Two months ago, I was on a chronically delayed flight late at night at Dulles Airport, outside Washington, DC. As I sat in the terminal after de-planing for the second time and waiting to board again, I couldn’t help but notice a young woman in the waiting area who was on the same flight.
She was extremely angry, talking loudly into her phone, and complaining to the person on the other end. She talked nonstop, and literally every fourth word was an F-bomb.
Her loud voice, laced with profanity, bothered me so much that I got up and moved. But even after I moved, she continued to distract me. I was getting angry at her being so angry! As someone who travels frequently and experiences occasional travel problems, I began forming my own story about this stranger, judging her, and looking down on her for not exercising more self-control.
But then I had a little conversation with myself, “Rob! You’re a coach! And you coach leaders in handling situations like this all the time. You can do better here!”
I decided to suspend my judgments and explanations of the woman’s behavior and instead get curious. I moved back to sit closer to her, and after she got off the phone, said, “Rough day, huh?”
My curiosity opened up a dialogue. After a couple of minutes of her talking and me sympathizing, she began to visibly calm down. Indeed, her day had been rough long before the problems with this flight.
There’s no silver bullet for exactly what to do in every instance of conflict. But the short lesson here is that when you are in conflict with another person, you can redirect your attention to the person you have 100% control over — YOU!
The #1 work I do with leaders each day is to help them be the best version of themselves possible. But probably the #2 issue that comes up is helping leaders resolve conflict with coworkers. So, even though I haven’t yet published my first book (about item #1!), I already have the title for my second book:
“I, and my life, would be so much better …
if everyone else would just behave!”
Workplace conflict is a constant — we work with others* who often don’t “behave” as we would like. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Strong teams are made up of people who complement one another. Complementary means different. And different perspectives and styles inevitably lead to some degree of conflict.
But we tend to deal ineffectively with this conflict that differences create. First, we assume that we are doing (mostly) everything right, and the other person is doing (mostly) everything wrong. Next, we focus on everything they are doing wrong. Finally, we waste a lot of energy scheming about how to get them to change. This is an inefficient use of a leader’s time.
It is impossible to control another person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior.
I could have attempted to control the frustrated young woman in the airport. What if I had matched her level of anger and told her to keep her voice down? Or tried to tell her she should just accept that there will be travel problems occasionally? Would that have helped? No! Trying to control her would have exacerbated the situation, further igniting conflict.
If you really want to effect change with others, focus first on what you can control — yourself! You will increase the odds of getting the outcome you want.
By controlling what we can control — ourselves— we grow our influence with others. This is leadership.
So, the next time you encounter conflict with someone, follow these steps:
- Remember: I have no control over the thoughts, feelings and behavior of the other person. I have complete control over myself and my own actions.
- Ask: What filters am I using in this situation that affect the way I’m seeing it? What emotions (fear, anger, embarrassment) are driving my behavior? How can I think, feel and behave differently in line with my desired outcome?
- Act: Constructively model the behavior you would like to see from your colleague.
Leadership is about influence, not control. This old saying is corny, but true:
“If it is to be, it begins with me!”
*In referring to “others,” I am excluding situations with subordinates where their jobs could be at stake if they don’t change behavior!