“What do you do if the person you’re in conflict with is your boss? And what do you do if they do all the “wrong” behaviors, the ones that make the conflict worse?”

This is the question I was asked last week, as we led a session on managing conflict and difficult conversations. It was a provocative question.

As I usually do, I first turned to the group to see what insight they had to offer. They were all from one company, so they had a closer view to what might be going on. But, in many ways, they were pretty stymied, and instead of offering suggestions, they all shook their heads at me, as if to say, “Yes, please tell us what we can do?”

Here were my suggestions on how you can approach a conflict with your boss:

  • Remember that the power dynamic is there – the person in question is your manager, and like it or not – fair or not – they have power over you. That’s a dynamic you need to remember and be aware of. I am by no means suggesting that you should tolerate inappropriate behavior, but it does help to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s in your best interest to find a way to forge a good relationship with your manager.
  • Take back your power – all of the above is true and, at the same time, you can’t be a doormat. There are more effective ways to say “Don’t treat me like that” – such as, “I want to do my best for you, and when you raise your voice when talking with me, it is more difficult for me to do that.”
  • Take the high road – even if your boss seems incapable of approaching conflict in a way that helps move solutions along, you can. Try to see their perspective. Make sure they feel heard. Frame your requests and points in language they understand and that matters to them. In other words, try even harder to make things work, and don’t resort to the same bad behavior they have shown.
  • Try to get on the same side of the problem – we always coach clients to get on the same side of the problem with their “opponents.” When we’re on the same side of the problem, solving it together, we’re more inherently likely to work together.
  • Take a breather – if you feel them starting to get to you, leave the conversation, the room, the building, whatever. That’s a good time to go to the bathroom, or to practice your yoga breathing for a few minutes. Take space when you need space, so that you can find the best way to respond.
  • Make sure you’re not hungry…or tired – if your blood sugar is plummeting, you’re more likely to react in a way you’ll regret. If you need fresh air, a snack, or a nap, you’ll be more likely to snap back.
  • Seek allies – your peers, or your boss’s peers, can help you navigate the relationship, learn what works and doesn’t work, and brainstorm approaches that you might not have thought of alone.
  • Go to HR if necessary – if it’s really untenable, that’s why HR is there. To help you.

Conflict may be inevitable, but conflict is difficult, especially when it’s between you and your boss. But by taking some Thoughtful steps and approaches, you have the chance of surviving, and perhaps even learning and getting stronger.

How do you handle conflict with your boss?
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