We all know people who relish it, or seem to. Most of us don’t want anything to do with it. We dread it.
We fear even the possibility of conflict, and typically make every effort to avoid it. If there is some possibility it will occur, we depart the scene. We recoil when it erupts, flee it when we can.
This avoidance, however natural and understandable, is a serious mistake. It emboldens and empowers the perpetrator. It cripples groups. The situation rarely improves when people knuckle under or look away. It gets worse when abused people – or witnesses – react with anger or defensiveness.
Take a moment to mentally recreate some recent or memorable moment of conflict in your worklife. Make it a public moment, at a meeting or in front of a few co-workers. Say a discussion is under way, and you’ve just expressed your opinion or reported a relevant fact.
Someone in the group takes exception to what you said. You’re a little surprised, since you considered it a fairly innocuous, funny or otherwise acceptable comment. You respond, possibly with a modest notation of your standing on the subject, or maybe with an attempt at a disarming quip.
Instead of subsiding, the person escalates. The very lightheartedness of your manner is seen as insulting. You’re called names, accused of outlandishly malicious motives. The person’s tone multiplies, reinforces the language – there is rage, anger at the outer edge of control.
What the hell is this all about?
That is your invariable inner question when this ugly social thunderclap comes down on what had been an inoffensive conversation. Rarely does any other participant in the moment do anything but blink, shut down and shut up.
Can you count the times that you told the offending person exactly where to head in? When you gave as good as you got, joining in a nasty escalation that progressively drove the scalding damage deeper into the relationship?
And scared the daylights out of all bystanders? And made a shambles of everyone’s respect for the unrestrained combatants?
You may never recover the standing you once had if you engage in this kind of scorched-earth warfare. What the attacker deserves has nothing to do with what you should do.
That is an example of the workplace ambush conflict. The conflict genre is rich in categories. Besides or along with angry argument, there are arrogance, bullying, sarcastic name-calling, faux-humorous ridicule, patronizing putdown and an endless assortment of others.
What should you do?
First, act always from an understanding of who you are. Before tactics, before strategies, you must work to define for yourself your own value, as a person and in this workplace. Who do you think you are? Does this person have any power to define you? Most absolutely not.
The definition of you is fully up to you, unless you choose to give this vital right away. Your predominant strength in any circumstance arises from your solid acceptance of yourself. You have dignity. You don’t depend overmuch on the opinions of others. Of course you listen to and are influenced by the meaningful input of people. Always, though, the final determination is completely your own.
You need other people. You’re not living on a desert island. But if you need those other people – sometimes even strangers in random encounters – to make you feel good about yourself, you’ll always have a slippery grip on your confidence. People have so many reasons for the way they respond to you (or not), and most of the reasons generally have nothing to do with you.
And, at your end, there are so many ways of interpreting relationship signals (or lack thereof), that the person craving reassurance is never secure.
Most importantly, all those folks have their own lives to lead, and they don't need to devote a lot of attention to your self-esteem. In truth, some of them have their own reasons, important to themselves, to try taking you down, making you feel bad. Nothing personal, necessarily. Often, such people do it to everybody.
You want to be on a solid base. Your grounding in all things must be a result of your preparation of yourself for useful life. The strategies that grow from such a philosophy include devotion to worthy relationships and a discipline for keeping an eye on the ball.
As a result, one’s tactical response to any particular disruption in the everyday workplace is restrained, balanced and productive. Your well-considered, respectful but firmly based response may or may not disarm the attacker, but it ensures your confidence in this unpleasant moment. Secondarily, it will significantly impress everyone else in sight. You'll look pretty good.
Most importantly, you will feel good after the dust settles. You did not allow yourself to be demeaned, nor did you make a nasty moment worse. You behaved with dignity; you were not defined by what was thrown at you. It wasn’t your prime intention to make this bad moment go away, but you did that, sort of as a fringe benefit.
You weren’t trying to win over the bully – but it is not unheard-of that an attacker, wisely defeated, turns to the victor for help in curing the unhappy cause of the bad behavior. People that driven, treated with consideration, can become worthwhile allies.
More certainly, all those around, accustomed as they have been to the dominance of the troublemaker, will now forever consider you someone to be admired.
You don’t have to enjoy conflict in order to feel good after it’s over. You can even almost be invigorated when it comes your way, because you know that you, not it, will determine the outcome.