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K.F. #9 Manages Conflict Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

603: Easing the Anxiety of Workplace Conflict with Liz Kislik

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Liz Kislik says: "The majority of workplace conflicts are actually about the work... not about a bad person."

Executive coach Liz Kislik discusses do’s and don’ts of conflict management and how to rethink the way you see conflict.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you don’t need to win every argument 
  2. The trick to stop conflict before it starts 
  3. How to make allies in every level 

About Liz

Liz Kislik is a management consultant, executive coach, and facilitator. For over 30 years, she has helped clients such as American Express, Orvis, The Girl Scouts, Comcast, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Highlights for Children solve their thorniest problems while strengthening their top and bottom lines. Her specialty is developing high performing leaders and workforces. 

She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business ReviewForbes, and Entrepreneur, a TEDx speaker on “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It,” and has served as adjunct faculty at Hofstra University and New York University. She has also written for the European Financial Review and the Forward. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Liz Kislik Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Liz, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Liz Kislik
Oh, Pete, I’m so happy to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I was intrigued to learn that your early career dreams included becoming either a rabbi or a popstar. Can you tell us about this?

Liz Kislik
It seems quite strange to me reflecting back because I’m a very deep introvert, but there are ways in which I like an audience. When I was a kid, I thought being a rabbi was one of the coolest things you could do because you took care of so many people, and you got to make these fabulous speeches, and it just seemed good. But at that time, it was long enough ago, that the conservative movement of Judaism was not ordaining women as rabbis. So, that wasn’t an option.

And then when I was in high school, I started writing music and I had a band, and I continued performing in college and, basically, did a show, a semester, sometimes with a band, sometimes solo, and I thought I might do that until I realized that, first of all, there would just be way too much drugs and other things on the road for my sensibilities, and also that you traveled all the time. So, I decided it wasn’t for me. But as a consultant, I travel all the time when it’s not the pandemic anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And you touch audiences.

Liz Kislik
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And, specifically in the realm of conflict, conflict resolution, I’d love to start with all your usable work, what would you say is maybe one of the most surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about conflict?

Liz Kislik
I think the thing that is so amazing is how most people really don’t ever want to have any of it, and yet we’re in it so much of the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well-said. Boy, and you said so much of the time with your TEDx Talk is called “Why there are so much conflict at work and what you can do to fix it.” Lay it on us, why is there so much conflict at work?

Liz Kislik
Oh, because we all need different things and have to take care of different things, and if you think even just in terms of having your calendar match with somebody else’s, it’s just tricky. There are so many ways we can vary in our opinions, positions, preferences, etc. The thing that is amazing though is that we don’t consider it a conflict if it’s easy and it doesn’t feel bad. We just think we’d work it out and it’s fine, we have a schedule now.

We consider it a conflict if we project certain ideas, like, “The other person is trying not to give me what I want, or they’re trying to make a problem for me, or they don’t care about me, or they’re against me.” It’s those ideas that make us feel bad and then we say we’re in conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a great insight. And I venture to guess, tell me this is your experience, that most of the time those things are not true.

Liz Kislik
I would say most of the time they’re mostly not true.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Liz Kislik
Because once it starts to feel bad, people do get on each other’s nerves and sometimes they don’t mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s like, “I know you don’t want to hear this but it’s got to be said, so I’m going to say it.”

Liz Kislik
You nailed it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Liz Kislik
That’s exactly right. It’s like, “I’m so aggravated already that if I poke you a little in the process, I won’t feel too guilty.” That happens a lot. A lot. A lot. Or just think of the term personality conflict. A personality is not even a physical substantive thing. It is amazing. It is as if two emanations could leave our bodies and fight in the middle of the room somewhere, which on its face makes no sense at all. It’s not that there is one personality that can never be at peace with this other personality. That’s just not true. It’s all the stuff we bring to it and layer on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I’d love it, before we get into the nitty-gritty of how this is done, could you share with us really, hey, what’s at stake in terms of for professionals, if they got a really great handle on conflict and managing it well versus not so well, what are the implications, repercussions?

