Cope with Work Relationship Problems Strategically

Finding the best solutions by working together

Aside from sleep, work takes up most of our time.  And, the most challenging aspects of work are often the clashes with coworkers, clients, management or employees.

Learning how to cope with work relationship problems strategically will reduce your stress and make your job easier.

Psychologists say you can cope by solving a problem (problem-focused coping), or you can cope by avoiding a problem (emotion-focused coping).  Ideally, solving a problem would permanently remove the stress, but as some problems are not easily solved, avoiding the problem also will result in stress reduction.  Often, you can engage in problem avoidance strategies while simultaneously working on solutions.

The steps are outlined below:

Cope with Problems

1. Understand the problem and determine the desired outcome. Maybe this is obvious, but don’t make assumptions about the problem and don’t try to solve a problem without knowing what you want as an outcome.  Let’s take the problem of an employee who habitually comes in late as an example.  You could assume that the employee is late because of poor planning or a lackadaisical attitude, and deal with the problem punitively, or you could find out why the employee is late (maybe their childcare provider is habitually late) and help them explore solutions, while setting clear expectations.

2. Plan. Consider solution approaches.

  • Adapt a solution from a similar situation—consider using solutions that have worked in similar situations.  Have you had other employees come in late?  What have you done?  If you don’t have a highly similar situation, consider a similar situation, maybe even from your personal life.  If your teenager is late for school, how do you cope with that?
  •  Use a Process.  Some relationship problems occur regularly.  Have a proven process in place, and maybe even a script.  Once you have had a problem, take notes!  When it happens again, review the notes and develop a process.  If you work for a large company, your HR department may already have processes in place.  Having a process in place encourages consistency and fairness, and saves you the time you might agonize over what to do.
  • Model the problem with role-playing. Practice your solution.  At the very least, do a dry-run in your head.  Better yet, practice with someone else.
  • Divide and conquer. Break down a big, complex problem into smaller, more easily solvable problems.  Perhaps there are multiple problems that contribute to the problem of being late.  Consider addressing the smaller problems first.
  • Use Trial-and-Error.  Trial-and-Error can be preferable to doing nothing, if the steps are small and without grave consequences. In the case of the late employee, you can start with simply asking the employee to come in on time and telling the employee why it’s important (to both the company and the employee).  If that does not yield the desired results, you can try having a problem-solving discussion, perhaps using a “divide and conquer” approach.  Then, if lateness is still an issue, you can try something else, like a written agreement, spelling out expectations and consequences for not meeting the expectations.
  • Brainstorm:  You can do this alone, but you can also do it with another person, or in a group, if the issue is not confidential. Brainstorming a large number of solutions (let the Post-It Notes fly!) and then reduce the number of solutions by using the above methods.

3. Do. Carry out your solution plan.

4. Check. Check your results.

5. Adjust. If the outcome is not achieved, consider adjusting your understanding, your desired outcome and your solution approach.

6. Consider problem avoidance strategies.  A few avoidance strategies:

  • Ignore. Some problems, especially if they are minor and not likely to recur aren’t worth the energy to solve, or to even avoid.  (e.g. someone is late to work because they were in a car accident).
  • Separate.  Physically separate the problem or conflict-inducing entities.  Move seats. Adjust schedules.
  • Redirect.  Change the subject to one on which there is agreement.
  • Distract.  Distract yourself or the other person with something more engaging, preferably something that is fun, relaxing or mentally stimulating in a way that is very different than the problem at hand.  Give yourself a “time-out” from the problem by going to the employee lounge, listening to music, or switching to a task that you are excited about.
  • Reframe.  Look at the problem another way. Consider the significance to the “big picture” or to a longer timeline.  Ask yourself, “will this matter in 5 years?”  Consider how the problem might look from another individuals point of view. Or, better yet, ask yourself, “what is the opportunity in this problem?”  An employee’s poor communication skills become an opportunity for learning.  Loss of a major client becomes an opportunity to grow existing clients and find new, possibly better clients.
  • Delay. Put it off until “later.”  Agree to address the problem at a later time, if putting it off won’t have dire consequences.
  • Avoid Triggers.  With experience, you will learn that certain things may trigger or escalate a problem. It’s often easy to see what triggers other people, but you have your own triggers, too.  For example, when people are late for an appointment with me, I find that somewhat irritating.  I used to find it extremely irritating.  I have avoided triggering my anger response by modifying my own behavior.  I have a plan in place.  First, I almost always confirm appointments the day before with an email.  Second, if someone is more than 10 minutes late, I call them and ask if they are on their way (which means that I have taken the time to make sure I have their cell phone number). Third, if I end up waiting, I always have something to do, rather than fume (with a smart phone, this is easy—email, Facebook, Kindle Reader and more are available). Finally, if necessary, I will reschedule.

