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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

6 Tricks for Picking (and Winning) Your Battles

We don’t need to watch bad reality TV to be exposed to interpersonal drama. As employees, we spend nearly three hours a week grappling with interoffice politics that have nothing to do with our job descriptions, according to a recent report from the leadership and coaching firm CPP. Then there are the complex emotions and common tensions we deal with daily in our personal relationships.

How many of those actually boil over into heated arguments—or even candid conversations—is a different question. Many of us prefer to avoid confrontation altogether, particularly with those we see often, says Jennifer Bradley, PhD, certified career coach and chartered psychologist from Emeryville, CA. But that’s not necessarily the best route for retaining close personal and professional relationships. “Working through a conflict can actually build stronger relationships,” she says.

But how you do it matters. Here are some guidelines for deciding when to speak up or let it slide, plus tips for how to bring up concerns in the most constructive way.

1. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

You aren’t a pushover if you let the occasional minor issue slide—your husband left some dirty dishes in the sink, say, or your co-worker was late, but apologetic, to a meeting you organized. In fact, confronting people over issue after issue just may backfire and create more stress in your life than a sink full of dirty dishes.

How to Deal

“Sometimes, the issue that’s bugging you isn’t actually as important as preserving the relationship itself,” says Samantha Sutton, PhD, a life coach from Boston, MA. It may be more productive to focus on maintaining the positive dynamic you two have and let the little things go.

So, how do you know if you’re nitpicking or addressing important issues? If you’re contemplating having a difficult conversation with someone, says Sutton, make sure you’re calm and not reacting in the heat of the moment. At best, this break may make you realize that you can skip the battle. Other times, it will help you figure out in advance how you will frame the conversation to respect both of you, says Sutton, adding: “Remember, issues can come and go, but relationships stay.”

2. Learn the “Rule of 3”

To find out if your gripes are trivial or meaningful, look for a pattern of behavior, suggests leadership consultant Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review. Everyone slips up once in a while—like that one time you had to cover your friend’s portion of the dinner bill because she forgot her wallet. However, if the problem of paying for her is repeated three times, it’s likely a trend and it’s time to bring it up.

How to Deal

When you finally do arrange a time to confront someone, Bregman recommends that you open the discussion with specificity. Start the conversation with something like, “The last three times we went to dinner, I ended up paying for your portion too. Can we talk about this?” It will make it harder for the guilty party to claim it was a one-time discretion.

3. Assess the Damage

It’s important to figure out if your problems with the person you’d like to confront are legit—or just a difference in opinion. “Begin by checking in with yourself,” says Paula Brand, a career counselor in Annapolis, MD, and owner of Brand Career Management. Do a bit of soul-searching before you decide to confront someone. Ask yourself, does this person’s behavior harm my family, my company, or myself? Does it cost me something—like time or money? Or is it benign (albeit, it grates on your nerves)?

How to Deal

Run the issue by a trusted friend. “Think through what you want to convey. If possible, run it by an objective person to get perspective,” says Brand. This will help you determine if you should confront or ignore the problem.

4. Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario

Know this: Any confrontation will come with risks as well as your ideal reward (that behavior you wish to change). So before you go head-to-head, take stock in your mind of what the worst-case scenario could be: Could this be leading to a larger discussion about where your relationship with your serious boyfriend is going, for instance, or would you consider quitting your job if the issues you bring up can’t be addressed?

How to Deal

Aim to keep your exchange as neutral as possible so the conversation doesn’t become adversarial. “Create an environment in which individuals feel listened to and respected, despite any differences,” says Bradley. “Both parties should feel like they are being heard.”

5. Acknowledge Your Role

Remember, there are different sides to every story. So before you confront someone over missteps, expect that he or she will have explanations for what went wrong. Try to handle it one on one—you may escalate a conflict, or invite more scrutiny yourself, if you include a supervisor in a confrontation with a co-worker.

How to Deal

Admit any faults on your side upfront. (Was your friend late to your dinner party, for example, because you invited people over at a time when she’s usually still at work?). Start sentences with phrases like “I felt...” or “It seemed…” rather than “You did…” Starting a sentence with “you” can automatically put the other person on the defensive. When you focus on how the action made you feel, or how you perceived it, rather than the other person’s action itself, you ease the tension and allow room for the other person to clear up misperceptions or misunderstandings without feeling attacked.

6. Time it Right

Okay, okay. You’re 100% right, and the perpetual issue that’s been nagging you just can’t be swept under the rug anymore. Still, you need to make sure your conversation is held at the right time for it to be effective. “If you are angry or the conflict has just happened, these are red flags that it is the wrong time to bring up issues,” says Brand. “It’s best to never try to hash out a conflict when you are in a heated state.”

How to Deal

Timing is key. Avoid conflicts when you’re still feeling upset about it, right before you’ve eaten, or at the end of a long day. “When we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we often don’t behave our best,” adds Sutton. When you’re fuming, excuse yourself, get some food, or take a walk around the block. It’s time well-spent.

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