Five assumptions you can choose to make to prevent conflict escalation

“Don’t make assumptions!”. It’s a wise piece of advice we may have given or received when faced with a burgeoning conflict situation.

Tensions often arise between people because we make negative assumptions about what’s going on. We impute meaning to people’s words or actions. We guess at what they know and what they don’t know, what they’ve done or haven’t done. Sometimes we develop whole theories based on those assumptions.

In a conflict escalation cycle, assumptions become part of our narrative – the story we tell ourselves to make sense of what we are experiencing. With time, and further ‘evidence’ of the problem, which we see through the filter of what has already happened, our narrative hardens. It becomes difficult to see things any other way, especially if our ‘take’ on matters is reinforced by our allies.

Challenge the narrative

However, there are some helpful assumptions we can choose to make – or encourage others to make – when a potential conflict sparks into life.  These assumptions can help us avoid building a negative narrative and prevent conflict escalation.

Based on our experience as mediators, they create an open mindset that is ready to learn rather than take umbrage. They are applicable to the early stages of many conflict situations.

Impetus for early action

We can use them actively to challenge our thinking about a situation before it gets set in stone. They provoke ‘what if?’ questions we may not otherwise consider, including about our own part in the situation.

Crucially, rather than an excuse to ignore a problem, we can use them as an impetus to address it quickly. They suggest avenues to explore with the other person in an early informal chat to ensure things don’t fester or escalate.

Try these assumptions:

1. Assume an absence of malign intent on the other person’s part.

Consider what positive goal they might have had in the situation. Were they addressing one problem but unwittingly caused another? Could they have been trying to be helpful but handled things ham-fistedly? Did they have all the information they needed to handle things well?

Asking the person concerned: “What was your intention when you did X?” gives them the chance to explain their thinking. It also creates space for you to say how you experienced it. You can then discuss ideas for doing things differently next time.

2. Assume there’s been a misunderstanding.

Are you both clear about what happened and why? Have you heard directly from each other rather than via someone else? Did you share the same understanding of what was expected?

Mismatched expectations are a common feature of workplace conflict. Communication is not always as clear as it might be, especially in fast moving situations. People may hear different things in the same message. Words and phrases that are used to guide us at work can be very unhelpful too. ‘Professional’, ‘respectful’, ‘efficient’. What do they mean in practice? Being open to the possibility of crossed-wires means we can look beyond malign purpose for the cause of the problem.

Asking: “What is your understanding of what happened/should have happened?” is a good place to start in sharing your perspectives.

3. Assume they don’t know the impact of their behaviour.

If a colleague’s behaviour is affecting you or your work, have you told them? If not, how would they know?

There is usually tremendous resistance to this idea from the person on the receiving end of problem behaviour: “Of course they know. How could they not know?”. However, in mediations we find it is so often the case that people are shocked when they hear first-hand how the other person has been affected. They’ve had no idea. Either about what the impact has been or how deeply it has been felt.

Of course, making this positive assumption puts the onus on you to help the other person to understand the impact. Keeping the focus on the specific behaviour rather than labelling the person is the key to addressing it constructively.

4. Assume you can find some common cause with them.

What do you have in common in your work? Perhaps you both want a project to succeed or aim to improve team performance? Do you share a passion for what you do or are you driven by the same broad beliefs?

It’s easy when we are feeling angered or upset by someone to focus only on the differences between us. Focussing on shared goals or values puts the problem in a wider context.  It can also provide the foundation for a relationship re-set, or to wipe the slate clean and move on.

“Let’s agree to differ on X. We both want Y. What do we need to do to work well together on that?” This is the kind of approach that can help everyone move forward.

5. Assume they’ve got ‘stuff’ going on their lives too.

What might be going on for the other person? What pressures might they be under at work or at home? Were they having a bad day/ week?

Even before we consider the challenges of the pandemic, most of us have issues to deal with in our lives from time to time. Health problems, family matters, money worries and more. We’re not always able to leave them behind us when we come to work.

Having empathy for other people means putting ourselves in their shoes. Not everyone is able or willing to talk about personal problems with colleagues. Explaining the impact of the problem on you may encourage the other person to open up too. If they do, a simple expression of empathy (“I can hear that’s difficult for you.”) can go a long way to building bridges between you.

Taking responsibility for conflict resolution

Being able to deal well with inter-personal conflict is a valued skill in the workplace; it is critical in safeguarding well-being and productivity. Managing our own response – or helping others manage theirs – at the first sign of trouble helps. So too does being prepared to take the first steps to address it.

It can require bravery to have a tricky conversation. But far better to address things quickly than let things deteriorate. Seek support from someone who can facilitate if needs be, or offer it if that’s your role.

Acting early and with an open mind gives everyone the opportunity to learn, put things right and move on.

Do you need additional expertise to deal with a workplace conflict? Feel free to contact us, without obligation, to discuss the situation and whether mediation can help.

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