Do you have any additional coping strategies for solving, or temporarily avoiding problems?

This post is 5th in the series 7 Principles of Making Relationships Work at Work.


Mailbox vs. Snow Plow: A Lesson in Conflict Resolution

The Mailbox, Fixed!

A few years ago, we bought a swivel-away mail box.  If a snowplow hits it, it swings to the side.  It worked perfectly until Monday morning, when the snow plow hit it with such force that the mail box didn’t swing; it launched.  The decapitated mail box support pole stuck stubbornly upright in the snow, and the mailbox itself lay a few feet away.

My husband hastily placed the mailbox on some boards next to the support and left for work, grumbling about the careless snow plow operator.

Yesterday, on his way to work, he saw the snow plow parked down the street.  He could have blasted the guy, calling him incompetent or an idiot or worse, but that’s not his style.

He went up to the snow plow guy and thanked him for his work in clearing the streets.  My husband mentioned that our mailbox had been hit and how, initially, he had been upset, but that he didn’t really know what was involved in plowing the street.

The snow plow guy told him some of the challenges and then said he’d fix the mailbox.  When I went out to get the morning paper, it was already fixed!

Lessons learned:

1.       Be friendly in your approach.  Don’t jump into confrontation and escalate conflict.  .

2.       Show appreciation.  Sincere appreciation makes people feel good and also makes them feel good about you.

3.       Talk about the facts of what you observe, without being judgmental.

4.       Allow people to explain (use a variation of “help me understand” or “I don’t understand . . .”)

How can you apply this approach in business?  Think about the last time an employee or vendor disappointed you.  Were you friendly?  Did you express appreciation?  Did you talk about what you observed without being judgmental?  Did you listen, without interrupting, to their explanation?

Remember, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Diane’s website

Mickey Mouse Theory of Communication

After years of rigorous research (well, make that “occasional observation and personal frustration”), I have developed a simplified model of interpersonal communication:  Diane’s Mickey Mouse Theory of Interpersonal Communication (with apologies to Disney).  Read more of this post

Lose your but!

Recently my 17 year-old daughter cleaned my house.   I know I should have had a hallelujah breakdown because  “seventeen year-old-daughter” and ”house cleaning” don’t often occur in the same sentence.  Instead, I managed to find fault.  When she was done, I said, “the house looks good.” She smiled; glad to have pleased me with her effort.  But then I added, “but you missed the edges of the floor in the bathroom,” and her smile faded into discouragement. 

Ouch.  I should have lost my “but.”  Read more of this post

How to Be Kind when Criticizing Others

“You missed a spot!”

“You’re leaving the house looking like that?”

Criticism. Does anyone truly enjoy receiving criticism? Does anyone truly enjoy giving criticism? It’s hard to criticize without causing anger, hurt or defensiveness. You could take the ostrich approach and just bury your head in the sand and ignore others’ failings. Sometimes that is the best approach, especially for trivial matters. However, just because people don’t like being criticized, that doesn’t mean we can avoid doing it. If we allow people to continue doing the wrong thing, we build up feelings of resentment. The secret is to criticize with kindness, and sparingly.

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Can a Video Letter Improve Communication?

Have you ever felt like writing a letter after you’ve been hurt by a loved one or caused hurt? You want to communicate without being interrupted or shut out? Maybe you’ve even written a letter and sent it. Ah, you feel better! That is, until you find out that the recipient has misread your intent. But, you were so clear! What happened?

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LEAP into Conflict Resolution (even with teens!)

“Well, duh!” was my first reaction several months ago, when one of the newer members of my Toastmasters  Club gave a speech about a conflict resolution method he learned in the book, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Now What?” by clinical psychologist Dr. Xavier Amador  The method seemed intuitively obvious. So obvious in fact, I wondered why I didn’t use it more! The 4-step method can be remembered with the acronym LEAP: Listen-Empathize-Agree-Partner.

Let me give you a before and after scenario as an example.

 Before LEAP: My 17 year old daughter, Clara, who exercises at home, wants to get a treadmill. I don’t want to spend the money on a treadmill, nor do I want one taking up space in my home. So, I just flat out say, “NO!” Clara is upset and calls me an uncaring, controlling, bad mother (I’m paraphrasing!).

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