Liz Kislik
That is a wonderful question. It goes in two directions. First, I’m going to tell you about what people often think is at stake.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Liz Kislik
That they will lose face, that they’ll lose status if they don’t get the thing they want, that they’ll have failed, that they owe it to themselves to triumph over the other person or other department. Those are the things we set up for ourselves. What’s really at stake is that if we approach differences of opinion as if they are pitch battle, we end up not making progress, our initiatives stall out, our teams can become dispirited or demoralized, people start getting caught up in the smallest of petty grievances and weird details. Basically, good work stops and people get caught up in this idea that they have to fight somebody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, there we have it. Those are pretty significant stakes, so let’s do it well. So, you’ve got a five-step process. Can you walk us through what those steps are and maybe bring it to life with an example as we’re walking through these steps?

Liz Kislik
Sure. I’m going to sort of use the steps from the TEDx. I may modify them, we’ll see.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Your latest take and we’ll take it.

Liz Kislik
Yes, I think about it differently all the time. It depends on like the last one I saw or that kind of thing. But the first thing I talk about in the TEDx is that you have to rule out the possibility that whoever your opponent is actually is the cause of the conflict, either because there’s something wrong with the way they’re approaching things, and this can be a real thing.

If the person you’re dealing with is actually incompetent, not skilled in the job, not skilled in interpersonal communication to an extreme extent, they really can be the cause of conflict. If somebody doesn’t know the right thing, that can be a real problem. Or if, for whatever odd reason in their history, experience, lifetime, whatever, if they truly behaved badly, if there is someone who really is a bully, who is a lifetime narcissist, sometimes they can be the source of a problem themselves that has nothing to do with the work.

And if that is the case, it is very, very hard to deal with that person. And if you are not the highest authority, you may need help from someone above you in the hierarchy to deal with this problematic person. But the majority of workplace conflicts are actually about the work, how we do the work, what we think we’re responsible for, that kind of stuff. It’s not about a bad person. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, to that, I think that you say rule it out, and most of the time that’s not what’s going on there. Although I think we may jump to a conclusion that it is. So, how can we bring some rigor to that so we’re not jumping to a bad conclusion?

Liz Kislik
Good. So, the reason we feel like it’s that person is because humans are really good at pattern recognition, particularly when it involves some kind of potential danger. And we might notice that every time we go to a meeting and that person is there, we feel tensed or on edge, and so we assume that’s something about that person.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Liz Kislik
It’s like hearing the rustle in the grass, and you jump away before you even look to see what was there. So, that’s why we attribute it to a person. We think, as I said before, “They’re against me,” or something like that, “They don’t want me to get what I want. They’re going to favor my colleague over me. It will be unfair.” These are all things that we think of as existential and that they’ll ruin us.

And unless we can engage our curiosity to find out what’s really going on, we can just stick with that for the rest of the time we work with that person, years. I mean, there are people who, literally, have conflict for longer than a decade, which is kind of crazy if you think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And that’s well-said because there is something emotional so it really connects inside of us, and it happens again and again when we’re with them, but it could be related to any number of factors. Like, they have, I don’t know, a cologne that we find repulsive, consciously or subconsciously. Or they came out strongly on an issue that negatively impacted us but they may well have had excellent reasons for doing so, and we just are kind of the collateral damage.

Liz Kislik
Correct. Correct. It’s really a tough thing to pull back from those reactions and try to figure out, “Why am I responding this way?” So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go on a different thought pattern and say that one of the things to do, because your example of the cologne is so spot on, like, “Who cares?” But that’s the kind of thing. You wrinkle your nose, that signifies to your brain, “Nose wrinkling. I smell something bad.” That is an archetypical neural response that often comes with a feeling of disgust. And if you have a feeling of disgust about a colleague, why would you ever try to work well with them?

