Mindfulness in the Workplace: Conflict Management

Oct 31, 2017 | Stephen Jackson

We’ve all been there. You’re certain you’ve handled an email or set up a meeting in the best possible way, but your colleague feels he is aware of the superior method of doing things, and you get in an argument, Maybe it’s solved or maybe it escalates, but either way, you both feel you could have had a better Tuesday morning.

While there are many approaches to conflict resolution out there, I was curious about the how someone trained in meditation and mindfulness instruction feels about this issue. So for the next installment in our series on Mindfulness in the Workplace, I spoke again with Amanda Gilbert about the best ways we can go about handling conflicts at the office (or kitchen, or wherever it is you work).

It’s pretty much impossible to avoid conflict in the workplace altogether, but there are certainly ways to go about handling disagreements on the job. This is not only important in terms of promoting a healthy environment in a place you spend most of your waking hours: Conflict at the workplace also has a direct impact on the dollars and cents of a business.

One study found that U.S. employees spend an average of 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, a frequency that translates to billions of dollars worth of paid hours that could have been spent much more productively.

Gilbert feels that your job is actually a great place to develop better skills when it comes to managing your emotions and that opportunities abound where we can learn to take better stock of what it is that’s actually making us upset when conflicts arise. Let’s take a look at some highlights from our conversation.

A Proving Ground for Navigating Emotions

“The workplace is your place to take ownership and responsibility for the feelings you are having,” Gilbert says, explaining that this can apply to interactions you have with co-workers, business partners, or anyone else you may be dealing with on a professional level. “If you’re frustrated, if you’re annoyed, or if you’re upset, being at work provides an opportunity to more skillfully navigate these feelings, and more skillfully move into action around these feelings.”

She goes on to say that one misconception about those who practice mindfulness, or the deliberate action of bringing one’s thoughts into the present moment, is that they become very passive about these feelings and can potentially become zenned-out doormats.

“Actually, what tends to happen is that as we become more mindful of our thoughts and feelings — especially around conflict — is that we can actually discern the appropriate steps and actions to take that will lead to the best possible outcome and the least amount of suffering and harm.”

Name Your Anger

“The first step is just to become aware of your initial reaction,” Gilbert says. “Then you can actually see if this is a habitual way of reacting to this person or this project or situation, regardless of what just happened.” She says that deep-seated bad habits surrounding particular people or scenarios can often be built up in such a way that there’s no room for a new way of relating to these people or situations.

“Even by just naming your emotion — Ah! Anger. Ah! Frustration — you can really sense where it is in your body and see what your frustration and annoyance actually looks like,” Gilbert says. “You can bring that moment of recognition of your reaction and your feelings, and from taking that ownership over your personal experience, then you can begin to discern and take stock of what’s really going on. It’s what we call ‘bearing attention’ in the mindfulness world.”

What’s the Story?

“Once we recognize our feelings, and recognize our reactivity, we can then begin to discern the stories and the narratives and all the extra stuff that we immediately start putting onto the conflict. Usually it’s our stories and our narratives about things that actually create the most conflict within ourselves first, and then everything around us because we’re reacting from that place of stories and narratives.”

For example, let’s say you get an email from a coworker in which they shoot you a nasty or undermining comment. The first thing you might do is create a set of stories around why they might have done that (they think they’re better than you, they think they’re smarter than you, etc.).

“That’s the narrative that will start the inner conflict within ourselves, and then we’ll shoot back the equally — or even more — rude response, and totally escalate the situation. Mindfulness comes in and helps us pause and recognize our own feelings and reactions and decide to take ownership over our own experience and see things more clearly.”

Gilbert then explains that from there, you can start to handle things differently, allowing wiser action to come into play, especially around conflicts at work.

“Usually, there’s a communication problem to some degree — someone isn’t communicating clearly enough, or they aren’t aware of how what they’re saying saying is affecting those around them,” she says. “So my suggestion is to bring in mindful communication skills, mindful listening and mindful speaking. When we’re able to separate out what’s actually happening versus our stories and narratives about what’s happening, we are then actually able to approach people in a totally different manner.”