There’s no such thing as an office free of conflict. Unfortunately, most of us are really bad at dealing with it.
“Our workforce is having a really hard time right now and I think a lot of it is because [we] don’t know how to resolve conflict,” Clare Fowler, a law school instructor and author of the new book “Rising Above Office Conflict,” told a Harvard audience on Monday.
“Conflicts are coming up, but we don’t have a good example in place for … how to get through this stuff, especially how to get through it in a way that feels good,” Fowler said during an event hosted by the Law School’s Program on Negotiation. The problem is making the country’s mental health crisis even worse, she added, noting recent surveys showing that 89 percent of employees have experienced burnout in the past year, with many reporting anxiety and depression.
Fowler’s book, informed by academic theory and research, has a personal side: namely, conflict at home, and her family’s desire to navigate disagreements without devoting hours to dense material on conflict management. As an instructor at Pepperdine University School of Law’s Straus Institute and the University of Oregon School of Law, she also brings years of professional experience to the issue.
In her book, Fowler looks at 20 common behaviors that can lead to conflict at work, walking readers through how to be aware of and understand such behaviors and how to navigate tense situations without sacrificing their own needs and interests. The goal, she said, is to work toward understanding the other person’s point of view while communicating your own in a way that doesn’t lead to escalation.
“There’s a lot of junk out there that people say; you don’t have to let all of it in,” Fowler said in the Law School talk. “But you also don’t have to completely cancel them.” Even if you’re tempted to call a co-worker a “royal, raging jerk,” you can recognize that doing so is unlikely to help. Instead, Fowler advises, acknowledge their frustration and try to get to the root of the problem.
“If we feel heard, that’s when we’re at our most engaged,” she said.
Then there is conduct that rises to the point of abuse. When this happens, individuals tend to underreact (excusing, accepting, or enabling the behavior) or overreact (venting, attacking, or avoiding the other person entirely). Both responses are problematic. When we underreact, we unintentionally gaslight ourselves. When we overreact, we might feel better in the moment but the issue persists.
“This is the problem with continuous venting, with just being frustrated about something without actually talking to the person who we’re frustrated about,” Fowler said. “[It doesn’t] actually fix the problem.” In situations that go beyond what individuals can navigate themselves, it’s important to bring in a third party or mediator to intervene, she added.
It’s natural and human to experience conflict, in the office and in every other area of our lives. The important thing for people to know is that there are practical responses that can lead to a healthier, happier dynamic, said Fowler, whose main hope is that her book will empower readers and provide the support needed to address difficult situations.
“The purpose of this is to help people feel excited about resolving conflict instead of [being] scared of it,” she said.