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Confronting Carol: How to Handle Confrontation at Work

8 Min Read

You’ve trained Carol for months and things haven’t been going well. She’s struggling. It’s like she hasn’t been listening to you this whole time . . . and now she’s actively ignoring you.

So, you start thinking of how you can change things. You wonder if you need to be direct and let her know you’ve been doing this job for years and are the expert. After all, if she wants to succeed, she needs to listen to you. Maybe you think it’s time to send a sternly worded email to Carol and carbon copy your manager to get the point across.

If you’ve ever been in this type of situation, it’s worth taking a step back. Acting hastily is a great way to lose your temper – or even your job. Don’t let frustration get the best of you. Learning how to deal with confrontation at work requires composure and understanding to reach an acceptable solution for all sides.

How to Handle Confrontation at Work

What should you do about Carol? Here are some steps for knowing how to confront a coworker professionally. Hopefully, they’ll come in handy whether you have a Carol in your work life or if you’re the one being confronted.

1. Prepare

The first thing you should do is prepare for the confrontation.

Examine your emotions and start planning what you’ll say to Carol. Take some time to think about your goals. Confronting someone with tact can improve your working relationship with that person as well as improve your working environment and quality of work. Remember that as you think of what you’ll say to Carol and how you say it.

Confrontation doesn’t have to be scary. It should lessen the tension. If you approach the whole situation as an opportunity for positive change, then you’ll have the right mindset for discussing misunderstandings or challenges with Carol.

If You’re Being Confronted: It’s certainly tough to prepare for something you don’t know is coming. What you can do is adopt a positive view of confrontation and conflict preemptively. That way, even if you’re caught off-guard with a tough conversation in the future, you’ll have the tools for responding to it well.

2. Check Your Emotions

Examine your emotions to see if you’re feeling and projecting the right things toward Carol in your upcoming conversation.

If you can already feel bitterness and defensiveness toward Carol, that’s a bad sign. Even if you don’t outright say something wrong, your body language and attitude could be a giveaway to her. It could undermine the conversation regardless of what you say.

Try to overcome any doubts you have during the conversation and speak with care. After all, you probably don’t know Carol’s story and why she’s frustrated. Maybe she’s received conflicting information from another coworker or your manager. Maybe she came from a workplace that did things a different way, and it’s simply taking some time to get used to things here.

Avoid making assumptions. Get into a state of mind that will help Carol sense that you care. Exude gentleness and friendliness.

If You’re Being Confronted: Do your best not to respond to confrontation with frustration. You may be blindsided by a coworker and not understand where that person is coming from. Take a step back emotionally from the situation and listen to what you’re coworker is saying. Then, you can process the matter and know how to respond, which can include discussing next steps or asking for some time to think about it.

3. Discuss the Matter

Discuss the situation with Carol openly and stick to the facts.

Those standards are vital for negotiations, according to M. Susan Taylor and Ashley Fielbig in “Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior.” A candid and open exchange of information about each party’s interests helps each side satisfy the other’s interest to some degree. Sticking to the facts helps eliminate various opinions that dictate the conversation too much.

Here’s where you’ll get valuable information from Carol. Hopefully, she’ll share why she’s doing things the way she has been, and you can share why you’re teaching her from a certain perspective. By looking at her training objectively, both of you can look at the situation from a wider angle. One or both of you could be operating from a certain expectation that’s not realistic. Maybe there’s something process-related at play that one or both of you don’t know.

If You’re Being Confronted: Be open to hearing the other person’s perspective so that you can get insight into where the other person is coming from. Keep the conversation productive by discussing the facts. That’s the best way to redirect the conversation if opinions and emotions are playing a prominent role.

4. Negotiate Solutions

Offer Carol some solutions that you came up with during the planning stage. You should have at least one or two options ready to go, and as the conversation takes place, you can modify what you’ve prepared or offer more solutions.

Say you believe another approach might help Carol with her training. So, you head into your meeting with her by offering to give feedback on her work more often. Or maybe instead of email-based input, you do it in person so she can hear your thought process for doing assignments.

Those solutions are helpful to have ready when entering in the meeting. If nothing changes, you could focus on them as ideal solutions.

But during your meeting, Carol might indicate that feedback isn’t the problem. She could be having a problem with the research required to complete projects. It could be a matter of not being comfortable with the company’s tools. New pieces of information like that could require you to offer another solution to help Carol learn the position well.

If You’re Being Confronted: You don’t have the advantage of being able to prepare potential solutions. Once you’re up to speed on what your coworker is saying and offering, discuss what you’d like from him or her. Maybe you’ll need to brainstorm something that your coworker hasn’t thought of. Express what you’re thinking and try to work out something that makes sense.

5. Use Your Backup Plan (If Needed)

If you and Carol can’t agree on a solution, try to come up a “BATNA” — best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

Taylor and Fielbig recommended a BATNA to help people not feel forced to accept an undesirable offer just to end a negotiation. It can be a strong alternative if Carol isn’t meeting your interests or goals. In the place of an agreement, you’ll have options to keep both of you moving forward.

What might that look like? You might need to continue training Carol as you get further input from your manager. Or, if you’ve discussed the matter with your manager before meeting Carol, your BATNA may involve you asking your manager if someone else should train her.

Sometimes you’ll reveal your BATNA and sometimes you won’t. In the situation with Carol, it’s probably best to avoid mentioning those alternatives and go to your manager with them. Your short-term communication with Carol should be focused on maintaining and improving your relationship. One of the worst things would be for your task-related conflict with Carol to spiral into a relationship conflict (issues not related to work). You don’t want Carol to think you just dislike her. That would only lead to more problems.

If You’re Being Confronted: If the two of you can’t come up with a solution in the meeting, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a day or two to think about it. That’ll buy you some time to come up with solutions and a BATNA.

Managing Conflict in the Workplace

There’s another perspective for dealing with confrontation at work. How should managers get involved?

One way managers can help is by stopping negative conflict before it starts. Conflict doesn’t have to harm working relationships and harm productivity. When framed correctly, conflict is helpful. Teams challenge each other and people consider opposing ideas. As a result, building and reinforcing a healthier view of conflict can prevent disagreements from having as much power as they sometimes do. The earlier example with Carol is evidence of how conflict can become a major distraction and lead to further issues.

Managers can also help mediate conflicts. If conversations like the one with Carol don’t go well, employees should receive guidance from their manager. The manager will be able to help guide the discussion in a productive way and engage each party in problem-solving.

Sadly, managers don’t often receive training for managing conflict in the workplace. If that describes you, the right education can help you manage conflict and become a better communicator. Earn an online MBA that emphasizes strategic leadership, business ethics, and other areas that directly impact how you lead others. You’ll also receive instruction in areas like economics, finance and accounting, marketing, and more.

Earn one of the most sought-after degrees in a fully online format from Concordia University, St. Paul. There’s no GMAT or GRE score required, and you can transfer up to 50% of your graduate credits to CSP. Pursue your career goals and learn from professors who have real-world experience.

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