So, it’s actually worth checking your physicality, and actually relaxing your body, and grounding yourself before you try to think logically about what’s going on, because we jump to conclusions all the time. So, pausing and letting that go, “Oh, I hate that cologne.” Oh, my goodness, Pete, you made me think about a guy I used to work with. I hated his cologne. This was when I was quite young and I ran a sizable operation, and he reported to me, and I don’t think he liked it very much. And he would come and stand over me. I mean, he was almost a foot taller than I was, and he would stand over me, and I hated his cologne. And it is so funny how you brought that back, so you see how strong these things can be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we rule that out by checking ourselves and our patterns, and seeing, “Hey, what’s really going on here? And is this person truly a bully or a narcissist or socially inept in a big way.” And assuming that, “Hey, you know what, they’re okay. I just don’t like their views.” Where do we go from there?

Liz Kislik
So, then it’s looking at, “What is the issue at hand that we actually need to be solving? Is there a real problem or are we just feeling like we have a problem?” And digging into whatever is in the situation that we’re confronting, and not just the top layer of it, which might be about, oh, take a classic sales and marketing versus operations and production kind of conflict. Is that a good one to use?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Liz Kislik
Okay. So, if I’m on the sales and marketing end, in general, I want the production department to do whatever I need to keep my customers happy so that they will continue to buy, be happy with me as their salesperson, I’ll be successful, the company will have money, and from my perspective, everything will be perfect.

But if I’m the operations or production person, I’m worried about, “She wants all these variances, she needs stuff customized, that’s very expensive. I don’t have the right tools or I don’t have the person with the right skillset to take care of it. So, how am I suppose to get that done? It’s going to be too expensive. We can’t do it.”

So, you often see this kind of charged-up salesperson and you can just picture the ops person with their arms folded, rolled back in their chair from the table. And then you need a deep discussion about, “How is it that we want to serve customers? What are our goals? What are our values about, could be anything from the level of service we provide and how we want customers to think about it, to the requirements for gross margin?” And all of these are factors in the workplace that are a kind of mental overhead.

We think about them but we don’t necessarily think about them while we’re having the argument. But if we could lay them all out, then we might be able to make choices together about what’s the best mix of factors.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. And so then, that step there, asking the right people the right questions to get that, what are some of the best ways to do just that?

Liz Kislik
So, this depends on who you are. For me, as an outsider coming to diagnose these things, I often have access to anybody who’s involved, and that’s really what you need because what sometimes happens is you’ll get two department heads who are accusatory about the performance or dedication of each other’s teams, and the two of them are having an argument, and what you really need to do is to back off from that and actually ask the team members what is and isn’t working for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Liz Kislik
And at some level of granularity because you often find out it is very small stuff. Somebody has to submit a form on Tuesday when their information is never available till Wednesday.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Yeah. And you got to get granular, as you said, or else you wouldn’t know that, and you’ve got to have that deep understanding of what exactly is their life and work like in practice.

Liz Kislik
Yes. So, in general, the lower in the organization you can get these things resolved, the better off you are. But there’s often a countervailing pressure that is coming from more senior leaders based on they’re trying to defend their own turf and their own beliefs about how things should be, and sometimes they don’t let the people who are actually doing the work work it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, let’s hear about the third step, making sure folks are aligned.

Liz Kislik
So, that is really about ensuring that there is clarity about what the responsibilities are, who has which ones, where they’re shared, and that people agree that they’re going to operate on that basis. They have to understand what’s expected of them and commit to delivering on it. If you don’t have both those things, the understanding of what’s expected and the commitment to deliver, it’s very likely that somebody’s going to drop the ball at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, in practice, to get that, is it just as simple as, at the end of the meeting, it’s like, “Okay, here’s my understanding of the next steps, A, B, C, D. This person is doing this by then, and that person is doing that by this time. Are we all good?” Is that what you do in practice or how do you recommend getting that alignment?

