’t get resolved unless voice what matters most. When we say nothing, it’s worse than nothing changing. Your unspoken feelings will grow inside you – at great cost to your emotional balance, your career and even your health, over time.

We mustn’t speed into hard discussions while our blood is still boiling either. Handling conflicts well, relies on having a very particular response pattern ready. Then being calm enough to be intentional about using it.

When you apply these learnings to your difficult conversations (even when you feel a little bit afraid) you will feel the benefit:

1. Adopt a private If-Then policy. Do you give enough weight to the conflict you feel in your career? Have you ever held back from saying hard things until you’re ready to explode? When difficult things come out in anger, they add a layer of stress and hurt on top. And tension builds up until the issue combusts – by which time, everyone is more entrenched in their conflicting perspectives. So know where you draw the lines, always. If you are aware of those boundaries being crossed, then you are well-placed to raise the issue to align on a desired outcome before it gets explosive

2. Use Curiosity as a tactic. Why? It stops us being defensive and denying our part in the issue. Remember you can use your curiosity as a tactic when you want time to gather your thoughts knowing it shifts focus to the other person for a bit. Ask questions that probe what the other person is really reacting to: ‘what matters about that’ works well. As does ‘say more’! Remember to be a good listener.

3. Clear is kind. Being assertive is all about clarity of communication. Practice expressing what you need to say as much as what you seek to understand. Avoid over generalisations (you always, you never) which spark indignation and stop the listening you need. Accept responsibility for your part in a problem and keep your own assertions specific.

4. Let go of being right and do this instead. A good leader will have the confidence to operate on a people-first level. Because they know accommodating professional needs is the fast-track to loyalty and optimises professional performance. But if your boss isn’t listening well, you should take the lead instead. Start out trying to understand the why that sits behind the issue, while being clear about what matters about that, for you. Do not accept their standpoint if it betrays everything you stand for. But do acknowledge points of difference, then offer partnership and progress.

Knowing these 4 steps means you can apply them to your career conflicts from now on.

But the secret ingredient for handling conflict well is #5.

It might surprise you. I know it’s power will, as soon as you use it.

5. Hesitate Fast. As soon as you feel the heat rise in a difficult conversation – hesitate – saying what you’re doing and why it’s important. Invite the other person to do the same. Briefly. Just long enough to fix on 2 needs you will focus on. Breathe. Then start the conversation with those two clear intentions in mind. Only then.

Make no mistake, holding onto hesitation is toughest when conversations feel loaded – emotions dial up, and our ability to be rational goes down. So it will feel counterintuitive to hesitate in the heat of the moment. Every time.

But in times of conflict this secret ingredient will change everything forever. From how well you go into conflict conversations, to how cleanly you leave them – and the outcomes themselves.

Because those few seconds of hesitation are the secret to handling conflicts well.

Try it and tell me what difference ‘hesitating fast’ makes in your difficult conversations.

Helen Hanison

Helen Hanison is the only executive coach bringing a unique blend of marketing savvy and commercial edges to coaching that draws on her background in psychology. She helps seasoned professionals who are stuck at a career crossroads to make a plan aligning work they love with a life they want to lead.

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