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How do we deal with conflict and challenge at work and beyond?

In the week in September when the Brexit debate was acknowledged as “toxic” by the Speaker of the House of Commons, our combined City Women / City Men lunch engaged with the tough subject of conflict and challenge.  Thank you to Brewin Dolphin for hosting us and to our speaker, Nic Bayley, a minister at Newsong Community Church in Bromsgrove. Previously, Nic was head of department in a Birmingham high school, and worked with Youth For Christ in their National Ministries team. Nic is now responsible for a diverse church congregation, living and working in Bromsgrove with her husband, their two children and their dog, Alfie. Nic acknowledges that her life includes times of great joy – and also conflict management and resolution on a daily basis.

Nic spoke with directness and energy and relevance.  One person valued “Good practical advice on how to deal with conflict”, another the “honesty of the speaker in grappling with a tricky topic – personal examples” and someone else commented, “Superb.  Real advice on life.  Thank you so much.”

If you’d like to hear what Nic said, you can listen to the talk here.

Dealing With Conflict Recording of ChaplaincyPlus talk about dealing with conflict in the workplace, given at the joint meeting of CityMen and CityWomen in September 2019 soundcloud.com

And you can read on, for a summary of the key issues.

Do we have a sense that conflict is always negative?  Shouldn’t we be loving and peace-making and meek and mild?  But if there isn’t conflict, does anything really change?  Facing redundancy, Nic was inspired by a Minister who said, “I want this to be the best thing that has happened for you and the best thing that has happened for them” (her employer, the charity that was making her redundant).  Nic had been grappling with the fit of her work for some months and they were restructuring.  And 10 years on, Nic can honestly say it was the best move for her and probably the best move for them too.

Conflict doesn’t have to be toxic. For all of us, there will be things that put our buttons and make us angry.  The challenge is how we handle this.  What are the causes of conflict at work?

  • Organisational level:  If there is something in the processes/procedures/ethos at work that I find challenging, can I live with this tension – is my place still beneficial?
  • Different personalities:  Conflict can arise because of different personalities, as we encounter different skill set from our own – the person who is creative (who can cope with ”flying by the seat of their pants”!) and the person who’s brilliant at detail (and may sometimes come across as rigid!).
  • Red button moments:  Each of us has particular things that “pushes our buttons”.  For Nic, it’s being lied to; for others it may be laziness or the wrong type of humour.  

Then, in the mix, there’s everything else – a parent with dementia, a neighbour parking in the wrong place, the weather, travel stresses – and there’s also our own history.

When we are faced with conflict, our response can be flight, fight or freeze.  It’s good to understand ourselves and how we naturally deal with conflict.  Are you naturally a rhinoceros, who crashes in and doesn’t back down from an argument?  Or are you a porcupine, so that in the face of conflict you roll up and protect yourself, but if anyone comes too close you’re a bit prickly.

Conflicts don’t disappear unless we take the time to engage with them and with ourselves:

  • We need time and space to reflect: I need to unpack what’s at the core of the conflict: there’s usually a grain of truth on both sides.  What’s my part?  What do I have control over?  If someone comes to you and says, “I want to vent – will you listen for a few minutes?”, we know what’s needed; but if someone is less aware of what they need , we may find they engage in “word vomit”, with an underlying message “I want it all to change but I don’t want to do anything and I don’t want you to do anything”!
  • We need people who are critical friends, just not cheer leaders:  Can we explore the mismatch that sometimes exists between what you say and what I hear? For example:

You say: “Why didn’t you let me know you were leaving?”

I hear: “You have no right to leave without asking my permission.”

Do we have friends we trust enough to be able to hear their reflection, “Sometimes when you say that, you come across as patronising / intimidating” – or whatever it is we need to be aware of.

The hardest conflicts arise from insecurity – we love to project confidence, even arrogance, competence, but how do we handle our vulnerabilities.  So here are a few ground rules, when we take time for those tricky conversations:

  • Recognise and name the positives.
  • Avoid making people or situations into a caricature.
  • Pick a time and a way that is appropriate to tackle a tricky issue – not when someone’s about to leave the building or when they’re hungry or their feet are aching! 
  • Look for clarification rather than blaming and point-scoring.
  • Focus on the issue – talk about the actions rather than the person.
  • Avoid using “always” or “never”!

It may be helpful to initiate a conversation: “We need to talk about this, can we arrange a time”? From the Bible, there’s a verse in Romans 12 that says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”.  In the end, this is key: I can only control me!  I can take time out, I can try to seek peace, to recognise my own red buttons, to acknowledge that the tension in my home life is impacting on my work life, to see people as human beings and not just an amalgam of traits, to speak honesty and kindly – but ultimately I can’t control other people.

Father,

Today I ask you to give me strength, self-control, patience and trust, so that, as far as it depends on me, I will choose peace instead of negative conflict,  and wisdom instead of foolishness. You know the situations and challenges that each one of us faces, and particularly where they are debilitating, challenging or toxic help us to find a life-affirming path through. 

Amen.

If you’d like to discuss this blog, you’re welcome to get in touch and we can meet for a conversation over coffee: sarah.thorpe@chaplaincyplus.org.uk or 0798 224 8949