3 Rules to Ensure Fair Fights in the Workplace

As an employee or an employer, sooner or later you’re going to run into strong disagreements with other people at work. That’s to be expected: people who care about their job or their firm usually have strong feelings about what they are doing, and those feelings don’t always line up with equally dedicated folks at work. These disagreements are not only inevitable, they can be healthy, if handled right. And by “right,” I mean fighting fair: that is, standing up for what you believe is right, while at the same time, keeping the argument in perspective, and maintaining your respect for—and the respect of—the people you work with.

Fair fights are usually productive fights, with both parties coming to a meeting of the minds on a mutually beneficial resolution. But to get there, relationship counselors tell us there are three basic, simple rules that both parties need to follow. If you do follow these rules, you’ll get what you want or need without the emotional baggage that turns an honest disagreement into a much bigger issue.

Rule No. 1: Both sides should listen fully to the other person’s position: to make a commitment to honestly pay attention to what the other side is saying, without dismissing, discounting, or reinterpreting their concerns. A good rule of thumb is to listen completely to the other person’s position and then count seven seconds before a reply.  It’s virtually impossible to come to a mutually satisfying resolution if the issues of both parties aren’t addressed. 

Rule No. 2: To be sure that both sides are really heard, the second rule is to take strong emotions out of the conversation. Using a loaded, angry voice or breaking down into tears can be tactics for manipulating the other party, and have no place in a fair fight. If you can’t keep yourself from getting overly emotional or you find the other person becoming so, go back to rule one or simply take a break and try it again after both sides have regained control. 

Rule No. 3:  The right environment can go along way toward keeping emotions at a minimum.  Have your discussion in private, without the distraction of uninvolved parties. Do it at the convenience of both parties; most people are much better when they’ve thought out what they want to say, while springing an important conversation on someone is often a tactic to unfair manipulate the outcome.   

If you don’t make the effort to follow these simple rules, employees and employers run the very real risk of turning a manageable issue into a major problem; with both sides saying things they don’t really mean—but can’t take back—or snowballing into other issues, or allowing the conversation to become irretrievably emotional. The other big danger is that one side will manipulate a “settlement” in which the other person doesn’t feel heard or satisfied, and the issue festers until it becomes much harder to solve, when it resurfaces, as it’s likely to do.

However, if you fight fair, and really listen to the other person’s issues in good faith, virtually any workplace problem can result in a more successful firm, and a strong relationship between co-workers.

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