You get on a train, planning to do some work on your iPad while you head into London. As the train progresses, it gets fuller and fuller. As a result, you move your coat and bag to let a family sit down next to you.
The family is composed of a 5 year old boy and a 4 year old girl, plus father and mother. The boy and girl sit on the seats while their parents initially stand up.
Got the picture?
The girl was sitting next to me. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem – after all, I am very used to travelling on the train with kids. However, her mother decided to also sit on that same seat and her daughter was bored, and only given half of the seat.
Properly, properly bored. So, she wriggled. She jostled. She decided to hit her brother.
As I was squeezed next to her, I was being continually knocked and bumped.
After one big bump too many, my patience was in very short supply. (If you speak to my business partner Jon, he will say I didn’t have much to start with!). I looked at the mother as if to say “sort your child out”, to be told that I could move to the other end of the carriage where there were free seats.
I stupidly said, “I shouldn’t need to.”
This then signalled the woman to tell me that I was grumpy, unreasonable and her kids were being incredibly well behaved – and her daughter was just wriggly.
So, who was right, and who was wrong?
This is a classic conflict scenario, and one where context is everything.
From my side, I was frustrated that:
- the mother had not apologised for her daughter bumping me about
- the parents had not prepared for the train journey and provided something to keep their children amused
- the mother had not put her daughter on her lap to stop her jostling me
- I couldn’t get on with my work as I was being continually disturbed
- I would have been mortified if the situation was reversed
From the mother’s side:
- she hadn’t realised that my elbow now really hurt with all the bumping
- her view was her kids were being very well behaved, i.e. not fighting, crying, yelling
- she had been helpful by telling me I could have moved on the train to another seat
- a stranger had just told her that her kids were not well behaved
There wasn’t an easy resolution to this conflict scenario. In the end, I stopped the conversation as I saw there was no point in continuing it. (Plus, I was fed up of the catty abuse being sent in my direction by the lady.) However, there are some lessons to be learnt for all of us from this situation, when it comes to resolving conflict in the workplace:
- Context is everything – try and see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This may help find a way for resolution.
- A heartfelt apology often goes a long way to defusing a difficult conversation
- Deal in facts not opinions – the catty abuse given to me by the mother made the situation worse not better
- Some people are up for a fight, doesn’t mean to say that you should engage in the fight.
Have you ever had a similar experience?
Written by Heather Townsend. I help professionals become the ‘Go To Expert’. I am the co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life‘ and the author of the award-winning and bestselling book on Networking, ‘The FT Guide To Business Networking‘.
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