When two or more colleagues come to my office, either voluntarily or by referral from their employer, one of the most often identified coaching goal involves learning how to effectively confront problems while eliminating destructive conflict. There are many reasons for why destructive conflict occurs in the workplace, but there is really only one effective way to consistently decrease it.
Most conflicts start when one person speaks up with a concern or complaint. Too often, the message is delivered in a harsh, critical fashion which increases the likelihood of a negative or retaliatory reaction. Very quickly, the emotions of both parties begin to overflow the banks of self-control and good judgment.
In an effort to help coworkers change their destructive pattern of communication I encourage them look at the complaint, no matter how it is delivered, as an expression of emotional hunger. If your body doesn’t get the food it needs, you will experience physical hunger and your stomach will growl. When an emotional need is not met, the “growl” usually occurs in the form of a complaint or criticism. So when your coworker whines, gripes, nags or complains it may reflect a need to be emotionally fed and nourished.
But here’s an unfortunate reality: When I ask the colleagues to describe a recent conflict, I often find that once a complaint has been expressed (translation: “I’m hungry. Please feed me!”) I find that most people ignore the request and begin feeding their own needs instead by defending, blaming, criticizing and explaining. Often, they will react with a counter-complaint of their own which conveys the message, “My hunger is more important than yours and your needs don’t matter to me.”
You can see now why it’s so easy to become offended and to quickly ascend the emotional escalator. After all, this person is refusing to give you what you need, and to add insult to injury they feed themselves right in front of you. Frankly, that hurts.
Of course the answer becomes obvious – conflict can often be avoided when someone’s emotional hunger is fed. So how do you feed your coworker’s need? I suggest you learn how to RAVE. A RAVE response involves four key ingredients: Reflection, Acknowledgment, Validation and Empathy.
Here’s an example: Linda arrives at a managers meeting and discovers that Debbie didn’t compile the numbers their department was supposed to report as she had agreed to do. Annoyed, Linda says, “I can’t believe it! You promised to have that project done for this meeting and now we’re going to look like fools for being unprepared!”
Typically, Debbie’s first instincts would be to ignore Linda’s hunger – in this case, a fear of embarrassment and need for approval – and feed her own need for self-esteem and justification by snapping back, “What do you expect? I missed two days with the flu and when I came back I had that extra project on my desk with a memo that said it was a priority! It wouldn’t have been that hard for you to work on it while I was sick! Get over it.” She might even choose to tell Linda just how emotionally hungry she is by adding, “And what about last week when you took the credit for my cost-saving idea?” You can see how destructive these responses might be.
Even if Debbie had good reasons for not having the report ready for the meeting, she would be wise to hold off on sharing her own frustrations until Linda’s emotional hunger is fed.
What do you think would happen if Debbie’s response went something like this?
Reflection: “I did say I would compile those figures for the meeting and I know you were counting on giving that report today.” Acknowledgment: “I promised, but I didn’t follow through.” Validation: “I don’t blame you for being upset.” Empathy: “I think I would be disappointed and frustrated too.” At this point it would also help to feed Linda’s emotional hunger by saying something restorative like, “I’m sorry. When the meeting starts, I will take responsibility for being unprepared so it won’t reflect on your job performance, and I will get the information to the CEO by the end of the day.”
If you were in Linda’s shoes and your colleague gave you a RAVE response wouldn’t it reduce the likelihood of the conversation turning into an all out conflict? Of course it would – and it’s because your emotional hunger was satisfied. This type of honest, caring communication has the potential of reducing most of the conflict in your work setting and creating greater cooperation and collaboration between colleagues.
You certainly don’t have to use the RAVE response every time a complaint is expressed because many small irritations don’t represent a significant “hunger pang.” Sometimes we all just need to allow one another to vent frustrations. But if you make an effort to read between the lines to discover your fellow employee’s unspoken need, you will develop the ability to sense if he or she has been seriously offended. If so, the RAVE response has the potential to nourish and satisfy both of you very well.
Live, Work and Relate Well!