Conflict First Aid: What to Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

By Pat Wagner

Conflict First AidOne of the practical principles of human behavior that I try to remember in tough times is that there are significant differences between the “right” ways to manage unhealthy conflict in the workplace and the “real” ways.

The “right” ways are what the verifiable research informs us to do because these work most of the time with most people in most situations. These include the textbook models with 47 steps and exhaustive questionnaires to probe one’s personality, techniques garnered from published theses, and ideas gleaned from the latest pop psychology books. It is important to learn how to implement these models and tactics correctly, particularly for those times when one has the time and resources to follow the rules. They often contain the foundations of principles that they can be applied in many situations.

The “real” ways are what most of us actually get to do within the existing limits of time and money. The “real” ways we learn from doing, not reading, and what we are taught via other people’s experiences. These shortcuts, which sometimes break the rules, are useful because most workplaces can’t pause for too long while we sit in a circle, light candles, and fill out a scientifically calibrated written examination about our thoughts and feelings. In effect, sometimes we don’t have time to “do it right”.

Also, people are big mysteries in these equations. They might be impacted by variables that are unknown to you and me and over which we have no control: an infected tooth, a fight with a loved one at breakfast, worries about money, unease because of a pending audit with the Internal Revenue Service, and the discovery of a serious problem with a computer program that their workplace relies on.

So, when it comes to managing unhealthy conflict in the workplace, what can you do when you don’t know what to do? In situations like this, usually we are stymied because the actions we are used to implementing don’t work. Or, the reaction is new. For the first time, your co-worker or your library customer is angry concerning an issue that was never a problem before. Or, you are dealing with someone new.

(This is one reason professionals in the field of conflict management are constantly reading up on new techniques, to prepare for the day when existing techniques don’t work.)

Here are three hints that we are going to discuss further in our upcoming SLA NY/Solo Division webinar on conflict first aid.

(More details and registration at:

First, don’t make assumptions about the basics. For example, I know of a government workplace that was tied up in knots for seven years because everyone assumed they knew why the employee in question was upset–so no one bothered to ask. It was a given, except everyone was wrong.

When the problem was resolved because new people asked the question no one else bothered to ask, the reason behind seven years’ of pouting and cold silences surprised everyone, and thankfully (or annoyingly, depending on your point of view) was resolved in a matter of minutes. So confirming information can always be a good place to start, even if everyone else says don’t bother.

Second, give your power up to the other person in some way. This might be useful with an angry library user or during a meeting about behavior where the employee in question starts reacting strongly. What this can mean is asking their permission to take an action, even if it is a small thing, so the other person gets to make up their mind and control the situation. Ask a question that requires a yes or no or a simple reply. Do you want a cup of coffee? What time do you want us to take a break? Would you like to invite someone else to the meeting?

Third, cut to the heart of the matter. Ask: What would satisfy you? What would resolve the issue right now? And bend over backwards if there is some way you can say yes.

Please join us on Thursday, May 14, 2015, as I discuss what to do when you don’t know what to do.

Pat Wagner has been a trainer and consultant for special and academic libraries since 1978.