Out On The Couch
We’ve written previously about how to handle conflict in therapy—but what about when you are experiencing conflict within your clinic, from a peer or supervisor? Conflicts with colleagues, particularly surrounding identity, can impact an entire community if left unresolved for too long. It can also affect the reputation of your practice, or leave you open to legal concerns around discrimination. Here are some tips to help you manage conflict and develop a stronger and more positive work environment. As a note, in conflicts that touch on legal and ethical issues, please utilize your license’s professional guidelines for these circumstances.
Know your Conflict-Handling Mode
According to Thomas and Kilmann (1974), people can manage conflict through utilizing behaviors along two dimensions: assertiveness (attempting to satisfy your own concerns) or cooperativeness (trying to satisfy other people’s concerns).
Competing is assertive and uncooperative. A person who responds to conflicts with this approach, leans into the power available to them to win. This person “stands up for their rights” and defends their position. From this position, a person competing in the conflict loses the ability to hear other perspectives.
Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative. This mode is a position of self-sacrifice. In a moment of conflict, it can be perceived as an easy-going nature, or willingness to satisfy the needs of the greater good. Over time, this response to conflict can lead to burnout or resentment.
Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. This person side steps conflicts, steps out of the group setting when a challenging moment occurs, or postpones tending to difficult tasks. This person can perceive conflict as threatening and want to avoid it all together.
Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. This person also sees conflict as threatening, and wants to find the quickest resolution possible. A compromising position splits the difference between two sides, and no one ends up getting their needs met.
Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative. This is a relational way of working through a problem that fully satisfies everyone’s needs. It can take more time and discomfort to determine the underlying unmet needs in a group, but can yield much more sustainable long term results.
It can also take some time to allow everyone involved in a conflict to move into a collaborative approach. Knowing what your primary style is and that of your colleagues may be helpful in finding another conflict-handling mode to utilize.
You Will Make Mistakes
This was the first item in our previous post, but it belongs here just as much. A seasoned, well-trained affirmative therapist may pride themself on being aware of their unconscious biases … but that doesn’t magically make them go away. In addition, it takes time to unlearn harmful behaviors. Try to adopt a learning mindset when a colleague approaches you about harm they experienced. To learn more, check out Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets and fixed mindsets.
Make Amends … But Allow Time For the Rift to Heal
Sometimes workplace conflicts related to identity can injure personal relationships. In many cases, you may have caused what you see as a minor offense, and you just can’t understand why your relationship with your colleague is still chilly! Keep in mind that your experience of the event was very different from theirs, and while they may have accepted your apology, they may still feel hurt.
In most cases, try to find space between acting like nothing is wrong and falling all over yourself every time you see them. The former may be frustrating and make your counterpart feel that they are being pushed into the same action. The latter makes it all about you. Instead, continue to invite your colleague to join you as you would before, but give them space to decline (and accept that gracefully).
Find Common Ground
Finding a new shape to your working relationship while working through systemic challenges or interpersonal conflicts can be helpful. All parties should be committed to healing the harm and moving forward in a positive new way. Perhaps you can work together on a new project, lead a reading group for the clinic, or find another space where you can interact and rebuild the relationship. In a mission-driven or client-centered workplace, focus can be redirected on shared priorities until personal relationships can be repaired.
Learn More From Our Courses:
American Psychological Association. (2016). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.
Dweck, C. (n.d). A Summary of Growth and Fixed Mindsets. FS Blog. Retrieved from: https://fs.blog/carol-dweck-mindset/
Standford Alumni (2014). Developing a Growth Mindset with Carol Dweck. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiiEeMN7vbQ
The Affirmative Couch (2022). Managing Conflict In Affirmative Therapy.
Thomas, K & Kilmann, R. (2015). An Overview of the TKI Assessment Tool. Killman Diagnostics. Retrieved from: https://kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki/