Office Workers Arguing

Are you ‘Type A,’ endlessly obsessing over deadlines and details, or ‘Type B,’ a relaxed procrastinator? Maybe you define yourself as an introvert or extrovert; or perhaps you have taken a quiz that reveals personality as a color, like red or blue. Others define themselves through an assessment which divulges four major elements of character and are labeled by a series of letters. Whether you follow a personality binary or believe in the 16 personality types, many psychologists argue that our social responses are based on a coded pattern, exposed through gut-reaction tests.

A simple definition of personality theory states: “The study of personality has a broad and varied history in psychology with an abundance of theoretical traditions. The major theories include dispositional (trait) perspective, psychodynamic, humanistic, biological, behaviorist, evolutionary, and social learning perspective.” Obviously, this is a complex topic, with many probable influencers! Well documented research suggests that varying personality types lend themselves to certain industries. Conversely, newer reports argue that no matter your disposition, success is dependent on teamwork. For instance, behavior based upon values and endurance may have just as great an impact on performance as your innate personality. These theorists suggest we can modify our behaviors and attitudes in response to various stimuli, and we are not inextricably linked to foundational personality. No matter your belief, there is something to be said about the concept, as regardless, both lines of thought suggest that to an extent, our choices are results of our personalities.

These choices can occur in the form of style, living arrangements, hobbies, and relationships. However, in the workplace setting especially, we may encounter various hierarchies and social scenarios we wouldn’t normally place ourselves within. How then, with upwards of 16 personalities, and boundless choices to make, should we handle inevitable workplace strife?

Words matter, and how they are expressed is vital. Ever heard the phrase: It’s not just what you say, but how you say it? Even the best of intentions can cause a situation to go array if we are not perceptive of our coworkers. The highest functioning team may occasionally struggle due to differences in personality. This is not to say dissimilar people can’t work well together; in fact, if we consider a series of conflict resolution choices, that diversity may be to the benefit of the team! So when you find that tension is boiling under the surface, what can be done to repair the problem?

We first should recognize that stress and tension is typically related to negative emotions, which are difficult to talk about. We should understand that there may be some avoidance to deal with the negativity, because who truly wants to feel upset or attacked? As suggested, personality also plays a key role in these emotions: your response to stress may impact interaction with others. Knowing this response can allow us to make appropriate choices or compensations to redirect an adverse scenario. Otherwise, those feelings will only grow, so while this is difficult discourse, don’t let a needed chat be put off for too long.

When should this hashing of words be undertaken? While you may be mentally prepared to have a trying conversation, this doesn’t mean all parties involved will be ready simultaneously. A useful tip is to send a note, or make a quick stop to the office, and request a meeting. You might say: “I’d like to talk with you about X, and set up a time that will work best for both of us to have this discussion. I’d like to do this sometime within the week.” Continue by offering times you are free. As stated, be aware that your coworker may not be ready to talk, and need to prepare themselves; this is why it is suitable to share the topic and provide a timeframe.

When you are both prepared to converse, now what? Do not spend excessive time trying to defend different versions of the past. Honestly, who did what is less central than understanding why the disagreement occurred in the first place, and then how to resolve it. Mindsets of “you’re wrong” and “I’m right” become a cyclical blame game that is only going to increase tensions—it takes two to tango. While cliché, the sentiment is accurate. If you played a role in the event which led to the problem, admit it, and then move forward. Individual personalities affect the perception of other’s actions. For instance, what you may have felt was a necessary mood-lightening joke, the other person may see as a personal attack. While you know you weren’t trying to commit a wrong, explaining to someone why they are “incorrectly” interpreting the situation will only continue to invalidate their feelings. If you were not involved, and are acting as an ombudsman, or truly are inculpable, it is still wise to discuss the issue rather than the person.

Now that we are equipped to talk about the why and how (rather than the who) there are several approaches to the actual conversation. While you avoid trivializing other’s feelings, it is also important to be clear, honest, and seek resolution. How you hold the dialog will be dependent on how many people need to be addressed, the regularity of the occurring incident, and you guessed it . . . the different personalities involved! So what can you do?

Actively listen. You know your thoughts on the subject, so take the time to learn what the other person must say. While you’re listening consider body language. Sit calmly and fully face the person you are speaking to—avoid crossing your arms and legs. If you must cross your legs, do so at the ankle, so you’re still largely “open,” i.e. receptive, to the other person. Make eye contact. Look at the bridge of someone’s nose if you’re uncomfortable looking directly in the eyes . . . they won’t know the difference! Nod your head and if appropriate, even slightly smile to suggest understanding and attentiveness.

