How to Bring Healthy Confrontations Into Your Workplace

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While reading the book Dare To Lead by Dr. Brené Brown, I came across a term that I have desperately needed in my vocabulary: the “dirty yes”.

To quote Dr. Brown, a dirty yes is “when I say yes to your face and then no behind your back”.

Have you experienced the dirty yes in your workplace?

If not, you are lucky. With this new phrase in my vocabulary, I looked back at my career and realized that I had experienced the dirty yes several times over. And that got me thinking more and more about workplace conflicts and workplace conflict resolution.

Workplace Conflicts: Example Time

I had a co-worker who was notoriously non-confrontational. Let’s call that co-worker Rex after the confrontation-hating dinosaur from Toy Story.

(Aside: I recognize that changing names and talking about this co-worker behind their back may seem like I’m hypocritically avoiding a face-to-face confrontation. However, I did confront this person directly about these issues. I simply see no value in talking about the situation publicly without pseudonyms.)

Rex and I often disagreed about aspects of the product his team and mine worked on together. One day, he and I were meeting with a couple of our co-workers to design a part of that product.

Rex’s team had come into the meeting with a plan for the design. I objected to their plan as it would not meet my team’s requirements. We discussed both team’s requirements, proposed additional ideas, refined those ideas, and eventually landed on a design that would work for all involved.

So that was the end, right?

Oh, so you did read the intro.

A few days later, I saw the latest update go live. Imagine my surprise to find that Rex’s team’s original design had been used.

I asked Rex what had happened. He claimed that he remembered his original design being the design that we had agreed on. And even if wasn’t, it was too late to change it now.

I might have believed him if this had been the first time, but we had danced this dance before. There were sometimes changes in the individual moves, but the dance was always the same.

Sometimes he would remember an important detail after the meeting that would influence the decision, and he would claim he forgot to tell me until after his design was implemented. Sometimes there would be follow-up meetings to which he neglected to invite my team, and those meetings would result in new decisions.

One thing was always certain. He would agree to a compromise with no intention of following through. He would say yes, but the real answer was still no.

This behavior very quickly eroded our working relationship. I couldn’t trust Rex. Short of spying on the work his team was doing, there was no way to know whether any agreement or compromise was being adhered to.

I simply could not work with this person. And that was something I had never said before.

Why We Do What We Do

I hate confrontation as much as the next person. The dirty yes is enticing. It ends the confrontation. There may be a different confrontation later on, but maybe there won’t be. And, even if there is, it will be easier to manage because the deed is already done.

As humans, we like our gratification to be instant and our pain to be delayed. And — unless you enjoy a good tussle — confrontation is pain.

The dirty yes is an escape hatch. It’s a stay of execution.

Turn That ‘Yes’ Into a ‘No’

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I want to say there is a third option, a silver bullet that will let you avoid the confrontation. But the search for such shortcuts is what lands you in the land of the dirty yes.

There is only one way forward. You need to learn how to have healthy confrontations.

While I can’t provide you with a silver bullet, I can offer you some tips to make the process as painless and mutually beneficial as possible.

  1. Recognize that you are not enemies. You both want what is best for the company. You are on the same side. You each have your ambitions, but that commonality is important. You cannot be looking for a way to make them lose or a way to make yourself win. You need to be looking for the best solution for everyone.
  2. Look for a neutral meeting place. Your surroundings influence your attitude. You want to start this on equal footing, both in terms of perceived power and comfort. Nobody should have a home-field advantage.
  3. Define the problem. It is amazing how many workplace conflicts happen because the two parties are talking past each other. Before either side lays out their case, make sure that you agree on what the action problem is, where you are starting, and what the goal is.
  4. Don’t be afraid to bring in a third party. In many cases, it’s better if this is one of your peers instead of an authority figure. If you are all equals, you won’t feel the need to flex your negotiating skills or any other strength in the same way you might in front of someone more senior.
  5. Bring logic, emotion, and empathy. You should have a list of prepared reasons for your proposed resolution. Hopefully, they will have the same. In a purely logical world, you would see each other’s arguments and a logical resolution would emerge. We don’t live in that world. Don’t hide your emotions and don’t expect them to hide theirs. Be empathetic and recognize that finding the middle ground will require taking into account both emotion and logic.
  6. Leave the room with written action items. Don’t just verbally agree on a resolution and leave to each write your version of the plans. Make sure that you have a clear path forward that is written down and agreed upon. This is not a matter of trust, although it does help with that. It’s a matter of verifying that you are truly on the same page.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to say that I used the above advice with Rex, but I did not.

Since then, I have tried to handle conflicts better than I did with Rex. And the differences have been dramatic.

I’ve been in much more tense situations, with much more on the line than I had with Rex. I’ve been given the dirty yes, and I’ve been tempted to give it. But I have learned that confrontation, handled with respect and proper execution, is always a better option.

Are you ready to join me in fostering healthy communication and conflict resolution in the workplace?

Are you ready to say no to the dirty yes?

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