Liz Kislik
So, that often is enough in the stuff is straightforward. I believe that at the end of every meeting there should be a readout just of that kind, either at the meeting or immediately after, so that people can then say, “Oh, no, no, that’s not what I understood. I thought we said X.” Or if there is a one-on-one kind of meeting, somebody should send an email after that, saying, “Here are the things we said we are going to do. Is that what you meant?”

I think that kind of documentation is extremely helpful not only for the kind of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what you said audit trail that some people use it for,” but actually to lay out what we committed to each other. Because when it’s clear, say something goes wrong, then we can come back and say, “I know I committed to doing these things. Here is the outside influence that got in my way. Can you grant me extra time, extra funding, etc.? Or can we negotiate a new agreement?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That sounds good. Okay. And so then, the next step is finding allies at all levels. How do you recommend we do that?

Liz Kislik
So, this will sound so simplistic as to be almost dumb, but the first thing is actually to behave nicely to everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense. No wants to ally with the treacherous.

Liz Kislik
Correct. And people don’t…this is so funny, Pete. People don’t like to be known as the friend of the creep. So, it just makes sense to have good behavior. When you have good behavior, and you show interest in your colleagues, then people think, “Oh, that’s a nice person,” and so they’re more inclined to want to be agreeable and support you. So, that’s one thing.

A second thing, though, is looking for ways to help other people and back them up. If you’re in a meeting, and your colleague makes a statement about something, say, that isn’t going very well to the senior leadership, and you know it’s true, instead of hiding in the corner hoping the senior leadership won’t be mad at you, if you back your colleague up when she’s in a tight spot, when you need something, your colleague is much more likely to ride to your defense.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s very clear and real, because the temptation is like, “Oh, boy, I don’t want to get in the middle of this.” But it may not be so scary, it can be just as simple as like, “Yes. Oh, I’ve observed similar things.” Like, “Hey, there it is.”

Liz Kislik
That’s exactly the right language. It’s backing up the factual quality not necessarily, say, your colleague was getting a little intense as she was explaining this thing because it is so important to her team and making sure her area is well-ran, etc., and we’ve all been in a meeting where we heard that sound in somebody’s throat that says, “This is really important to them.”

Pete Mockaitis
Can you make it for us?

Liz Kislik
Oh, I don’t know. I would have to get really tense and talk for a while, and start to sound kind of a little louder and with a little bit of edge, you know, like when it’s really important to you and it’s urgent, and you think someone’s not listening. Is that alright?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s pretty good. Thanks.

Liz Kislik
Okay. See, I don’t like making that sound. It makes me tense because you only make that sound if you feel under threat, which is part of how you got into a conflict in the first place. So, we get that kind of intensity when we feel like we have to justify ourselves, and we don’t have confidence that we’ll be heard. And if you have a comrade at arms who says, “Oh, yes, I’ve observed the same thing. Isn’t that interesting?” without a charge on it, then the senior leadership doesn’t hear this sense of danger and threat so they don’t have to minimize the issue. They can just say, “Oh, that’s interesting. We weren’t aware of it. Give us some more evidence.” And then there may be no conflict at all. That’s something an ally can do for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And then the final habit is to teach new habits, step is to teach new habits for managing differences. What are some of your top habits you recommend?

Liz Kislik
So, a couple that I love, really love, one is what I, and now, numerous of my clients call playing an elephant card, you know, the expression of the elephant in the room. And, very often, people will be in a meeting, and it’s like there’s a silent agreement that we’re not going to talk about a certain thing even though we know it’s the real problem. That’s sometimes called an undiscussable.

And when there is an undiscussable issue in the room, whatever else happens around it, you’re not dealing with the real thing. So, there may be a stated agreement that includes, just as you said before, the dates and the costs and the who’s doing what to whom, and all of that, but everybody knows it’s not real because we didn’t talk about the fact that you can’t actually count on Joe. So, everybody knows it’s not really going to happen, and that’s a kind of passive-aggressive culture where we don’t want to say publicly the thing we’re all afraid of. So, playing an elephant card means there’s something up we’re not talking about, and we know we need to talk about it to move on. That’s one favorite.

