One challenge I see over and over again is how to deal with people who are behaving badly. My clients often have to figure out how to cope in the face of someone else’s strong emotions. Watch the video below or the blog post that follows to explore strategies you can use to better understand the context in which conflicts take place. This allows you to take a step back from the daily dramas of your workplace, strategically overcome conflicts, and create productive collaborations.

One of the themes last week with my clients was how to deal with people who are behaving badly. For one person it was a colleague who wasn’t responding to her messages. For another, it was dealing with a colleague who was acting out their frustration in an unprofessional way. For yet another, it was a colleague who was disappointed about something my client had done. The question they each faced was how to cope in the face of someone else’s strong emotions.

In each one of these situations, the underlying issue we focused on first was how my client could take what was happening “not just personally.”

If there were a theme to my coaching and my own professional development over the past 25 years, this would be it. The idea is that when we can understand behavior in context – seeing the system – then it becomes easier to separate ourselves from other people’s reactions. As Barry Oshry put it, “In organizations much of the time we think we are dealing person to person, when in fact we’re dealing context to context and much that feels personal is not personal at all” (Seeing Systems, p. 13).

Seeing the context means looking beyond the individual person and their behavior and motivations. Instead, we focus on the context in which that behavior’s taking place. Is there a conflict built into the structure of the organization? Are there different goals or expectations that are at odds? Perhaps different parts of the organization are keepers of different aspects of the strategy, and that’s at the heart of the difficulty? When I worked in team building and team effectiveness, this was the first place I would look to help resolve conflicts. With a background in sociology and culture, this seemed a natural place to start. And it set me apart from coaches who only had a psychological background. Their focus would be on individual personalities, styles, and motivations. Those things matter, and I’ve spent years studying them as well. But they don’t tell the whole story.

Here’s an example. In for-profit organizations. it’s not uncommon for there to be conflict between the head of sales or marketing and the head of manufacturing. Looking at it from a person-perspective, we might explain the conflict in terms of their personalities, for example: 5th avenue slick advertiser vs. gruff get-er-done manufacturer. Those kinds of style differences can cause issues. But that misses another important factor in the conflict. There’s a built-in structural conflict. The head of sales & marketing is responsible for revenue. They want to have as many product variations as possible to appeal to a variety of customers. The head of production, on the other hand, is usually responsible for costs. To keep costs low, they want to streamline production. They want any color as long as it’s black (to paraphrase Henry Ford, a master of streamlined production).

Those very different goals are bound to create conflict.

If they’re not thinking systems, it’s highly likely that each one of them will take this conflict personally. They’ll think the other person is a jerk, or doesn’t listen, or doesn’t like them, or their mother didn’t love them enough, or whatever story they make up. We’re always interpreting the behavior of the people around us. When our interpretations are solely focused on the person, then there’s not much we can do about it. It becomes an “us vs. them” game. What’s worse is that our interpretations then color how we interact with them the next time. We get caught in a vicious cycle that makes it very difficult to work together.

On the other hand, when we can see the broader context in which we’re operating, we have an opportunity to make a shift. Marketing and production can work together to understand each other’s points of view and create a win-win strategy for maximizing profit.

While this kind of thinking sounds perfectly logical, building the capacity to truly think and act this way requires some deeper work. If you’re feeling insecure or run by anxiety, frustration, or upset, it’s very difficult to step back and see the system. It’s nearly impossible to get into a good partnership with the person on the other side.

That’s why in helping my clients to build their executive presence, we start with their inner work. The first step is to become whole, so they have space between someone else’s behavior and their own reaction. From that place of wholeness, it’s easier to see the system. You can look behind the curtain and see what might be going on in their world, and how that relates to your own. It’s also easier to create space for the other person to be whole too. From there, you have a chance at partnership – working together toward a shared goal.

Doing this in the face of bad behavior is challenging. When someone has ignored you or shouted at you or expressed disappointment in you, it’s perfectly natural to want to shout back or shrink away. But that natural response gives away your power. It prevents you from resolving the situation.

Luckily, it is possible to learn how to move through this kind of situation with grace. I have a step-by-step process for this that I teach my clients to help them become much more effective. When they follow the steps, they no longer get caught up in the daily dramas in their workplace. Their work is much less stressful. They can walk away at the end of the day without ruminating or losing sleep.

Importantly, this strategy also improves their performance at work. They’re able to collaborate better and get more done – because as Managers, Directors, and VPs there’s very little you can accomplish in an organization by yourself. To be effective, you need to be able to influence others and bring them along. This set of skills creates expert collaborators.

If this is intriguing to you, feel free to book a call with me. You can do that at and we can talk more about what it would look like for us to work together. Or if you’re interested in learning more, you can also check out my free webinar where we talk about this and several other strategies you can use to take your career to the next level.

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