The Wrong Way to Deal With Conflict

I’m taking it back to a time in college. It was my senior year and I was the co-editor-in-chief for my school’s branch of an online women’s magazine. My co-editor and I were in charge of a large staff of writers and section editors for our school and also received direction from the national branch.

The summer leading up to the school year, we were making preparations for back-to-school content. Emails were sent to keep all members in the know, stories were assigned, and marketing plans were in place.

And then… nothing.

The emails went unanswered or not responded to for weeks. “Sorry, I’ve been busy,” they said when a response landed in my inbox. It would make me crazy because I, too, was busy juggling these preparations, a full-time internship, and side writing gigs, but I still managed. I saw their lack of responding as lack of initiative.

It all came to a head the first full staff meeting of the year. After new stories were assigned and the writers left, we asked the section editors to stay behind. Before the meeting I discussed with my co-editor the need to talk about accountability and responsibility to ensure our success as a campus chapter, and she agreed. Except, when the talk finally happened, I was the only one speaking and with a little too much emotion (OK, apparent frustration).

I laid it on the section editors. I emphasized the need to respond to emails, that we are all busy and it wasn’t an excuse to ignore us. As the online magazine’s leadership team, we (read: I) expected a certain level of exhibited commitment.

Now, in real-world normal working circumstances, I realize there would be some level of disciplining if an employee completely ignored emails from a superior. But even in the land of college activities, there was a better, tactical approach that didn’t have to begin with, “Do this or else. I made it work and you should have too.”

Leaving that meeting I realized I kicked the school year off to a bad start. Even though the campus chapter thrived thanks to our team, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I could have done better. Because of it, I never truly connected with the team the way I envisioned leading up to the school year. I did, however, learn a few things that I apply to every conflict that arises in the office or outside since.

It’s also important to say that as much as I try to avoid conflict from happening, just like I am sure you do too, it is inevitable. For everyone.

1. Realize not everyone does things the way you do.
You did what you did to get to where you are today. That doesn’t mean someone else will do the same or that they will be any less successful because of it. Even though this whole incident started with not responding to emails, I kept comparing myself to the other people and how eager I would be to respond. Cool it and see how they work first. And never use yourself as the example about how you would things differently – that just makes you come off as thinking you’re better than everyone.

2. Try to withhold judgment.
It’s hard. SO hard. But try. In my situation, just because someone wasn’t responding to emails – because duh, summer – it did not seal the deal that they weren’t motivated or wouldn’t do the work. People can be really bad at email. Or, something else could have gone on that I didn’t know about. If a conflict arises, try to see all sides before jumping to conclusions and generalizations about the other person. A good way to do this is to see what happens once a project is officially underway and then assess how to proceed if the situation continues.

3. Start off gently and handle cautiously.
Before you sound off on someone via interoffice chat because of a snide remark they made, take a step back and think about the receiving end. Consider ways to rise above the conflict. Start off gently and navigate as you go. In hindsight, I should have waited to address the emails until a later date or gently mentioned after the meeting to please check and respond to emails as soon as possible. That should have been all that was said during that first meeting. If it remained an ongoing issue, then it should have been addressed again in a stern fashion.

4. Always find the positive.
Cheesy but true. Every situation is a learning opportunity. Turn whatever happens into a positive. Brush off the incident unless it happens repeatedly. In all subsequent situations, even if it is a slight understanding, I look at the situation from the outside looking in and figure out what I could have done better. And sometimes, I know I did all I could. You can’t control people or how they react, but you can change how you deal with situations. The only next steps are to learn, grow, adapt, and continue onward and upward.

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