Why take a class on conflict?
Last week I attended a class through a career development-like center, called “The Nature of Conflict.” The class was taught by a conflict management specialist (I didn’t even know there was such a position) and focused on the understanding of our behavior during conflict. I don’t even know why I felt inspired to take the class, but on some level it felt necessary. The funny thing is, currently, my lab provides a healthy and friendly work environment. But my professional surroundings have not always been warm and fuzzy. Grad school felt like a constant battle of bruised egos, silent hostility and, well, fear of conflict. Early in my postdoctoral career, I also encountered more or less passive avoidance accompanied by downright rudeness [thankfully that has changed drastically]. I understand that being professionals keeps us from overt aggression towards coworkers with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And being scientists, a lot of us are just not great personal communicators (although that’s kind of funny to me, because being an effective communicator is an integral part of being a scientist). I can only speculate why that is. Maybe most of us feel like we can’t or shouldn’t talk about our feelings. Or that work-related issues are “not personal” and therefore should not affect us emotionally, and should not be addressed. I personally believe that difference of opinions is unavoidable, however it is how we choose to deal with the situation is a predictor of whether conflict will arise. I have seen people go to great lengths to, what they must’ve thought, was avoiding conflict. They (I am guilty of this as well) would tiptoe around the issue, act all indirect and polite, but on the inside, frankly, I am certain, they just wanted to smack the other person across the face. And instead it of an amicable resolution, the conflict wounds festered and catalyzed even more miscommunication, misunderstanding and hurt feelings.
There are few things that I loathe as much as passive aggression. It makes you feel crazy. You get in this sugarcoated hostility dance with another person, of an unspoken power struggle, yet you are not quite sure if it really is happening. There is an underlying message of fear of conflict and simultaneous feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. Urban dictionary provides a very pertinent definition of passive aggression. First and foremost, people use it as a defense mechanism. In other words, they get to be just a little aggressive, enough to get fragments of their message out, and not enough as to not step out of their comfort zone. Secondly, and this one is particularly relevant to me, those who partake in passive aggressive behavior typically want to be liked by everyone and operate under the guise of trying to please others. And that can be fundamentally detrimental and unhelpful to resolving any sort of charged situation.
Manifestations in the lab
There are many hilarious ways that passive aggression manifests itself in the laboratory. It can take place in the form of writing notes all over your stuff like “keep out,” or “don’t touch, or else!” It can also be presented in ways of silent treatments and/or condescending tone, not replying to e-mails, slamming drawers and doors, removing and hoarding lab members’ permanent markers, Eppendorf tubes, labeling tape, pipette tips, in other words, any small items that are essential to just about any experiment, items that are so annoying to find missing at the crucial moment. This is just a short list of a few passive aggressive behaviors in the lab I could pull of the top of my head—basically creativity is endless when it comes to passive aggressive behaviors in the laboratory.
Conflict in 3-D
This is where I found the “Nature of Conflict” class to be tremendously helpful. I learned that conflict has three dimensions (who knew, right? My fear of conflict has always led me to believe that conflict dimensions were limitless). The dimensions are: cognitive, emotional and behavioral. And they are all interrelated. Our thoughts, triggered and heavily impacted in conflict, can make us feel and act in ways that are unconstructive and flat out inaccurate. In other words, in conflict, DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU THINK. It is our thinking that can start an internal chain of reactions, create a story, and then create a reaction to the story. Kind of like when our brain believes something, it then gathers information in support of that belief. What this means is that the way we interpret other people’s behavior during conflict is not going to help us resolve anything. Or as Einstein put it very eloquently:
Re-think the Conflict and Re-train Your Brain
There are automatic responses and there are deliberate responses. Automatic responses observe, interpret and judge. Deliberate responses describe, inquire and suspend. Automatic responses inadvertently make you label a situation as “good” or “bad;” or “I like” or “I dislike.” Our innate tendency is to have an automatic response to an issue. What helps you shift from automatic responses to deliberate responses is crafting a “hearable message.” You state the facts, you provide interpretation and you form a question. More info here.
In addition, what I didn’t realize before the class, is that there is a strong desire to dominate/compete and subsequently win in conflict. That seems kind of obvious to me now, but I never thought of it being important to dominate. Once you let go of any expectations to dominate and win, the escalation of conflict can be eased. And like in any other relationships that we have, a conflict in the workplace can certainly be addressed with empathy and acknowledgement to the other party’s feelings and needs.