“I’m grown! I’m grown!” the fifty-three-year old severely agitated woman declared. “I have children her age,” she bristled. “She’s mean to me. She called me a bad name!”
The other employee, a woman barely twenty-four years old, seated next to her, neither acknowledged the accusation nor sought to defend it; she simply looked at her wildly painted multi-colored fingernails and smirked as she rhythmically shook her crossed legs.
As I sat across the table from this disturbed employee and seemingly disinterested employee it occurred to me that if a person does not think properly about herself and understand that conflict is not unusual when people work in close proximity, that person will struggle to endure and overcome the inevitable conflicts. With an ownership interest in the company, I understood I needed to help the on-scene manager handle this potentially volatile situation. Likewise, I had an obligation and genuine vested interest in helping these ladies resolve their conflict and get back to work.
I realized I was neither a counselor, nor was it realistic that I could completely turn around an employee’s self-esteem and understanding of the fundamental expectation of conflict. Therefore, I chose to deal with our urgent operational situation in a decidedly basic and simple, but powerful fashion. “Wanda,” I began, “Who are you? Are you okay with you? Do you respect yourself?” She nodded affirmatively as she wiped her tears. “I know you do. I do too."
As I spoke I held both my hands up, my left hand facing straight up with all fingers extended up palm facing my right hand which was about six inches away quickly opening and closing my fingers as a pacman repeatedly and quickly opening and closing his mouth eating.
As I motioned in this fashion, I continued our discussion, “Wanda, if you understand who you are; and if you are okay with you; then when someone else is picking at you, obviously they have a problem. At that time you only have two choices; not three, not four choices—only two:
One: you can share that person’s problem. [I then began mimicking the pacman eating motion of my right hand with my left, both facing each other and repeatedly quickly opening and closing as though talking nonesense.]; or Two: you can simply say, ‘I’m sorry you have this problem. I’m okay with me and you’ll just have to keep your problem to yourself.’”
As I spoke the second point I stopped the eating motion with my left hand and put it straight up initially palm facing my eating pacman right hand and turned it 180 degrees away.
The younger reportedly antagonistic employee with the wildly painted fingernails continued to demonstrate that she was disinterested in my words by not even looking up. In stark contrast, the older formerly agitated employee, with an inquisitive expression relaxed her formerly excessively tense posture and added, “Yes, but she says mean things to me all day long!”
Ignoring the comment while continuing to look intently at her dazzling fingernails, the young lady acted as though she’d not heard the further accusation—her head now bouncing in rhythmic time with her shaking crossed legs.
Directly my attention back to the elder employee, I asked, “Wanda, do you understand who you are? Are you okay with you?”
“Yes,” she tearfully nodded.
“Okay then,” I replied. “If you know who you are, and LaDonna—or anyone else—tries to say otherwise, does she have the power to change you?”
“No,” Wanda replied as she continued wiping her tears.
“Okay then, you simply need to refuse to share her problem and silently tell her, ‘I’m sorry you have this problem. I’m not going to share your problem.’ Otherwise, if you share her problem, it’s like when someone has a cold and shares their virus. Instead of one being infected, now both have it. It’s the same way in this situation. Only you can choose if you’ll share her problem or let her keep it.”
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down. 21 Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
So is a contentious man to kindle strife.
If we add fuel to the fire of an antagonistic person’s words, whether fellow employee, family member, acquaintance, or friend, we extend the flames of conflict; but, if we choose to silently refuse to take on and share the other person’s problem, we’ll keep ourselves free from further angst as avoiding infection with the oft-shared cold virus.
The next time someone gets on your nerves, remember your two choices: 1) Share the problem; or 2) Let them keep the problem to themselves.