Where did we get the idea that confronting someone face-to-face had to be a horrible encounter?

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If people only talked to each other, most of the conflict in the workplace would disappear. Instead, it seems when we are wounded by someone, or disagree with something they've done, we end up talking to everyone except the person who's directly involved. We wander down the hall and talk to a co-worker...mention it to our lunch buddies...complain about it to our spouse. We spread the negative poison around the organization, drag unwitting coworkers into the fray, sully reputations and, in the end, erode the trust that comes from open, honest, face-to-face communication. 

Where did we ever get the idea that confronting someone face-to-face had to be such a horrible encounter? Are we all so worried about being "nice" that we've opted for being spineless? And when did we get confused about the perils of telling people the truth?  

What about the perils of not telling them the truth? Our organizations are paying a big price for this "smile to your face/make a face behind your back" communication style. It's costing millions in wasted time and lost productivity, in addition to a human price in broken trust and lost respect. 

Now don't get me wrong...I'm not advocating brutal honesty and confrontation that strips away self-esteem and dignity. I'm talking about the respectful, caring communication that says, "I care about our relationship. Something's bothering me and I thought it was important to talk to you about it directly so we could reach an understanding." 

I think most people are afraid. They're afraid of hurting someone's feelings. They're afraid of sounding "negative" or "making waves." They're afraid of the backlash that can come from a conflict that escalates into a fight. They're afraid of de-motivating their employees. They're afraid of not being liked. They're afraid of collecting political baggage. They're afraid of not getting ahead or losing their job. 

If you're guilty of side-talk instead of straight-talk here are some behaviors that can help:

 

1.    Use the "best intentions" approach. Most people don't intentionally wake up in the morning and think to themselves, "I'm going to really hurt her feelings today!" Most people have the very best intentions. But it's those good intentions that keep getting us into trouble because other's don't know our intentions...they only judge our actions.

 

When approaching another person about a conflict, you could say, "I'm sure you had good intentions when you...but let me tell you how it looked from my perspective..." Rather than waving the finger of blame in someone else's face, just talk about the effect it had on you.

 

2.    Use the "I'm just getting your advice" approach sparingly. A lot of damage can be done by going to multiple people to "seek advice" about how to handle a conflict situation. It can become a way to see how many people are on your side. It can also be a sneaky way of poisoning the well for the other person; everyone's heard your "side" and so the other person suffers political damage no matter what the outcome.

 

3.    Start by looking for things for which you should take responsibility. The beauty of opening any conflict resolution session with self-disclosure is that you bring the other person's defenses down immediately and problem solving can occur.

For example, “I was out of line when I was sarcastic to you in the staff meeting. I’m sorry—it was inappropriate. I’d like to talk with you about the issue…”

4.    Be as open and honest as you can, while preserving the other person’s self-respect and dignity. This is the very heart and soul of building trust. Sugar-coating your message, or smoothing over conflicts, might feel better to you in the short run, but it can create more problems.

It can be liberating to lay it bare and call it what it is, instead of pretending. The only way to build a foundation of trust is to be open, honest and straightforward in your day-to-day dealings. But in order to preserve the relationship you must let people maintain their dignity and save face. That means using neutral words to describe the problem and finding common ground—pointing out why both of you stand to win if both of your needs are met.

Does this sound pretty basic? You bet. It also is just plain good common sense...but common sense isn't so common...we all have to work at it.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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