Being Hard on the Problem – Not the Person

What is meant by the title of this section?  Often when we are feeling angry at what another person has said or done we see the person as the problem. We become very “hard” on that person and view what they say and do in a negative light. As long as we see the other person as the problem there is little chance of an improved working relationship.

When addressing workplace conflict it is important to analyze the issues from both your perspective and the perspective of the other person. The adage “walk a mile in my shoes” is appropriate when it come to conflict as it is important to have empathy and understanding of the other person’s experience, not just our own. Following are some tips for analyzing the issues underlying the conflict.

  • Ask yourself:

    What is this conflict about?
    What does the issue appear to be on the surface?
    What is it about this issue that has me upset and angry?
    Do I have underlying concerns, wants, or needs that are not being met?
    What is needed to improve on my present circumstances?

  • Try to guess what factors might be contributing to the conflict for the other person.

    How might they see the situation?
    How might your colleague be viewing your actions?
    What needs might s/he have?
    What is  important to that other person?

  • Own your own perceptions, that is, acknowledge that the way you see the situation is not necessarily the way the other person or others might see the situation.
  • Assess whether you have made assumptions about the other person’s intentions or actions that need to be checked out.
  • Examine what your expectations are of the other person or of the situation and in what ways your expectations were not met. Would the other person be aware of or share your expectation?
  • Consider what your alternatives are should you be unsuccessful in resolving this conflict. This will help you better understand your situation and alternatives. A feeling of having choices always lowers anxiety and fear.
  • Consider whether there are external factors impacting the working relationship.

    Did your supervisor give unclear directions to both of you?
    Is there a lack of consensus in the department on what an effective timetable looks like?
    Are there pressures on one or both of you to achieve unreasonable goals?

  • Describe the problem in a non-blaming, non-personalized manner.

    Example: “I believe one of our problems is communication. I don’t know what you need to get your job done and you don’t know what I need to get my job done.”

    Some of the elements of the statement above are that the problem is described:

    1. Using an “I” statement, so it is clearly being acknowledged as your opinion (not as objective truth, such as “It is clear the problem is…”)
    2. As mutual (our problem)
    3. Using a neutral term (communication, not poor communication or “you never talk to me!”)
    4. With parity between the parties (You don’t know and I don’t know…)

    If you can describe the problem without blaming, put-downs or generalizing about the other person, then you are ready to be hard on the problem, not the person.