A CARTOON by renowned New Yorker cartoonist Robert Mankoff shows two businessmen with knives stuck in their backs talking to each other. One says, “Oh, fine. And you?” The other says, “Never better.” “Backstabbing,” which is literally interpreted by this cartoon, is the practice of putting down or creating malicious intrigues about other people in a covert manner. “Backbiting” is a milder form of this corporate crime. While this cartoon may amuse us, it does bring home the fact that we all have come to accept and, at the same time, deny the reality of this practice at work.

Backstabbing or backbiting is a symptom of unresolved conflict at work. Some people engage in this practice when they do not have the will nor the ways to resolve interpersonal conflicts. When there is conflict, the natural, spontaneous reaction of people is  “fight” or “flight.” If you have the strength equal to or more than your opponent, you take the “fight” option. But if you think you are weaker than your opponent, you go with the “flight” alternative.

In the workplace, this translates into “confrontation” and “denial.” When people choose confrontation, they usually approach the person they are in conflict with and have it out. This may be done in a negative way, like in a shouting match or argument, or this may be done in a positive way in open and honest communication, using effective communication skills. When people choose denial, they do nothing, shrug off the problem and wish it away to non-existence. In the workplace, there is a third option, usually taken by the weaker opponent, and that is backstabbing or backbiting.

Deservedly or undeservedly, women are often accused of engaging in this unsavory practice, a perception that has its roots in the concept (or misconcept) that women are the weaker sex. And when men do this, some people comment, “You are just like a woman!” This perception has hindered the advancement of many women in business.

What can women do to combat this perception and practice at work? One way is to master effective conflict resolution skills. Effective conflict resolution is based on the concept of “win-win” in interpersonal relations. It is only when both parties win that the conflict can be effectively resolved. When one party feels the loser, there can never be a resolution of conflict. More so, when both parties feel like losers.

How is the “win-win” approach translated into actual practice? The dictum to follow here is Stephen Covey’s principle of “Seek first to understand, then, to be understood.”

When you are in conflict with another person—perhaps you have different views on an issue or you think that the other party is saying something bad about you—request for a meeting with that person to discuss your concerns.

At that meeting, bring out your concerns in a positive and gentle manner like, “I have heard that you do not approve of my project which I presented to the committee yesterday. I want to find out what is your view on this and why.”

Then, seek first to understand by listening. Listen with intent to really understand. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Apart from what is verbally said, observe the person’s body language and find out the message behind his words. Allow the other person to finish what he is saying before taking your turn talking. Keep an open mind. Do not prejudge what he is saying.

Afterwards, seek to be understood. Share your ideas, thoughts and feelings from the heart. Use the “I” word. For example, instead of saying, “You know when other people receive negative feedback, they also react negatively,” say, “When I receive negative feedback, I react negatively.” Communicate in a way that supports the other person. Be conscious of how you are being understood.

Then, if after a trustful exchange of ideas, both of you cannot agree, then both of you can agree to disagree without being disagreeable.

The ability to resolve conflicts productively is an indicator of high emotional intelligence which research has shown to be a characteristic of highly successful individuals. Learn and practice this skill to remove one more obstacle to the successful achievement of your goals as a working mom.

 Author: Regina Galang Reyes. Published in Metro Working Mom September 2002

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Founding Editor, People at Work, Business, Phiippine Daily Inquirer

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