Take your turn also to let some of the emotions out if you need to, but remember, be careful of assigning blame. This is where personal pronouns really matter. Personal pronouns include “I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them.” Some of these are inherently more accusatory than others, depending on the situation. For example: “When you ran the meeting, you made the rest of us appear inferior to the board;” versus “When the meeting took place, I felt that my work wasn’t properly represented.” The first sentence lends itself to blaming an individual, whereas the second example begins a discussion of the actual problem.

Remember ENG 101 in college? Many professors forbade the use of second person of “you” and “your” in academic essays because such terminology is isolating to the audience. What if the person reading your work does not feel they are the representative “You?” Maybe even during this writing, admittedly littered by a second person, you’ve found yourself scoffing at the claims being made. Have you cried out, each time that aggravating you crops up: “but this isn’t me!” Imagine that feeling during an argument. Using the second person can lead to feelings of isolation, or being singled out, which often causes people to become defensive. They not only have to protect their ideas and actions but their own self—their personality. In the workplace, when conflict arises, consider using phrases leading with the first person, such as “I felt…. I observed…. I believe…” rather than “You did this…” or “When you said…” Remember to keep the focus on the concerns.

Furthermore, framing the argument through your own perspective is valuable in resolving conflict, because it provides a counterargument. Just as you may hope to become familiar with coworker’s perspectives, you should also express your apprehensions. Using “I” gives a new lens to the discussion, which distinguishes the argument in terms of what occurred, rather than who enacted the most damage.

During conflict resolution, it is also critical to ask questions. What do you need to learn about the occurrence to move forward? After the other person has vented, are there points to their argument you don’t understand? Ask clarifying but pointed questions such as, ‘Why did X upset you?” “How did you view X?” Also, do not be afraid to summarize what the person has told you. “So I think you said X, am I understanding this correctly?” By asking engaged questions, and even paraphrasing shared commentary, you are demonstrating an awareness and eagerness that should hopefully inspire your coworker to seek resolution.

Resolution is the ultimate goal. First, you must be fully prepared and willing to reach a resolution, even if that means compromising. Yet, if you are involved in a situation where, even after learning the other side, you still find yourself in dissent, there is a way to approach this. It may be beneficial to explain your opinions through suggestions such as: “I understand X and the goals you’ve presented. I’d like to suggest, A and B as alternative means to accomplish our goal;” or “Perhaps we can try this…” and “What are your thoughts on…” Allow the conversation to flow between the participants. An exchange of ideas allows you to share concerns, while still hearing out what others think. It may be that sometimes you place a time limit on the tête-à-tête, and agree to return to it if needed. As articulated before, sometimes we need to step back before we begin, and sometimes we also need to take a break in the middle.

During other affairs, you may be the one needing to provide critical feedback. Perhaps there is a disruptive coworker who is affecting the rest of the staff. Whether you are directly involved or not, again, it is important to remain neutral so that the person does not feel ganged up on. Declarations such as “I’ve overheard X that I’d like to discuss with you, as it’s made me feel upset . . .” “I thought I should discuss this with you . . .” “I’d like to understand this statement…” “I’d like to discuss your intentions…” are most advantageous.

Maybe you are the disruptive coworker! Let’s say you turned a project in late. It’s best to approach the affected party, whether a peer or supervisor, and explain: “I recognize my role in this situation…” “I need to share some information…” “I’d like to discuss…”

Conflict resolution is much like a debate. The first side presents a claim with evidence, the second side offers a rebuttal, and then the first side once more addresses the claim. Useful phrases to include during this conversational exchange include “I can understand that;” “I get it;” and “Thanks for sharing this.” What would not be appropriate is yelling, name-calling, or personal attacks. While you may be able to stay calm, even with a warning, your coworker might not keep their cool. It’s not a healthy or conducive working environment to be yelled at. It is also not acceptable to have to engage with someone who is creating an inappropriate and unsafe working environment. This is where understanding the company culture is imperative. What are the promoted values and who upholds them? If you feel that your rights are being harmed, do you go to a supervisor or to Human Resources? This may be good to know before even starting a job. Understanding what steps are taken to reach a resolution and handle the multiple personalities on board is imperative. A traditional managerial ladder, or leveled peer collaborations, will surely affect the way conflict is addressed.

Personality may be a driving force behind your initial response system, but it does not necessarily suggest that you’re bound to one behavior. Personality does not need to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you make conscious effort to improve the situation. In the end, treating both your peers and the situation with respect, even when you don’t full agree, will lead to a healthy, fruitful working environment.