Understanding the difference between what we think and feel about a situation, and what we need and want to happen in that situation – these are the building blocks of conflict resolution.
Last week, we focused on how people respond to workplace conflict, and which situations might call for specific responses. This week, we want to discuss the first building block of conflict resolution: Thinking vs Feeling. Next week, we’ll focus on the second building block, Needs vs. Wants. These building blocks are critical to understanding the dynamics of workplace conflict.
Thinking vs. Feeling
All feelings and all emotions are reactions to things we think.
Sometimes it’s hard to separate our thoughts from our feelings, especially in a conflict situation. Thoughts often are fleeting or even unconscious, leaving us unaware of them. But have no doubt: we have a specific, identifiable thought before we react emotionally. The key is to slow down and determine the thoughts behind the feelings.
Here is the model we use to break down a conflict situation:
Stimulus → Thought → Feeling → Response
Let’s examine the following example of Dave and Fred:
Dave is promoted to graphic design manager in a large marketing firm. He is a high-energy, proactive person with a passion for meeting deadlines.
Fred is a skilled graphic design artist. His personality is low-key and he works best under pressure. As a result, he often appears to move slowly—until a deadline is looming.
Dave asks Fred how work is coming on the XYZ Company account. The deadline for delivery is in one week, and Fred responds calmly that it’s all under control. Dave states that he’d like to review the work completed to date. Fred shrugs and says he hasn’t worked on it yet.
Dave explodes, yelling at Fred. Dave tells him he’s lazy and insists that Fred work overtime to get started on the project.
Dave’s response appears instantaneous, right? Remember: he had a thought that preceded his emotional response and choice of action. Let’s review the chain of events using our model above:
Stimulus: Work has not begun and the deadline is next week.
Thought: If Fred were like me, he’d have started by now.
Feeling: Anger that we’ll miss the deadline.
Response: Demand overtime work to meet the deadline.
If we look at what really happened, we can see that Dave could have diffused the conflict at the “Thought” stage. Dave’s initial thought – perfectly understandable considering his personality – was “If Fred were like me, he would have started by now.” At that point, Dave could have paused and considered the following:
- Not everyone works like I do
- I should find out if Fred typically delivers good results, and, if so, I should trust his work style even if it differs from mine
- Maybe Fred is someone who works well under pressure
- Maybe Fred is planning to work late a few days to finish the project
Remember: when we make a conscious decision based on logic and rationality, we dramatically increase our chance of resolving a conflict. Learning how to differentiate between our thoughts and feelings is a critical skill for resolving workplace conflicts.