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Workplace Conflict And The Inner Teenager

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

Ever felt like you or your coworkers or bosses were acting or talking like difficult teenagers? You know what I mean, the sullen shrug, the denial, the endless willingness to argue, the sudden fits of temper? This kind of energy can be challenging and frustrating to deal with, especially when you are supposed to be working with adults.

I’ve been thinking about teenagers and communication lately because I just finished teaching a class at Sonoma State University called Resolving Family Conflict.

As part of my research for the class, I reread the classic book, How To Talk So Teens Will Listen, And Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlich. I was struck with how applicable the communication skills are to us grown ups in the workplace.

One of their useful ideas was: “Instead of ordering, engage a ‘teenager’s’ cooperation”. You could do this by describing the problem, describing what you feel, giving information, offering a choice, and/or stating your values or expectations.

The authors also give examples of what they call “Working It Out Together.” Instead of punishment, invite your ‘teenager’ to give his/her point of view, state your point of view, invite them to brainstorm with you, write down all ideas without evaluating, review list and decide which ideas to implement.

While they used the example of teens blasting music in their rooms, the principles seem applicable to collaborative conflict management strategies. No one, adult or teen, likes ultimatums, judgment, or harsh criticism. Even if those approaches produce the desired outcome once, they have a long-term effect of damaging relationships rather than building mutual respect and trust.

Of course, we all need to be accountable but there are more productive ways to achieve that.

Let’s say, for example, that someone you supervise is not meeting deadlines. Rather than yelling at them or threatening them with firing, you could describe the problem (The whole project is stalled waiting for your work). You could say how you feel (I feel frustrated).

You could ask them to share their perspective on what is holding up their part of the project and listen to their response. At the very least you’d gain a better understanding of what is causing the problem, such as missing data, lack of a necessary skill, or an unresolved disagreement. At that point, you could invite them to brainstorm possible solutions. Then the two of you could review the options and implement the most promising.

These strategies won’t always get you the outcome you want, especially if the other person is invested in blame and justification. But this approach will help you have a calmer, more productive conversation about the issues. Potentially, you will be laying a foundation for a positive work relationship and, at the very least, you will avoid unleashing an inner teenage rebel.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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