Everyone of us learned to react to stress and anxiety in ways that fit with our family model.

One man smiled at me when he saw me wince at a poorly timed joke at a meeting. At the break he said "Look, I grew up in a loud Irish family with five brothers and that's how we learned to cope and also to be heard." By the end of the program he "got it." What worked when he was nine or fifteen was not helping him flourish now at age forty-one.

He was about to transform the clown pattern to the humorist.

You know the office clown, that's the one who is often loud and invasive. The humorist, on the other hand, can inject a chuckle or a guffaw into a meeting and help relieve the tension just enough to settle the conflict about to happen.

When stress hits the hot button, there is a natural tendency to for all of us to revert to behavior we learned in our original organization, the family. These behaviors come to work in unique and powerful ways when there is tension and overwhelm.

  • Extremes: Watch for behavior that goes from north pole to south pole. If someone is told they are too loud (like our Irish guy) and they then move to silence, know that they are just playing a role. Real change, to find a better way occurs over time. Sudden shifts are bogus.
  • Pattern repetition: Sometimes it is the same word or phrase that will catch your attention. Saying "it's ALWAYS my fault" is the sound of a victim. Things "will NEVER change" is from the mouth of an avoider. "ONLY H.R. or a lawyer can handle this," is the talk of a rebel.
  • Gossip: This one is like the kids' game "whispering down the lane." What starts out with "Today is Tuesday" ends up with "I hate Sally and I hope she trips and falls." Your job is to ask the gossip queen or king "What is your intention by telling me this." And then you add "I can't promise I won't tell another living soul. I have to do what I think is right." Look, it's hard to take a stand and we all love to hear the "juice" yet it can destroy a team faster than a lightning bolt.
  • Blaming and deflecting: In our blame addicted society this one is tough. The antidote to blaming is accountability. If someone comes to blame you, a great response is to say "Here is the part I think I played and I would like to hear from you about your part in this situation." The key here is to then stay quiet and let the other person squirm and then hopefully show up as accountable also. It really does work more than not when you start by being up front and honest.
  • Ruminating about "the good old days": Often there is a tendency to talk about how much better life was with the prior boss or the old team. This sets up defensiveness and hostility. Then caps of defenders start to prove what they are saying is right and there is competition over, well, over nothing. Here your best tactic is to paint a vision of the future and ask those around you to join you in creating a better place to work right here and right now.

The best way to nip conflict in the bud? Be proactive, be proactive, that's it, be proactive. The more you can learn about how relationships work the better chance you have of finding the right thing to say at the right time. Contact me for the list of the 13 most common behavior patterns at work and their healthy and positive transformations.