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    Separate emotion when addressing conflict

    I've been witness of late to a lot of workplace conflict. It is my nature to avoid conflict. I'm certain it’s because I dealt with a lifetime of workplace conflict when I was a supervisor in the coal mines.

    I handled it—I just didn't handle it well. I would scream profanities, throw temper tantrums, and on more than one occasion offhandedly fire the offender. The miners called me Little Hitler, and that tells you all you need to know about my management style at the time. Off work, I drank way too much, too often, and at way too early an age. When I got out of that environment, I was happy to ignore conflict whenever I could.

    Previously from Dr. Bowling: Perspective changes after my cataract surgery

    Yet, conflict is a part of life. There is no way any two people are going to see eye-to-eye on every topic all the time, and that’s to be expected. Don’t get me wrong: minor disagreements and debates at work are normal and can be healthy. But fighting at work with a coworker or the boss can be very destructive. So, it really isn’t the conflict, it is the way you respond to conflict. But how can we respond positively?

    Anne McKee in Harvard Business Review1 says, “The first thing we can do is admit that conflict at work is real and pervasive, and just as painful” as conflicts in other areas of our life.

    I’m certain we can all attest that conflict at work will often stay with us long after we leave the office. Our response needs to be in a healthy manner.

    McKee says, “We need to cultivate real empathy and compassion for others… our feelings matter, and they need to be attended to first and always, not as an afterthought.”

    Indeed, it is often hard to separate the problem when our emotions are in hyperdrive. We have to control of our emotions first before we can deal with the real concern.

    In her opinion, dealing with work conflict starts with “a deep self-awareness.” I’m not certain I’m more self-aware now than I was at 25, but I know my management style has changed and I am doing better at handling conflict. My office staff doesn’t call me Little Hitler. At least as far as I know.


    1. McKee A. Why we fight at work. Harvard Bus Rev. Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/06/why-we-fight-at-work. Accessed 7/30/2017.

    Read more from Dr. Bowling here

    Ernie Bowling, OD, MS, FAAO
    Dr. Ernie Bowling is Chief Optometric Editor of Optometry Times. He received his Doctor of Optometry and Master of Science in ...


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