SATIRE: (Don’t) Ask Gemma: How to deal with work-related conflict

Being passive might make your job a bit difficult to do — so do you advocate for yourself?

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LAUREN PETTIT

What’s the best way to start liking conflict? Do you become a ball of fire, or simply learn to speak up?

EMMA LEDBETTER and DIANA RIOS

Dear Emma,

I am a very passive, conflict-averse person. My employment makes it hard to be both of those things and still do a good job. I need to figure out how to like conflict — and fast. A few close coworkers know I am like this and encourage me to stand up for myself when it comes to work-related conflict. I just can’t seem to force myself to advocate for what I think is right or disagree with anyone in the office. 

Please help!

Anti-conflict


Dear Anti-conflict,

I’m sorry to hear you are struggling at work because of your passivity. That is difficult to deal with, but I’m glad you’re aware of your problem.

My first recommendation is to know your audience. Who in particular do you struggle to disagree with? Is it your boss? Older or well-respected colleagues? Just your coworkers in general?

You mentioned you have several close coworkers who encourage you to stand up for yourself. If you’re having trouble identifying who you are avoiding conflict with, perhaps you could enlist their help. If they know you have trouble disagreeing with people, they may also pay attention to what situations you struggle in. Ask them for any insight they can offer.

Once you have diagnosed who causes your conflict aversion and what situations it arises in, try pushing yourself to engage more in those situations. This will be hard, but I promise it will be worth it.

If you are prone to check out in a meeting where coworkers are arguing, force yourself to take notes instead of staring at a wall. If you have trouble butting into the conversational flow, you could set a goal of one interruption per meeting. If you hear coworkers debating and your instinct is to walk the other way, force yourself to head their direction, even if it means getting sucked into the debate.

I know how hard it can be to be conflict-averse. The best way to manage that is to figure out where your issues are and then make a conscious effort not to avoid them. Setting goals for yourself, even ones that feel small, will help you in this.

Now, the important part of this is to reward yourself for any steps you take. Give yourself a pat on the back when you do something you would normally avoid. For me, that means telling a close coworker when I had the courage to speak up and ask a controversial question during a meeting. Then we celebrate together!

Be sure not to de-value any progress you make. Sure, you may want to be the type of person who has no fear of conflict and goes head-first into any argument, but that’s not who you are and you shouldn’t hold yourself to those expectations. Celebrate what you have achieved instead of being upset about what you haven’t.

I hope these steps get you on the right track!

Emma, the real advice columnist

Dear Anti-conflict,

I don’t know what type of work you do, but no matter what it is, you might want to start by throwing a huge tantrum to establish yourself as the workplace witch. Or warlock. Show everyone who’s boss by taking over your (now former) boss’s office without saying anything. Just set up camp and be prepared to scare off any contenders to your new position.

Another way I would go about this is I’d bring my fake vampire fangs to work. I got those when I was obsessed with Twilight ten years ago, because those suckers could give someone tetanus (no pun intended). Walk into the office with those vampire fangs and the Twilight soundtrack blasting in your headphones, and I guarantee your coworkers will no longer feel compelled to mess with you.

I’d also take notes on one of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries about how animals assert their dominance. My personal favorite is the chicken’s form of asserting dominance. Pecking their buddies into submission and moving up the hierarchy is a fierce way of 1) Avoiding conflict and 2) Being the queen chicken. You might not have a beak, but you could probably manage to find a fake attachable one on Amazon. That’ll surely scare the pee out of your coworkers.

By using these behavioral tactics, you will become the most dominant being at your workplace. Work-related conflict, who? Nobody ever bothers the monarch when there’s gossip going around the kingdom, they’ll call you when somebody’s trying to climb the moat or marry your daughter.

Take the encouragement from your coworkers and use that as a stepping stone to become that boss everyone’s scared of. Embody Miranda Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy, or Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada. You don’t have to stand up for yourself if people are scared of you, just saying.

In terms of work-related conflict, become the person who tosses the chessboard when you’re not winning. Even if the conflict doesn’t involve you, act like it does and disagree just because you need to practice disagreeing with everyone. It takes time to become the scary boss (even if that’s not your title), but I’m sure you’ll manage. Go get ’em, Tiger!

Gemma, the Queen B*tch