Another thing that I do very, very often is I ask, and this is a different circumstance. This is a circumstance in which you and your team are together and, basically, you’re complaining about the other team or the other person. And to break that habit, I like the habit of asking, “Why would a smart person do a stupid thing?” because as soon as you acknowledge that the other person has a real reason for whatever makes them seem to be against you, then you can uncover what their issue is and the real content and you don’t just continue in the fight.

Pete Mockaitis
And now is that a question you ask internally to yourself or out loud?

Liz Kislik
Oh, I use that all over the place, internally and aloud, because we’ve all been in circumstances where somebody does something that just makes no sense. And it could be a very small thing. I’m thinking of a client who, he’s just not skillful with his language in the sense that he can’t seem to hold back. He interrupts everybody, and so people sometimes treat him as the disliked person. They don’t want to be with him because he has this constant stream of language and nobody else can talk, and his issues have to be handled, etc.

But when you ask, not his direct colleagues, but other people who have to deal with him and think he’s a problem, he’s so smart. Why would he have that stupid annoying habit? Why would he do that thing? And then they realize it’s because he cares about it so much, so then they can forgive him a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. Okay. Lovely. So, that really reframes things in a great way. And I’m curious, we talked about…I love to hear good phrases and bits of verbiage that can make a world of differences, and one was “Why would a smart person do a stupid thing?” Are there any other key questions or statements you think are just powerful and you recommend people use them again and again?

Liz Kislik
Oh, yes. Here’s one I love. I’m smiling because I am picturing one group of clients that quotes it all the time, which is, “That’s accurate but incomplete.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Liz Kislik
We all see things from our perspective, and it is totally accurate but there’s more there, and so it’s worth going to look for it. And that little phrase reminds us that we have to take things into account besides our own opinions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Liz, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Liz Kislik
I think one of the…I want to give you one other habit, if I may, and that’s to think about how the other person will actually hear what you’re planning to say to them, because they won’t hear it the way you hear it because they’re not you. So, to remind yourself that before you go to the meeting and take something on, to really look at it from the other person’s perspective, and how would your language play, and how will your tone play, and how can you reorient yourself to speak or write or communicate in a way that sounds, at a minimum, neutral, but, if at all possible, caring and concerned about the other person, you’ll generally get a better hearing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Liz Kislik
Yes, there are two that I like a load. One is Maya Angelou who said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” So, that gives you credit for earnest effort, but as soon as you know it could be better, you’re obligated to do that. And that relates to a Talmudic quote that I love, which says, “You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to desist from it. You have to do your part.” You may not be able to fix everything, but if it’s in your control, you have to step up and do it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Liz Kislik
You know what I like? I like the idea of one percent improvement. Are you familiar with this?

Pete Mockaitis
Like the compounding there?

Liz Kislik
Yeah. Yes, that it compounds, and that doing a little bit just adds up in a way that having a great idea but not getting to work on it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Liz Kislik
I recommend The Art of Possibility which is by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. He has a very, very well-known TED Talk, and it is about looking at the world from a perspective that there is hope and possibility and resources that you didn’t know you had, and that you’re probably doing better than you think if you let yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Liz Kislik
My website is great, if they come to my website. There’s loads of material that may be useful to your audience, Pete, because I’ve been writing a blog for ten years, and they’ll also find a free ebook there that’s about the interpersonal aspects of conflict at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Liz Kislik
I would say that there is always something you can do, that the one thing not to do is to feel helpless and hopeless, even if you have to pause. Sometimes the one thing to do is to stop in your tracks and not react at that moment. But there is something that you can do that will improve the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all your adventures.

Liz Kislik
It’s been so nice to talk to you. I really appreciate it.