The holiday season is meant to be a season of thanks, of giving, of love and of friendship. Picture yourself with a mug of your favorite tea or hot chocolate, sitting in the cozy corner of your couch in front of a fireplace surrounded by family, friends, good food, and laughter.  At work, this means decorated cubicles, holiday parties, gifts exchanges, and more holiday cookies, scented coffees, candy, pies and cakes than we can handle.  We expect it to be quieter at work with people in and out on vacation…and those who are at the office are more jovial, less…serious. That’s what it should be…right?

In reality, the holidays often add acute stress to life in general.  There is the pressure of coordinating events, balancing the needs of differing family members, worrying about spending money in this tough economy, concern about gaining weight, etc., etc., etc.  This pressure builds and is carried into the workplace where there is already stress from year end closings, month end sales, carrying the workload of absent team members, and the basic business struggle to survive.

This is the reality of the holidays.

In a holiday environment like this, workplace disputes are bound to arise…perhaps more often than during the rest of the year.  Often times, we are so mired in our own world that we do not take time to effectively process the conflict situation we are in.  As a result, we are left to our instincts of “fight or flight”…passively avoid or aggressively confront.  This emotional reaction is normal, but it’s not necessarily effective.  Furthermore, the damage we can do to our professional reputation by being reactive and by NOT being thoughtful in conflict will last beyond the holiday season and will follow us into the New Year.  It is in this sense that we give up control of our professional lives and reputations by allowing other people’s situations and emotions to control them for us. We let other people dictate our behavior and reactions, hence allowing them to design our life for us…we live by default.

The overarching question then is…How do I design my own life?  How do I take control of the immediate reactions and emotions that come with conflict?

Acknowledging and anticipating the inevitability of conflict, especially during the holiday season, is a great starting place for any professional looking to manage conflict effectively.  The mental image of the holidays we create for ourselves, which is so often idyllic, also allows for us to be caught off guard when the holidays don’t go as expected. This element of surprise can, if we let it, predispose us to being reactive when conflict arises.

This acknowledgement and anticipation of conflict is the first step to ensuring we are prepared to manage it.  Also key is recognizing the aspect of personal choice.  In this economy, we are so focused on what we have and don’t have with regards to “things,” but what we often neglect is the recognition of the one thing we all have…choice.  As Viktor Frankl, neurologist and holocaust survivor succinctly put it, “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” We always have a choice…in how we will react and in what our attitudes will be.

Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explains choice in Habit # 1: Be Proactive.  Part of being proactive is in understanding that between a stimulus and our reaction is a space…and in that space lies choice.  We do not need to be products of reaction…products of emotion.  That is ineffective in conflict management.  Instead, we can proactively make our choice on how to handle a conflict in advance of the conflict occurring.  Knowing that the holiday season is a stressful one, we can mentally or even physically, by writing it down, decide what those healthy choices will be.  These are phrases like…

I choose to pause or even step away for a moment when someone angers me. (This lengthens the time between stimulus and reaction…to allow us time to process our feelings and ensure our reaction is not an emotional one.)

I choose to communicate with the end result in mind. (If you are heading into a conflict and want a resolution, you are choosing to proactively decide…What is the best approach?  How do I partner versus fight?)

I choose to think win-win when in a debate. (Thinking win-win first requires that you understand the other person’s perspective and needs. This is especially useful in the work environment where the relationship is a long term one.)

I choose not to let other people’s stress and emotions impact me. (This puts YOU in control of YOU.)

I choose to create a sense of calm in my life and take time for myself during the holidays. (This will give you time to renew your spirit so that you are better prepared to manage your emotions.)

I choose to address an issue at the beginning before it festers and worsens. (This acknowledges our place in resolving a dispute.)

I choose to assume the other person has the “best intent.” (This acknowledges that likely, the other person is not a bad person doing bad things with bad intent.  Likely, they are reacting to their environment and are in an acute state of stress.)

Making these “healthy choices” in advance of situations that would require immediate reaction helps to hard code our…core values.  These values then become apparent in our actions, especially in times of stress, and thus aid in our professional demeanor and reputation. Making healthy choices helps us to ensure we are living by the principles we believe in. Covey states that these principles are our guiding sense of right behavior.  Finally, it helps us to be the creative force in our own professional lives…designing it to be what we want it to be by controlling our output.

These 7 Habit principles are useful in all aspects of life and are especially useful in conflict resolution.  So as you head into the holiday season, make a list of those you are buying gifts for…of those things and people you are thankful for…and of the healthy choices you will make when faced with a conflict.  Creating a foundation of trust and respect in the workplace is paramount to establishing rapport with those you work with; however, the real work comes in maintaining that foundation by managing workplace disputes in a way that nurtures these long-term employment relationships. According to Covey, that’s the key to being an effective person…and it’s also the key to being a highly successful business professional.

by Lalita Nordquist

Lalita Nordquist is a Vice President of Human Resources at an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company (Inc. 5000 designation years: 2007 through 2011). She and her team of 17 serve a client base of around 1500 employees across 7 states with business operations. Ms. Nordquist is also a Master’s graduate of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University’s School of Law as well as a Master’s graduate from Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.