I used to work in an office with a lot of passive aggressive conflict. I joined a team of people who had been working, and quietly fuming, together for years and as the new person I was thrust into the middle of the conflict regularly, totally unprepared for how to handle it.
And I can say now with hindsight, I didn’t handle it very well. In fact, I started playing the passive aggressive game at a varsity level — I would sit quietly in meetings, refusing to engage in the conflict, and mentally checking out until it was over. If I ever had to participate, I would say something non-committal while not making eye contact with anyone. I was so frustrated by this room of grownups who refused to just address the problems at hand that I decided, “This isn’t worth my time. I can’t be bothered.”
How often do you decide to check out at work?
What conflicts or conversations do you refuse to participate in? Which coworkers do you avoid? How do you react when something doesn’t go your way or leaves a bad impression on you?
Stepping back and not engaging can often feel like the right move when there’s a bad situation at work; after all, getting dragged into an unproductive conflict doesn’t do you any favors. It can feel like the easiest solution.
But being a leader — being someone who shines at work — is about finding the right solution, not the easy solution.
This week, I want to talk about two of my favorite strategies for bringing order to chaotic teams or meetings by just using the power of effective communication and preparation. No matter what your role or title, you can be the person to turn a bad situation into a good one — and that’s someone everyone wants to have on their team.
Always be prepared.
You know the people you work with, especially if they are ones that you meet with regularly, so take advantage of that knowledge to make meetings run more smoothly and effectively.
Before heading into a meeting, don’t just prepare your portion of the presentation or notes. Take a few minutes to prepare for the other people who will be there too. Ask yourself:
- What are their biggest priorities?
- What are they likely to ask questions about?
- What concerns can you address directly before they come up in questions?
In my old office, once I decided to start proactively fixing my situation rather than checking out, I started spending just 10 minutes before every meeting thinking about my last meeting with our embattled department head. I would simply reflect on previous experiences and let them inform my future ones. Where did conflict arise last time, and how can I bring information or an attitude (because both matter!) that will keep that from happening again?
From there, I was able to piece together what mattered most not just to my team, but to the people we were meeting with so that the conversation flowed more smoothly. People didn’t feel like their issues weren’t being addressed, because we were able to address their issues first thing, and then move on to the heart of the issue
It can be as simple as answering a question you know someone will ask before they ask it, but it can work wonders for beginning to build trust and mutual understanding between conflicted teams. Simply demonstrating that you don’t just understand their concerns but you have already spent time working on a solution you think will be agreeable to them can open their minds to working right back with you.
Adjust your presentation style to work for the other person, too. For example, if you know the website redesign is at the top of the other person’s mind, start with that first. Or if they are a more visual person, take the time to create a graph or handout that will help them process the information better.
Ask yourself questions before you complete a presentation or walk into a meeting, like:
- How does this person usually present information? What is their style?
- How have past presentations been received by this person? What hasn’t worked, and how can I try a different way this time?
- What’s the biggest issue on this person’s plate today that I can address?
- What does this person really want to know from me?
Remember, the better they feel accommodated and on top of their game during the meeting, the better they will be able to work with you — which is a win for you.
In addition, being super prepared can have the added bonus of making the other people around you more vigilant about arriving to meetings prepared.
Once I was able to start addressing issues before they arose and fewer meetings ended with unanswered questions still hanging in the air, other people started doing it too. Rather than leaving uncomfortable topics untouched, it became the norm for more people to come prepared with ideas and answers for sticky situations.
Become the mediator.
If you are part of a team that has an ongoing conflict or difference of opinion/priorities, instead of checking out or keeping quiet, try standing up as the mediator between the conflicted parties and be the person to facilitate good communication.
I used to shy away from taking control of my chaotic meetings because my job title always had “assistant” or “junior” in it. I thought that meant it would be completely inappropriate for me to stand up and try to facilitate communication or tell other people my opinion.
However, it is when I decided to start doing that, that my dysfunctional team dynamic started to correct itself.
Being a leader isn’t about being a manager or even about being the most well-respected or most outspoken person in the room. Often it is the quiet ones who are in the best position to mediate; while everyone else is trying to get their voice heard, you help make everyone’s ideas valid and appreciated. You make it possible for ideas to come together and for people to succeed. And that is a great person to be.
(It’s also a great way to start getting titles that don’t have assistant or junior in them.)
A few ways you can do that easily and effectively:
Summarize ideas. Chaotic meetings or ones with conflicting opinions can get out of hand quickly. People start talking at cross purposes and suddenly you are not even talking about things on the agenda anymore. When you speak up, use your time to help synthesize and summarize information, rather than adding another opinion. Draw connections between things people are saying; point out commonalities and suggest ways to compromise. Oftentimes people will be basically agreeing without even realizing it, so you can help end useless arguments.
Be careful to use diplomatic and objective language here, though. Try not to re-word anything someone has said or editorialize — this can make people feel defensive and stop listening to you. Instead, focus on listing facts, themes, and solutions. Act as much as possible like an objective third party.
Use the whiteboard to visualize connections. When a meeting is losing focus, you can help keep things on track by standing up and using the whiteboard to record what people are saying. It gives people a focal point that can keep things moving in a clearer direction, and also helps people to feel heard and understood. Seeing everyone’s points on the board can help the whole group to see connections that might otherwise be missed and reach a resolution faster.
Don’t check out; ask questions. Of course, jumping in with your own opinion in a conflict or chaotic meeting isn’t usually productive. That’s why many of us feel tempted to just lean back in our chairs and roll our eyes.
But you have the power to be the person who helps people reach agreements, come up with great ideas, and bring together teams — by asking questions. Questions help give conversations direction and help people to clarify muddled ideas (the kind that often start conflict in meetings), and if you use questions effectively, you get to be the person helping people to come to the best point possible.
- Can you tell me more about how ____ would work?
- On a day-to-day basis, what would ____ look like for our team?
- What do you think ____ would cost?
- Mary mentioned ____ earlier. Can you explain a bit more how this would affect ____?
Use questions to bring order and information to people who might not be communicating as well as possible. They will most likely appreciate the attention to their ideas, the chance to explain more, and the help to clarify something they care about.
No matter what your title or experience, you can be the first change for the better on a team or in a meeting that’s not working well. Will you choose to step back or will you choose to step up?