How to NOT Play Fair: Destructive Responses to Conflict

In previous posts I talked about constructive ways to respond to conflict at work. Of course, there are destructive ways to handle conflict as well, but I wanted to focus on what TO do first, rather than what NOT to do.

When faced with conflict, here’s what NOT to do: yell, throw stuff, use a sarcastic tone, hide your emotions, or run away. Destructive conflict tactics may be the only ones you’ve learned, but they break down relationships instead of building them up. It’s important to recognize destructive conflict tactics and avoid them at all costs.

 Active Destructive Responses

Just like your constructive responses to conflict are classified as active or passive, destructive responses can be active or passive as well. Active destructive responses to conflict, which are often described as “fight,” include:

  • Winning at all costs
  • Aggressively displaying anger
  • Demeaning others
  • Retaliating

If you engage in these dysfunctional behaviors, you are effectively showing your team that you are not a team player. Active destructive responses prolong and escalate the conflict. You also alienate other people, cause resentment, and erode trust.

Winning at all costs is defined as:

  • Holding on tenaciously to your ideas and suggestions
  • Blaming others or making excuses for your poor behavior
  • Rationalizing your ideas or behavior, even when you know better

Example of what NOT to say: “This is your problem. If you don’t like the way I’m acting, I suggest you stop annoying me by constantly complaining about every little thing!”

Aggressively displaying anger looks like this:

  • Raising your voice
  • Using harsh words
  • Lashing out with hostile outbursts or throwing a tantrum

Example of what NOT to say: “You are the most irresponsible person I know. I should have learned by now, if I want something done right I have to do it myself.”

Demeaning others means:

  • Being sarcastic
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Speaking in a contemptuous, sneering manner

Example of what NOT to say: “I know this will be difficult for you, but could you think of someone besides yourself for a change?”

Retaliating behaviors are:

  • Giving the other person a taste of their own medicine
  • Sabotaging
  • Lying; pretending things are fine so you can set your trap
  • One-upping the other person
  • Using your power to create consequences unrelated to the crime

Example of what NOT to say: “How did that feel? I bet you didn’t like it, did you? Well, neither did I, when you did it to me.”

Passive Destructive Responses

Passive destructive responses to conflict, which are often called “flight,” include:

  • Avoiding
  • Yielding
  • Hiding emotions
  • Self-criticizing

People who withdraw in response to conflict often make the mistake of thinking they aren’t guilty of acting aggressive because they don’t display “fight” behaviors. Sorry, you’re not off the hook. Passive destructive responses–which are more commonly exhibited by introverts–are just as damaging to your work relationships.

Avoiding is defined as:

  • Changing the subject or dodging questions
  • Refusing to make eye contact
  • Going out of your way to avoid interactions

Example of what NOT to do: I’ll pretend to be really busy so she won’t come in and ask me about the pay increase again.

Yielding looks like:

  • Compromising your values
  • Not voicing disagreement
  • Letting others take credit for your work

Example of what NOT to say: “I don’t care. Whatever you want is fine with me.”

Hiding emotions means:

  • Being vague, cryptic, or unclear in your communication
  • Using words to state pleasant emotions while acting out unpleasant emotions with your body language
  • Not acknowledging your feelings, even to yourself

Example of what NOT to say: “I am fine,” or “Everything is fine.”

Self-criticizing behaviors are:

  • Over-analyzing your own actions
  • Beating yourself up
  • Revisiting past conflicts too frequently

Example of what NOT to say: “I just can’t ever do anything right.” 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Not only do you need to avoid the bad behaviors, you have to learn and practice the good ones. In past issues of my newsletter, I provided tips for responding positively to conflict. Changing your conflict-response habits takes time, but with some practice, you will get better at engaging in conflict productively. When you do, you will be more in control of both yourself and the outcomes of your interactions with others.

You can’t change anyone else, but you can influence other people’s behavior by taking the high road and responding to conflict constructively and skillfully.

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