Conflict Resolution

Facing Aggression in the Workplace

Faced with an aggressive co-worker, how can we use space and body language to change “Win-Lose” to “Win-Win”?

Years ago I worked in a setting where we were charged with creating a new Canadian division of an existing US model. Five of us had to create three new departments. With five strong personalities, we had conflict.

One of my peers in particular gave me a lot of grief while trying to complete this monumental project. Let’s call him Lance. In fairness, I was as opinionated as Lance and was not shy in expressing my feelings. More than once Lance and I disagreed on how to move forward.

Lance liked to have the discussions about our differing opinions in his office, on his “home turf”. On one particular disagreement, I knew we’d discuss a highly contested point. I did not wish to go to Lance’s office. I picked up the phone, and asked him to come to my office. He grudgingly agreed.

I had a large U-shaped desk in my office. An entire portion of my desk faced two chairs allowing me to talk to people, with no obstruction. With a simple swivel of my chair, I could give my full attention to anyone sitting there.

Lance arrives at my office. I am sitting in my chair in the middle of my U. He walks through the door, bypasses the two chairs and sits on the inside corner of my desk. His body language is challenging; he has a clear height advantage. Anything he says will be directed down to me as I am sitting. He has invaded my territory and I am immediately defensive. He is asserting control over the room and the conversation.

We have two choices when put into a position like this: we can escalate or de-escalate. My natural instinct may be to fight back, telling Lance to “back off” and go sit in one of the chairs. I can challenge his perceived aggressive move and assert my own dominance. This might make me feel better, but will it help the overall relationship? Likely not.

So, I need to find a way to de-escalate the situation. This takes more work, and the onus is on me to take the first steps. Is that fair? No, but if I truly want the relationship to develop into something beneficial for both parties, I need to change the dynamics.

Rather than asking Lance to remove himself from my space, I swiveled my chair to face him, stepped up and to the side, pushed in my chair and sat on the opposite corner of my desk so we faced each other. I kept a smile on my face and an open posture. This leveled our height in the interaction, stepping to the side mitigated any aggressive movement, and the open body language (including the smile) said I was willing to listen. I had changed the equation.

In these situations we need to control our actions; in doing so, we can influence the actions of others. When put into a situation such as this, do a quick mental check. Ask yourself, “What do I want out of this situation?” and “What will it take to achieve that goal?” Those two quick questions will move you toward a mindset where most often you are strengthening relationships, and making it easier to interact with this person the next time. “Win-Lose” now has a chance to become “Win-Win”.

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Shawn McLaren

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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