Have you ever wondered why people react a certain way in the workplace? Has this caused conflict in the workplace? This article might explain why...

You may have heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, represented by conquest, war, famine and death. Well you could very well be one of these horsemen according to psychology experts. 

Further to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the idea of the 'Four Horsemen of conflict' was developed by psychological researcher Dr John Gottman in 1994. While Gottman's research focused on marriage conflict, the idea of the horsemen can be translated to any kind of conflict, including situations which arise in the workplace. 

So what are the four types of conflict and how can we manage these. 

Gottman identified four types of conflict; criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling 

Each of these are explained further below. 

1.  Criticism 

A criticism attaches a person. In the workplace criticism is often characterised by a person who inadvertently hurts the feelings of another person by using an off-handed comment or even a poorly worded email, for example 'You're a bad communicator because you don't keep me updated on projects'. 

Tips for managing criticism:

  • Watch your language - the easiest way to avoid criticism is to make sure the feedback you’re giving cannot be taken as a personal attack.
  • Instead of criticising the person's actions, use 'I' and feeling statements for example, 'I feel this way' - it's hard to retaliate when it's about the way someone feels. 
  • Avoid using accusatory statements with 'you' statements, for example, 'you are this' or 'you do this' These types of statement came come across accusatory and result in the person becoming more interested in defending themselves.
  • Avoid making generalisations or broad swiping statements like 'you always'. 
  • Try putting yourself in the other persons position - how would you like to be addressed.

2.  Contempt 

Often the most challenging of the four types of conflict, if identified early, contempt needs immediate attention. 

Contempt can build on from criticism and is characterised where an employee is disrespectful, ridiculing or talks down to their co-workers. 

Contempt can also be displayed in more subtle ways, including sarcasm and workplace gossip.

Tips for managing contempt: 

  • Try showing appreciation to the employee by acknowledging good work and thanking them for their contribution. 
  • Call out contempt when you see it and address behaviour close to the event. However, remember to focus on the behaviour not the person when having this conversation

3.  Defensiveness      

Defensiveness is a natural response and is part of the brain's fight or flight response. 

When a person becomes defensive they are unlikely to take on feedback but rather start building a case to defend themselves. 

Tips for managing defensiveness:

  • Practice empathy by actively listening or mirroring - for example, 'Ok, it sounds like you’re feeling ….., did I get that right?’ Validate that feeling with something like ‘I can understand how frustrating that must be.’”  This technique is similar to using the empathy loop.

4.  Stonewalling

The final of the four conflict types is stonewalling. Stonewalling is the opposite to defensiveness and is the flight side of the 'fight' or 'flight'. 

Stonewalling is where a person becomes withdrawn from the relationship, and often results in that person not including certain people into conversation. This type of behaviour can be damaging and can often result in bullying and harassment complaints. 

Conflict avoidant people are most prone to stonewalling. 

Tips for managing stonewalling behaviour:

  • Take a break or end the conversation for the time being to allow the person space to get some perspective. 
  • Provide the employee with helpful options to manage their emotions i.e. referral to your EAP.
  • Provide a supportive environment when engaging with the employee. 

For further information contact E&IR Consulting - https://eandirconsulting.com.au/.

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