If such a thing as a conflict-free work environment exists, the legislature most certainly is not it.
Political environments, especially, invite differences of opinion, debate and disagreement. It’s what the legislative process is all about: fleshing out ideas and issues. Conflict (that is, civil conflict) is expected in legislative chambers, but not within legislative staff offices. High-tension, stressful work environments need to be monitored; ideally, conflict can be de-escalated before it causes permanent rifts between colleagues, legislators or the public.
Conflict, whether it’s out in the open or simmering beneath the surface, is a distraction that can harm productivity. It can dampen career satisfaction and accelerate staff resignations. It can also be expensive. “Every unaddressed conflict wastes about eight hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities,” according to research by VitalSmarts, a Utah-based corporate consulting firm.
The legislature is a haven of mixed, sometimes strong opinions on contentious topics. Difficult coworkers and constituents come with the territory, with differing political ideals often fueling emotions. This passion can lead to heated conflict.
Carrie Maulin, chief clerk of the Idaho House of Representatives, says things can get especially stressful in election years. “When [legislators] have to get out and run their campaigns and need stuff done, things get very emotional.”
That stress inevitably trickles down to staff.
The Art of Listening
Whether you are resolving a conflict between individuals, or someone is arguing with you directly, the way to de-escalate the situation is to remain calm and rational. Let the other person air his or her grievances, all while remaining respectful—because your response will either escalate or defuse the situation.
Practicing effective conflict resolution is vital to supporting the legislature’s mission: promoting the common good of the citizens of the state. You can start by listening. Lore Christopher, director of human resources for the Oregon Legislative Assembly, has mediated a conflict or two in her 21 years there. Her office policy in these situations is to be quiet, listen and let the other party “just run with it,” she says. “We don’t write anything down [at first], we just listen.”
During a confrontation with a colleague, she advises, “Be present, listen and give them respect—for preservation of the relationship. You don’t have to win the battle. It is not easy to do, but it is the smart thing to do!”
In New Hampshire, a clause in the Constitution grants citizens the right to petition for redress of grievances. Clerk of the House Paul Smith fields a lot of phone calls and visits because of this right. “Just having someone hear you out can make a difference,” he says. “I talk to them to figure out what their issue is because they can petition until they’re blue in the face, but if they don’t have any sort of resolution in mind, there’s nothing we can do.” He cites karma as part of his willingness to spend time listening to an upset constituent. “Everybody who works in government has to have some sense of altruism,” he says. “It’s ultimately about helping people, your fellow citizens.”
In difficult situations, Maulin says, “I try as best I can to listen to what they say and not respond. I know myself well enough to know that whatever words I use at that moment are not ones I’ll be happy about later.”
The value of listening is to “recognize the stress point,” says Peter Capriglione, director of information systems at the North Carolina General Assembly. An issue like a computer crash, printing difficulties, or a voting system malfunction may not be stressful to someone working in IT who knows how to fix it, but any of those could cause a great deal of stress to someone less knowledgeable. Be empathetic; try to understand the situation from their point of view.
“Smile, listen and resolve,” Capriglione advises. “Nine times out of 10 it is really not as bad as it may seem.”
It’s Not All About You
Stressors, of course, aren’t limited to office-related issues. Any number of personal problems—family, financial or health—can contribute to conflict in the workplace. Your colleagues may or may not reveal these during a disagreement, but because you never know what others are dealing with in their personal lives, simply empathizing can go a long way toward de-escalating a heated exchange. Often, people just want someone to hear them out.
Maulin compares it to her experience raising two children. “Your kids frustrate you to the point where you just want to throw your own tantrum,” she says.
An adult tantrum may reflect stress in a person’s life that has nothing to do with you. Conflicts with constituents are rarely personal. The target generally is your position, not you.
Christopher reminds herself, “These people do not define you. You cannot control the situation, the other person’s actions or reactions. But you have control of what you say, how you react and how you feel.”
It’s helpful to recognize when you’re being affected by your own negative emotions. But understanding and controlling your feelings—using your emotional intelligence—are among the most challenging skills to master.
How you react to what the other party is saying during an emotional or heated conversation is critically important, Christopher says. With a coworker, your response could color future interactions with him or her for a long time.
“If it’s a colleague, you’ll have to continue to deal with this person,” she says. “Ask, How do we move forward? What do you need from me so that we can continue to work together? Then it’s up to you to translate what they tell you into something you feel you can accomplish.”
For Maulin, that means “getting the facts. If I’m wrong, I’m absolutely willing to accept it—though it’s not easy. But [I try] to understand the facts and then come back and talk to that person at a later date.”
North Carolina House Principal Clerk James White approaches workplace conflicts as learning opportunities. He tries to “welcome and accept constructive criticism” as part of resolving these situations with colleagues.
Regardless of the source of the conflict it’s important to strive to control your emotions, de-escalate hostility and negativity, and seek the most optimal solution: preserving your working relationship with colleagues. A successful resolution will direct staff energy and time away from conflict and toward the work of the legislature.
“The key piece,” Christopher says, “is to listen to the other person, seek to understand what they need from you, and figure out a way to preserve the relationship.”
Finding a Balance
Ideally, says Carolyn Hunt, director of human resources for the North Carolina General Assembly, staff are made aware before they accept employment that stressors aren’t limited to their specific job duties. “Will they manage the stressors or will the stressors manage them?” as she puts it.
But how do you manage stress? “Setting firm boundaries between my work and nonwork time and getting regular exercise help me keep my life in balance and reduce stress when the legislature is in session,” says Julia Covington, reference librarian for the North Carolina General Assembly.
Her colleague Anthony Aycock agrees. “I rarely check work email when I’m at home,” he says. “In fact, I can’t get work emails on my phone. It’s part of my effort to maintain work-life balance. If you don’t have balance, you’ll become a victim of stress, especially in a high-stakes environment like a legislature.”
To avoid becoming a stress victim, Portia Palmer, clerk of the Florida House, recommends getting outside the bubble of the legislature regularly and doing anything related to books. “Tai chi, my daily devotional and switching to decaf” help as well, she says.
Martin Brock is chief of legislative police for the North Carolina General Assembly and vice-president of the National Legislative Services and Security Association. This article was written with support from Holly South, a policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.