“What is this?” yelled the freshman student. I was a graduate student, barely older than he was.
“It’s a B minus,” I replied.
“I am not a B minus student!” he insisted.
I did my best to convince him that, yes, he had earned that B minus. But when he announced he would bring in his father to yell at me, I chickened out. I cancelled office hours and handed him off to my supervising professor.
Chickening out worked that time. Unfortunately, though, confrontations are inevitable in the professional world. Here are a few hints about workplace confrontations and how to get through them without increasing everyone’s pain and suffering.
- Define each issue as a problem that has to be solved by both of you.
If you’re in a confrontation with a boss, keep calm! (Have you ever gotten so nervous you cried? You want to avoid that.) Start with “I understand there is a problem and I’d like to help solve it.” Acknowledge your mistake, if you made one. State how you plan to solve the problem, or ask for help coming up with a solution.
If you have to have a confrontation with a peer or with someone who works under your supervision, do the same thing, but ask for the collaboration a little differently: “I have a concern that I’d like your help with.” This is particularly helpful if the person you are talking to is in an emotional conflict with someone else. “I want our working relationship to be good, so I’d like to talk to you about how best to address this problem.”
When you define a disagreement as a mutual problem, the stakes are automatically lower, and everybody can negotiate to a compromise without feeling they’ve “won” or “lost.”
- Keep your cool.
This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get pulled into the emotion of a workplace spat. If you are angry or upset, go away for a few minutes and get yourself together. Like it or not, women who lose their temper in public also lose their authority (even more than men do). This is a bit easier to do if you:
- Listen more than you talk.
Listen to the feelings and/or thoughts of the other person. You don’t have to agree with them or share their point of view, but you should validate it. Use “I hear what you’re saying,” or “What I hear you saying is…” That may seem clunky, but reflecting back what you think you’ve heard is a good way to help the other person know you’re paying attention to them.
- Ask, “What do you want?”
Often, people who are dissatisfied don’t express their feelings directly. Asking this question cuts through the white noise and gets to action faster. It also suggests that the questioner is interested in helping the other person. It also stops passive-aggression if you use it right, and :
- Say what you want, clearly.
You should use “I want” when you want something. A “want” statement is stronger than a “feel” statement. “I feel that I did a lot of work on this assignment” is a less effective message than “I want you to review my grade.” You can follow that up with a “think” statement: “I think that we should look at the statistics more closely.” Try not to pose your statements as questions. Only ask a question if you really have one.
Moral: Straightforward talk solves most problems and prevents others.