As a fairly busy user of social media I often come across ‘How to’ articles and ‘Top Tips’ articles about ways of responding to, or communicating about a conflict. However their effectiveness as tips for resolving disputes is, in my view, very low.
These articles often seem to follow particular patterns within the tips given. However, when I am involved in disputes as a mediator or support individuals involved in a dispute as a conflict coach, many of these actions will have been taken by those involved – but they haven’t worked.
There are two main aspects to these tips that mean that they are never likely to be effective in resolving a situation. Of course they give a ‘strategy’ for responding to a difficult situation but a strategy is only useful if it works. This article assumes that ‘what works’ means an outcome where a situation is resolved rather than that there is one victor who arises from a long and bloody battle where, in essence, no one ‘wins’ because of the ongoing stress and anxiety that the strategies involve for everyone.
The two aspects that will usually appear in these ‘tips’ and ‘how to’ articles that are actually destructive in their approach are:
1. The dehumanisation of the person(s) with whom the reader may have a difficulty. By this I mean that they are given a label that is deemed to apply to all people who the reader sees as fitting the description and about whom there can be unquestioned stereotyping applied. The labels often appear in the title:
‘5 Tips for How to deal with The Office Bully‘,
‘How to stop Men controlling you’,
‘How to deal with Serial Complainers‘,
‘Want to be happy? Get rid of the Negative People in your life’,
‘How to deal with Difficult People‘.
The impact of these labels is to immediately set the reader apart from those who fall into the labelled group and so there is an immediate ‘us and them’ assumption to the article and the tips, strategies and how-to’s that follow. Inevitably this sets up an adversarial approach to the difficulty and as has been described elsewhere a competitive approach to conflict is always ineffective in leading to resolution, and this leads us on to the second feature of the tips and strategies within these articles…….
2. The strategies suggested are almost entirely adversarial in their approach or are a ‘preparation for battle’ rather than tips for resolving disputes. Even where communication with the person with whom the reader has a difficulty is suggested it is often described as an adversarial act. So, for example in an article I saw recently about ‘How to deal with a workplace bully’ there was a suggestion that the reader should ‘Confront your bully’. Not, you will notice, ‘communicate your concerns to the person you are having difficulty with’. The tips are more for ‘winning’ a dispute than tips for resolving disputes.
This is of particular interest to me as in many workplace disputes in which I have mediated, many adversarial acts will have been carried out within the dispute but one which is almost always missing is ‘communicate your concerns to the person’. Of course there may have been angry emails or arguments in meetings about a project or workplace activity but these will usually not have addressed concerns, they will have attacked the other person in some way, and, correspondingly the other person will have attacked/defended themselves in return. In other situations however someone may have been deemed a ‘bully’ but no communication has been made to the person in question about the nature of their behaviour that has been seen in that way.
So, let’s look at some of the tips that are often suggested and why they are not likely to lead to resolution, simply because they immediately adopt a competitive approach to conflict rather than one that seeks Learning, Connection and Insight, the ‘3-Cheers’ for conflict that make up the features of all resolved conflict situations.
In a recent article the first action listed was ‘Document it’. While the article didn’t say that actions were given in any prioritised order, it is interesting that the first action would be to get ‘evidence’ of the actions taken. It suggests ‘documenting every instance of bullying that you experience’.
Why is this unlikely to be useful in terms of resolution?
1. It assumes that ‘bullying’ is an agreed, objectively recognised behaviour rather than a subjective, contextual experience and therefore that what is ‘documented’ will later be agreed to be ‘bullying’. This is different to, for example, making a complaint where documentation is simply a record of what has been done in the process of complaining. It assumes that what the reader is encouraged to document is factually a record of bullying. But this can only be a subjective experience and until there has been a chance for actions and behaviours to be reviewed with the person involved it can only be a projected interpretation of the person’s actions. There’s no ‘right or wrong’ person in these situations, but there can be an open shared discussion about it rather than a belief that ‘documenting it’ proves the subjective interpretation to be objectively correct and that it will be useful as ‘evidence’ in a later adversarial forum.
2. Documenting it causes a focus only on ‘what’s wrong’ rather than on actions to try to resolve the situation. It does not engage with the other person or with the difficulties associated with the situation in some way.
3. It sets up a high expectation that documenting something will be a useful thing to do.This is not to say that inappropriate behaviour does not happen in workplaces, the point is that the idea that ‘documenting it’ establishes the actions to factually indicate bullying is misguided and an enormous source of frustration later in any such disputes. Those affected feel they are ‘not believed’ and that their ‘evidence’ is ignored, when it is usually not possible to take it as ‘evidence’ as it is a subjective interpretation of another’s behaviour. Some people see shouting as ‘bullying’ behaviour while others don’t, some see swearing as intimidating while others don’t, some tell people there and then in the moment that they don’t like or accept their behaviours or use of language, while others don’t but will tell others in another forum about how they dislike the person’s behaviour.
