Talk It Out

Conflict-resolution expert Tammy Lenski offers six tips to successfully address problems at work

Annabelle waits patiently for her next meeting

PHOTOGRAPH BY GUIDO VITTI FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

1. Pick your battles

“We can’t take on every little thing that bothers us, otherwise we’d all be very short with each other at all times,” says Lenski. Learn to discern between annoying habits and actual problems that impede your work. Fingernail biting? Not an appropriate issue. Not finishing a project on time? Yes, you must talk about that. Schedule a specific time to talk privately, rather than in front of outside parties — that just invites gossip.

2. Don’t feel guilty

“Healthy companies aren’t companies without conflict. They’re companies that know how to deal with it,” says Lenski. Sometimes conflict can be a good thing: It means that people care about their jobs enough to form solid opinions. If they work through their differences, they’ll come to a solution that’s better for everyone.

3. Know cultural norms

“I always tell people to be aware of geographical and ethnic culture. Everyone has different ways of doing things,” she says. If someone appears unnaturally offended or confused by what you’ve said, clarify where you’re coming from. What’s polite in New York City isn’t necessarily polite in the South or Midwest.

4. Beware of overthinking

“If you’re skiing down the slope and you stare at an icy spot, you’re going to go right into it. Similarly, don’t think about what could go wrong in the conversation. Look more broadly at your opportunity to address an issue,” Lenski says. You can’t plan an entire conversation; do your best and go with the flow.

5. Try not to rush through the awkwardness

“Fast conflict resolution isn’t necessarily good conflict resolution,” says Lenski. Spend time outlining the situation rather than assigning blame; that way, you have “a good, nonjudgmental grasp” of the problem. “Don’t just point out the other person’s flaws. Be open to the fact that you most likely have some, too.”

6. When it’s over, it’s over

Once a problem’s resolved, you have to get over it. You can’t hold grudges; they will only lead to more conflicts.

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