Features | From Pivot Magazine

Clashing with your coworkers? Try this

Office squabbles can tear a company apart. Before handing out pink slips, read Judy Ringer’s new book, Turn Enemies Into Allies

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book cover for 'Turn Enemies in to Allies' by Judy RingerJudy Ringer, author of this solidly practical manual, holds a third-degree black belt in aikido, the modern Japanese martial art that values the well-being of attackers—an approach that infuses her work

It’s hard to judge which eye-opening statistic in Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace should most alarm managers. Would it be that 85 per cent of American employees report experiencing conflict at work and see it consuming three hours of productivity every week? Or that 43 per cent don’t think their managers handle it well? Probably the latter, since a startling 98 per cent of managers believe they need more training in, well, managing, including in conflict resolution. 

Judy Ringer, the author of this solidly practical manual, gets it. She’s an experienced conflict-resolution professional in New Hampshire and holds a third-degree black belt in aikido, the modern Japanese martial art that values the well-being of attackers—an approach that infuses her work. Rather than mediate, which she believes is too concerned with solving specific issues and leaves room for future clashes, she teaches skills that help parties avoid conflict altogether.

Ringer understands the temptation to do the opposite: to let conflict fester. She herself moved from real estate sales into conflict resolution precisely because of a clash with a micromanaging real estate agency manager. Dealing with antagonistic colleagues, she writes, is “not for the faint of heart.” When contrasting work styles and personalities collide—detail-obsessives vs. big-picture enthusiasts, control freaks vs. laissez-faire workers, avoiders vs. confronters—raw emotions can run high and polarize an entire team.

She approaches her work by applying the spirit of aikido to contain, absorb and redirect the energy sparked by mutual antagonism to mutually positive ends. The facilitator should begin by bowing in. That’s a sign of respect for all involved, indicating a readiness to listen sympathetically to all sides, while staying curious and asking open-ended questions: “What did you think when she said that? How do you think he felt when you did that?” Ringer pays close attention to her own reactions, fighting any drift into judgment.

A startling 98 per cent of office managers believe they need more training in conflict resolution

If any of this sounds ethereal (or beyond mortal capacity), Ringer has a reassuringly pragmatic program. To start, avoid the temptation of immediately bringing the warring parties into a joint meeting. Ringer’s experience has shown her that no one will listen unless they feel heard, and that requires one-on-one preparation. The meat of the process is in those individual meetings, where the parties are brought to realize that there can be no conflict without mutual contribution. Ringer listens without offering commentary, aiming to keep both workers curious about the other and, eventually, open to a core insight of aikido redirection, the notion that contrasting styles can also complement each other.

Ringer strives to keep the parties “centred”—often physically, by prompting them to take a deep breath—on the desired result, which is not victory but harmony. She calculates individuals need two to four hour-long sessions before they’re ready to meet their foe. (If that seems excessive, recall the stat that conflict supposedly sucks up three hours of productive time every week.) A willing attitude and a capacity for change are the most important ingredients for peace, she writes, so throughout hours of listening, she watches for them. If they don’t show up after multiple sessions, it may be time for her client to consider the nuclear option: termination for one or both.

But if all parties are capable, valued and committed (a fair assumption if no one has been fired yet), they will learn. Time, then, for them to practise their new approach and skills on each other, essentially mimicking what Ringer has done with them individually. The first joint session, Ringer advises, should be held off-site, preferably in a restaurant. “There’s something about breaking bread together that brings out the best in people,” she writes. The talk is about anything but the elephant in the room—family, hobbies, books, how they came to this line of work—while the aim is as basic as can be imagined: to be conscious that the other person is human, too. At the close, Ringer sets a date for Joint Two, an on-site working session.

Often enough, that will be the last session. Despite the inevitable tension, each acknowledges the other’s viewpoint, expresses her own view respectfully and probes for a new way of working together. Ringer often finds herself saying, “So, I notice a little tension. Does anyone else? That’s great. It means we’re getting to the heart of the issue. Let’s pause for a moment to re-centre.”

When she considers her work done—meaning the parties can function harmoniously without external aid—Ringer bows out as respectfully as she bowed in. But before leaving the scene, she asks the parties to permanently trade their conflict-inducing habits for a better peace-making set. 

And since habits take work to fully ingrain, there’s one last step: practise, practise, practise.