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  • Ronan Harrington

How to solve interpersonal tensions at work



As a mental health keynote speaker I've noticed that a major source of stress at work are interpersonal tensions that go unresolved for the fear of having that awkward conversation.


Nine times out of ten, we bury it and withdraw, only for the resentment to surface in subtle, punishing behaviours.


Weekly, we must make eye contact, swallow the frog, and have the difficult conversation we've been avoiding.


There are steps that make this more palatable that I always share as a mental health keynote speaker.


The first is to understand that even when there is genuine wrong doing, the beef you have with someone is subjective and can contain assumptions and judgements that are arguable.


Here we enter into the disorienting world of psychological projection. We often form a compelling story about someone ('they are always late for meetings!') and then see all further behaviour through this lens, dismissing evidence to the contrary.


This story may actually be something we also do. It's easier to fixate on how the other person does it than to own it yourself. As they say in AA, 'if you spot it, you got it.'


To begin a difficult conversation, it's helpful to affirm the relationship. You're revealing yourself because you want to create more trust and good feeling between you. You care! This simple affirmation opens the other to feedback.


To avoid projection, we speak inarguably. State the indisputable facts of a situation (I noticed you arrived late by about five mins for the last three team meetings) and then speak about the thoughts, feelings and sensations that have arisen. e.g., 'I noticed I felt a tightening in my neck, a feeling of anger, and thoughts that you don't give a shit about this team'.


Own that this is the story you tell yourself. It is not necessarily true that they were late because they didn't care about the team. That's your story. It may be true, but holding our story lightly creates a greater likelihood that the other person will own what's theirs, creating the resolution you seek.


Most of the time, we just need to be seen, heard and understood, but sometimes behaviour needs to change. If so, work together toward a constructive solution that is actionable and accountable.


As a mental health keynote speaker I often remind my audiences that great working relationships are built on generative conflict.


I work for one of my best friends, Michael Matania, founder of Tough Cookie. We have also up until very recently shared a house for five years and continue to DJ together. It's a rich collaboration, with lots of opportunity to disappoint and frustrate each other.


I'm glad to say we've created a deep level of trust where we can share the inevitable difficulties that arise. We've gone through hundreds of Rupture and Repair Cycles. The goal is to move through them completely, until we can eventually laugh about it.


When things go sour (as they have done recently), Michael reminds us of the proverb 'Honour Amongst Thieves'. We're never far from the knowing that we're liable to do the exact thing we're accusing the other of.


Who do you need to have a conversation with?



This piece was originally shared as a post on my LinkedIn and inspired by day-to-day insights from my own experience with burnout and my work as a mental health keynote speaker and resilience strategist.

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