I spent some time with a team last week that was really suffering because of several months of unhealthy conflict. Relations had deteriorated to the point that team members were feeling disrespected by one another. There was a lot of anger in the room and they needed help from someone outside the team to get them out of the quagmire. I gave them a few simple tips, including my favourite Harry Potter charm (we’ll get to that in a minute), for dealing with anger and hostility.

The first thing to recognize about conflict is that once the spiral starts, even the most innocuous comments and actions can fuel the beast. Imagine this scenario:

You are time pressed and facing several deadlines, including for a piece of work that a colleague needs to include in an upcoming presentation to management. You give him something that isn’t your best. Given the timing, he has little choice but to use what you’ve given him. Not surprisingly, the presentation doesn’t go well and he follows up with a few choice words. The next time you need to work together, he makes a pointed remark in front of the whole team about “getting more lead time because revisions will definitely be necessary.” You go to your manager to complain about his “bad attitude” while he escalates his perception of your “uncooperativeness” to his boss.

Ugh. Even with this short description, you can imagine what each person feels like and where this conflict is headed. There’s bound to be frustration, defensiveness, and anger. Once one of you acts from anger, it’s natural for the other person to respond in kind. Your solution is to meet anger with empathy.

Here are a few empathy moments that might have changed the course of this conflict:

  1. If you had empathized with your colleague about the pressures of presenting to management, you might have worked harder to give him quality work. Alternatively, you might have shared your deadline pressures and asked for help on how to get him at least the minimum of what he needed.
  2. If your colleague had thought about the pressures you were under, he might have given you some slack on the thoroughness of your work. One way to do this was to share his observations with management, “Sam was facing several deadlines at once so I asked for high level thoughts. We’ll get additional detail by the end of the week.”
  3. When your colleague gave you feedback about the quality of your work, you could have put yourself in his shoes and imagined how embarrassing it might have been to present something less than the best work to a room full of important people. You could have realized that his anger was triggered by how badly it felt to be in that situation.

Any one of these moments of empathy would have taken the sting out of the situation and led to a much better outcome.

Communicate about the emotion

It doesn’t take much to short-circuit the anger that builds up in a situation like this. Start by sharing your understanding of what the person might be going through.

“I get that this is your first presentation of this project to the joint steering committee so you want it to be good.”

Then add your side of the story.

“I have five similarly high priority projects all happening at once.”

Then signal that you want to find a solution that works for both of you.

“I know we can figure this out. Can we spend five minutes today to get aligned on what’s most important and what I can deliver without jeopardizing other work?”

Imagine how differently the scenario would have played out if it had started this way.

For extreme cases use magic

Sometimes the conflict and hostility has gone past the limits of normal human powers. In these cases, I turn to the lessons of Harry Potter. In this case, it’s the story of the Boggart1 we need. For those who don’t know, a Boggart is a monster with no set physical form. Instead, it takes the shape of the one thing that it’s adversary fears the most. The only way to disarm a Boggart is the Riddikulus charm. To perform the charm, the wizard waves his wand, shouts “Riddikulus,” while visualizing something funny happening to the Boggart. Once the wizard is able to laugh at his tormentor, the Boggart disappears…poof! For protagonist Ron Weasley, his Boggart is a giant spider. His Riddikulus image is the spider wearing eight roller skates and slipping and sliding all over everywhere. He can’t help but laugh.

Now imagine your angry adversary as a Boggart and figure out how to empathize or laugh so that the anger no longer provokes fear or anger from you.

In the example from above, you sent a colleague into a meeting where the higher ups rained down some pretty heavy criticism on his project. I can picture him, the skies opening and all he has to protect himself is a shoddy, threadbare umbrella. It’s not fully covered in cloth because you handed him an umbrella that was missing most of its substance. No wonder he’s mad…he got drenched in there because of you.

Immediately, that image leaves you empathizing and saying “oh my goodness, I’m SO sorry I didn’t send you in better prepared.”

Empathy and humor work like magic to dispel anger and hostility. Try your own Riddikulus charm next time someone is angry with you. You’ll make the conflict disappear.

  1. From Rowling, J.K. (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York. Scholastic.

Further Reading

Does Your Team to Turn Each Other or On Each Other

Four Secrets of Avoiding the Conflict Spiral

Ugly Conflict