When I used to mediate in neighbour disputes a common action expected of neighbours experiencing noise disturbance or what they felt was anti-social behaviour was that they kept a diary of events that occurred, ‘because it would be evidence if it went to court’. Often the diaries would never be used and so all the time and effort a resident put into keeping them would feel like a waste of time. It also sometimes led to the resident focusing so much on the other person’s activities they stopped living their own lives – so for example we would come across people who would wait up at night rather than go to bed at their usual time in order to hear and then record a noise that their neighbour may make at, say, 1am- so that it could be used as ‘evidence’. Some local authorities would set a fixed time period for making such records, but I came across others where no such time period was set and neighbours had months and years’ worth of diaries that they hoped would some day be of use. Their entrenchment in ‘past events’ was arguably just as damaging to them as the actions of the neighbour themselves.
Another urging in the article about workplace bullying was about ‘sticking with your beliefs’ and not to ‘give in’ to the ‘bully’ – it says “The most important thing to do is not to be intimidated by the bully” – as if it is possible to control how we feel if we hold certain beliefs about someone and seems to assume there is an attempt at indoctrination occurring. Again, this appears in the list before any attempt to communicate with the other person and when that does come it is to ‘confront the bully’. After having ‘confronted the bully’ there is a tip that the reader should ‘Talk to a supervisor or HR if the bully seems indifferent’ (0r should that be ‘bewildered’ by the sudden confrontation without any prior attempt to discuss the behaviour in a non-confrontational manner?).
Beyond this step there is a suggestion of ‘Finding an attorney/solicitor’ if you have ‘tried everything’ (everything?)…’and nothing seems to have worked’.
Any number of forums that deal with the topic of bullying will show that there is no absolute definition of the label ‘bully’ but there is an industry that has grown about ‘tackling’ bullies.Often the tips for doing so are designed to be just as intimidating, humiliating and aggressive as the behaviour of the person labelled as a bully and this can be seen within the ‘How to’ tips that prompted this article.
When such tips and strategies are given and are adversarial in nature they come from an immediate assumption that the reader is in the ‘right’ and the other person is in the ‘wrong’ and so immediately adopt the fundamentally ineffective competitive approach to conflict. This history can be seen in many workplace disputes and in other contexts such as those suggested by the titles given above. It will almost always have led to an entrenchment of the participants, they will have been kept separate or at least one will have stopped coming in to work, stress and defensiveness will be a feature of the experience of both participants and those overseeing the situation will feel ‘channelled’ into procedures that they can see themselves will not end anywhere other than a dismissal or a leaving post, possibly followed by a claim for unfair or constructive dismissal.
Fortunately such immediate adversarial approaches are not reflected within the directions given by the UK Health and Safety Executive which suggest the following sequence of events, which are for most of the initial steps seeking a communicative, non-adversarial approach to an experience considered by someone to be bullying – note how, at all times it treats the perception as subjective rather than ‘factual’ and does not label the other person as a ‘bully’ at any time, maintaining an impartial and openness to the situation as a shared problem rather than a right/wrong polarity:
What can I do?
It can be extremely upsetting to be on the receiving end of what you perceive to be harassing or bullying behaviour, or to witness it. You may feel you are being overly sensitive or it may lower your self-esteem. If you are not sure how to tackle this very awkward subject there are a number of things you can do and many sources of support and information.
- Consult your organisation’s bullying and harassment policy
If your organisation has a policy, it should tell you what your first steps should be. The policy should include definitions of what your organisation regards as standards of acceptable behaviour. It should also advise you on how to start to address the issue – the first step is normally an informal discussion with your manager or a designated colleague to explore your concerns.
If your organisation does not have a policy, try the following:
- Speak to someone you feel comfortable talking to about your concerns.
This may be your manager, a colleague, a TU or staff representative, your employee assistance programme or other sources of support such as the helplines listed below. You could describe the behaviour you’ve been experiencing and get their opinion of whether it may constitute bullying or harassment. You may also want to mention your concerns, anonymously if necessary, to any stress working groups that your organisation has in place.
- Resolve the issue informally.
Many issues can be resolved informally. This may involve you, with the support of a colleague or manager, approaching the person whom you believe is treating your unfairly or inappropriately. You could describe the unacceptable behaviour and explain how it makes you feel and how you would like it to change. It may be that the perpetrator does not realise their behaviour is upsetting, so they need to be given the chance to modify their actions.
Mediation by a neutral third party can often be helpful in resolving difficult issues such as bullying or harassment. There may be trained mediators within your organisation, or contact one of the organisations listed below who may be able to provide such services.
- If informal resolution has not worked, follow a formal complaints procedure.
Your organisation will most likely have a formal complaints procedure. You need to follow this. If your complaint is upheld, your organisation may pursue a number of options.
- Legal action
Taking legal action is a complex process. Both you and your employer should take expert advice and legal representation.
Only after a lot of effort has been put into resolving a concern amicably and co-operatively through shared dialogue and self-reflection is it suggested that an adversarial approach should be taken. These tips for resolving disputes seek to establish Learning, Connection and Insight before using the competitive or avoidance responses that cannot lead to resolution of a dispute.
Are you having a difficult experience at work or elsewhere? Are you struggling with how to respond in a way that is self-supporting but also effective rather than adversarial and daunting? Contact CAOS Conflict Management for support via Conflict Coaching or Mediation or you may even want conflict management training for yourself and colleagues. Click on the links to find out more.
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Do you know someone who is experiencing an unresolved conflict and has been recommended some of the more adversarial ‘strategies’ described above and it is leading to stress and illness and a desire to leave their place of work? Please share this article with them via the sharing buttons below……