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Resolving conflict can be a tough pill to swallow for some people

Managers offer tips to help you be proactive when it comes to solving problems with a co-worker

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When you’re a medical professional who solves patient issues promptly, you’d think conflict with co-workers would be just as easy.

But for most nurses, the straightforward approach goes out the window when co-worker conflicts occur. Does sidestepping, denial and a “Who’s got time?” reaction seem familiar?

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According to research published in Nursing Administration Quarterly, “Nurses reported a strong preference not to confront conflict directly,” although nurse managers were more likely to communicate directly than others.

If you tend to act like workplace conflict isn’t happening, you might miss chances to improve patient outcomes and lighten your emotional load.

“Avoided conflict often stays with the nurse, percolating just beneath the surface, causing even more stress and anxiety,” Robert G. Hess Jr., a nurse practitioner who holds a doctorate in nursing, noted in Nurse.com.

And while the stressors of the pandemic might make it seem like a bad idea to spend time reaching out to people you’ve disagreed with, the reverse is true, post anesthesia nurse Maureen V. Iacono stated as part of June 2020 coverage published in the Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing.

“We are all one community right now, an evolving community,” she noted. “Colleagues who may have frustrated or annoyed you could be a potential source of solace. And you may be a source of solace for them.”

Of course, it’s always necessary to follow your employer’s human resources policies — if workplace violence or harassment is part of any confrontation, management should get involved right away, not after you try to mend the situation yourself.

ExploreFinding common ground can ease tension with ‘that person’

But for other disagreements caused by differing opinions or personality clashes, following these tips from Hess and other nurse leaders and management experts could ease the situation.

Notice the warnings signs: Try not to be that co-worker with zero self-awareness. “Recognizing the early warning signs of conflict is the first step toward resolution, Mary L. Johansen, an assistant clinical professor at Rutgers College of Nursing, explained in Nursing Management.

She advised nurses to pay attention to body language and be aware of the mood of other staff members.

Establish whether the issue involves you: ”Understanding that conflict is likely to occur in any workplace is a good start, and understanding your role in it is key,” according to a 2019 discussion published in Nursing Times and generated by Lesley Jones, head of clinical education at Cwm Taf University Health Board and an associated research team. “The first question to ask yourself might be, ‘Does this conflict have something to do with me?’ If so, how can you best help to move things on? If not, can you help resolve it or should you walk away?”

Identify your patterns: “Another consideration is your own reaction to conflict,” Jones and team added. “Do you sulk? Avoid? Compete? Knowing how you tend to respond can help you consider a more helpful approach. Small changes in the words you use or how you behave can help you prevent or manage conflict more efficiently.”

Start resolving as soon as you notice a problem: Nurse executive Elizabeth Angelo aimed this advice in Nursing Management at nurse leaders, but it’s appropriate for new and midlevel nurses, too. She said the best time to confront a disagreement or other conflict is “the soonest you can do so both calmly and kindly.”

Count to 10: There’s a reason this advice is still making the rounds: “It works,” explained Mitzi DeBusk, a registered nurse who holds a bachelor’s in nursing and works as a consultant for a home health agency in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Instead of lashing out in the heat of the moment, I make sure to count to 10, get a deep breath, and then calmly discuss the core of the conflict.”

If she can’t settle her nerves right away, DeBusk said she delays, but only until she’s composed enough to let the other person know she wants to help or amend the situation. “I try to keep in mind that we’re a team with the same goals in caring for our patients, even when disagreements come up,” she said.

ExploreThe importance of being aware of how you make others feel

Get in a good frame of mind before you start: “If you’re angry, distracted, or rushed, the conversation won’t be as powerful or meaningful as it can be, and you risk having an uncomfortable encounter that does more harm than good,” Angelo added. It’s key to double check that you intend to provide the type of feedback or explanation that’s genuinely intended to inspire a compromise, not a monologue that will prove you’re right.

Try to talk somewhere private: “I like to start with, ‘Hey can we sit down and talk about this?’” DeBusk added.

Hess, too, recommended a “common, nonthreatening arena to stage your resolution, including buffered time away from distractions. It might just be a few minutes in the break room or manager’s office.”

Rehearse what you’ll say: It may sound contrived, but you increase your odds of settling the issue if you rehearse what you’ll say ahead of time. “Look for alternative resolutions before initiating a meeting,” Hess added. “Always have a plan B.”

Start with the core message: “Lead with the tough message and be clear,” Angelo advised. When you lead with some small talk and then ease into your “real message” about solving a conflict, that person may always worry that you’re going to pounce with bad news at the conclusion of future conversations.

“Don’t use the ‘compliment sandwich’ method of giving feedback (sandwiching criticism between praise),” Angelo added. Instead, try saying, “There’s something difficult I need to talk with you about,” so you can build trust.

Practice active listening: Those strategies you may have picked up as a parent or in couples counseling come into play here. “Focus your attention on the speaker,” Johansen advised. “Try to understand, interpret, and evaluate what’s being said. The ability to listen actively can improve interpersonal relationships, reduce conflicts, foster understanding and improve cooperation.”

Avoid the “unconditional negative regard” trap: This is a tendency “to see the worst motive possible for someone else’s behaviour at the earliest available opportunity, (and then choose) to keep interpreting each subsequent behaviour accordingly,” Richard Burnell, who works in the NHS as a specialist in conflict and mediation, told London-based Nursing In Practice Journal.

When you don’t indulge this line of reasoning, you can eliminate a lot of personal conflicts at work. “We might think, ‘Amandeep didn’t say good morning to me earlier, then the phone was ringing and she left it for me to answer. She is deliberately trying to annoy me,’” Burnell added. “Once we think like this, we start to filter each of Amandeep’s behaviors through our UNR machine, and the conflict will continue.”

ExploreLooking ahead is an important leadership skill

Instead of falling into that particular trap, try to view co-worker actions “through a compassionate filter that evaluates what she is thinking, feeling and how she is truly behaving.” That approach helps nurses eliminate emotional turmoil and increase objectivity.”.

And by avoiding the negative assumptions, you’ll “realize you aren’t really managing conflict at all,” Burnell explained. “You are just practising the core values of communication, consideration and empathy that run through the heart of all compassionate nurses.”

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