Resolving Tensions in the Workplace

Regardless of your job or your industry, we can all agree that there are some common challenges in every workplace—unmanageable workloads, too many meetings, and even difficult colleagues. Most people share the belief that these things are simply out of your control, but what if there were proven techniques that could help you resolve those tensions and make your workday a little more fulfilling? Here, Caroline Webb, the author of How to Have a Good Day, shows us the way.



Rubbing shoulders with the rest of the human race can be hard at times. Everyone is living their own life, with their own goals and needs. As we all pull in different directions, we can easily find our days cluttered with annoyances. Sometimes they’re small, like the irritable push of fellow commuters or a snappish comment in the corridor. Sometimes the grievances feel bigger. We might find ourselves having an argument that escalates, being excluded from an important discussion, or working with someone who repeatedly fails to follow through on their commitments.

When tensions bubble to the surface in this way, it’s unlikely that we can control the whole situation. But we can choose how we want to react. And in this chapter, I’ll show how much difference that can make. By focusing on what we can do to make things feel better, we can usually resolve or at least reduce the impact of tense situations, even when it’s someone else who’s triggered the tension.


Find Common Ground

Let’s start with the situation where we have a straight disagreement with someone. In some ways, it’s surprising that arguments don’t happen more often, given that the filters of our automatic system—including inattentional blindness and confirmation bias—make the reality we experience a highly personalized one. You only need one of your colleagues to have had a rough morning for that colleague to see things differently than you while you’re sitting in the very same meeting (as I discovered with Lucas back in Part I). And since none of us ever has the whole picture, it’s possible that both of you are right and wrong on certain aspects of the topic. We all see different “gorillas.”

Mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport showed that recognizing this fundamental truth—that it’s unlikely either side is 100 percent wrong—is the key to resolving conflict. In his classic book Fights, Games, and Debates, Rapoport demonstrated the power of developing what he called “empathetic understanding” of each other’s point of view and what I simply call “common ground.” It means showing that we’ve understood where the other person is coming from, and highlighting the similarities between us. From that common ground, mutually acceptable solutions are much easier to find, because the process helps to nudge our brains out of defensive mode, allowing us to think more creatively and approach compromise more openly.

Here is the five-step process I’ve evolved based on his research:

Step 1: Describe the other person’s point of view as if you really like it.
Be as compelling and generous as you can. The philosopher Daniel Dennett once put it like this: “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’ ”


Step 2: Identify all the things you agree on. Recognizing the areas where you do agree, even if they’re few, will help build a sense of in-group. Get the ball rolling with your own suggestions, then make it a collaborative effort by asking: “What else do we both believe to be true?”


Step 3: Isolate and understand the true disagreement. Define precisely where you differ. Then go deeper by asking: “Why do we each feel or think differently about this specific issue?” Surfacing the experience or assumptions that shape your perspectives helps you understand the nature of your respective “gorillas.” You may even learn from each other.


Step 4: Explore how both of you could be correct. Now, you may “agree to disagree”; it feels easier to do that once you can see where you’re aligned and why you disagree. But you can also ask: “Is there any way that both of our perspectives could be somehow correct?” It’s often the case that you’re each partially right—but perhaps in different situations or circumstances.


Step 5: What can you do now, based on your common ground? There’s always something. And the prospect of progress will help both of you feel good, making it easier to resolve or accept whatever is left on the table.


For example, suppose you’re having an argument with a co-worker on the right way to get useful customer feedback. You think your company should invite anonymous comments from customers, because you think they’ll be more candid that way. But your co-worker holds an opposing view: that customers should put their real names on their comments. So you first show you understand their side of the argument by outlining the advantages of their approach: customers will be less tempted to engage in trash talk and will only complain if they have a genuine grievance, and the company will be able to follow up with them directly if necessary.


Next, what do you both agree on? The benefits of soliciting more input from your customers, and that online is the way to do it, and that you want to get a process in place this month. The only thing you actually disagree on is whether customers should be anonymous. After a few “whys,” it becomes clear that this is because you have different views on how readily customers speak their mind: you fear people won’t speak up without anonymity, while your co-worker fears that people will speak up too much under the cloak of anonymity. Why? Your co-worker’s been burned by a terrible social media campaign that backfired.


How could you both be right? Well, customers aren’t all the same. You’re probably each right regarding different types of customers. This part of the conversation germinates a few new ideas. It might be possible to design a survey that gives both options. Perhaps you could get people to proactively opt for anonymity so that it’s not the default option. You could test out both approaches for a week each, and see what emerges.


Once you’ve found this common ground, it’s clear that you can get moving on designing the majority of the process. The anonymity question can be resolved later; there’s no need to hold everything up because of that. That seems obvious now. But when people’s brains are in defensive mode, it becomes harder to see common sense. Small disagreements can end up holding back progress beyond reason. By contrast, focusing on your agreements leaves each of you better able to access your wisest selves—and get things done as a result.


About the Author

Caroline Webb is a management consultant and executive coach who has spent fifteen years at McKinsey and at her own firm, Sevenshift, showing clients how to use behavioral science to boost their professional effectiveness. An Oxford- and Cambridge-trained economist, Webb and her work have been featured in the Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, Forbes, and on the BBC. She divides her time between New York and London.



 Photo Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock


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