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You don’t need to get in someone’s face. Here are 5 other ways to manage conflict and create change

An anthropologist explains how a strategically-positioned individual, moving with empathy, can passively create organizational change without bringing the conflict to a pitch. 

You don’t need to get in someone’s face. Here are 5 other ways to manage conflict and create change
[Photo: Westend61/Getty Images]

I spent three months studying community dynamics while working in a Zen Buddhist temple in northern Japan. During that time, I encountered the nayami sōdan practiced by Japanese Buddhist priests in community-facing temples throughout the countryside. Nayami means grievance or complaint, while sōdan means consultation or discussion, particularly a discussion with an eye toward receiving advice. 

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As neutral community figures, Buddhist priests—especially those managing institutions in rural communities—exist both within the flow of local society and without it. They are attuned to the goings-on of daily life in the community, but also separated from it by means of their official station. 

This unique position makes Buddhist priests the ideal person to talk to when you have a community grievance (nayami). For example:

Tanaka-san has a problem with her neighbor, Yamada-san, who doesn’t keep up her side of a hedge that separates their property. The slovenly hedge is a source of constant irritation to Tanaka-san. However, Tanaka-san worries that she’ll seem petty if she says something to Yamada-san. Yamada-san and she talk to each other every day, they shop at the same stores, go to the same community events. It’s just too awkward to get into it. Yet the hedge rankles.

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Tanaka-san eventually goes to her local temple to talk to the priest in residence.Tanaka-san sits down at the coffee table, drinks some tea that is served to her, and chats about the weather. The priest listens patiently. Tanaka-san eventually circles around to the heart of the matter: Yamada-san’s hedge. She vents her frustration, sometimes letting her emotions get the best of her. The priest nods and listens, not unsympathetically. After 15 minutes, Tanaka-san runs out of steam. She feels better, though. She finishes her tea, changing the topic to an upcoming festival before excusing herself. Tanaka-san isn’t concerned. She knows that conversation will never leave the room.

This is the typical flow of a nayami sōdan: casual greetings, some light refreshments, small talk, a revealing, one-sided venting of frustrations, understanding on the part of the other party, more small talk, and finally goodbyes. 

But what of the hedge? 

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At the festival, the priest finds the occasion to make small talk with Yamada-san. He says nothing about Tanaka-san, but does mention that the temple will be going around the community the next week to offer older adults help with yard keeping. The priest has heard that Yamada-san has a knack for landscaping. Maybe she’d like to join? 

By that time next week, the hedge is looking fit. Tanaka-san is happy. Harmony is restored. All because of a gentle suggestion from the right person at the right time.  

How can a nayami sōdan facilitate employee experience management?

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Nayami sōdan are successful because they are attuned to the realities of human relationships. 

Humans are inconsistent. Emotions fluctuate, opinions change, and tempers can flare for trivial reasons. Humans can also simultaneously maintain seemingly dissonant feelings about others, e.g., anger over someone’s disrespect, but care for their emotional well-being. 

Nayami sōdan creates the space for people to express their inconsistent and dissonant experiences about human relationships. These sessions both capture and process experience in a depth that far exceeds a numerical value.

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People seek harmony. Humans would prefer to get along. The health of the community is important, paramount even. Even so, close-knit relationships breed tensions. 

Nayami sōdan provides a less confrontational means of addressing the conflict that arises with natural tensions that emerge in intimate relationships. Importantly, they do so without the publicity and confrontation of more aggressive interventions that often lead to embarrassment, concession, and resentment.

Community solutions solve community problems. If a community is the source of a conflict, then a community can also help ameliorate that conflict.

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Of course, community members know that priests typically act on the information they receive. But they also know that priests, because of their relationship to the broader community, will exercise a light, but deft touch.

Business relationships are intimate relationships. Like Japanese villages, businesses collaborating with each other form complex constellations of interdependent relationships that are deeply personal and meaningful. They are also highly charged. Like a village, participants in these relationships can feel hesitant to cause waves. 

Businesseses could use a nayami sōdan

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In defense of indirectness

Working as an anthropologist across production, creative, and academic industries, I’ve spoken with many employees that are reluctant to talk to HR representatives or leaders about their experiences because they worry that candid conversations will lead to confrontations. 

Mira, a content writer for a work tech company, was experiencing burnout. She confided that she felt under-appreciated in her company. When I suggested that she talk to someone on her team, she flatly refused. “If I tell someone how I really feel, I’ll end up having to have three more conversations, three more meetings. I’ll be on everyone’s radar.” The prospect of having to endure a series of follow-up one-on-ones spiked her anxiety. She didn’t want–and didn’t feel like she could handle–the confrontation. “It’s just not worth it,” Mira sighed, “No thanks.”  

Dean, a canning line operator at a midsize brewery, didn’t see eye-to-eye with the production manager. He felt talked down to, disrespected in meetings, and as if his ideas for improving workflow weren’t taken seriously. Talking over a beer, he confessed that while he hated the dynamic, he had no plans to address it. “I just don’t want to get into it with him.” Dean wasn’t comfortable with conflict. “My dad and my friends say that I need to be direct with him, but I don’t want it to become a fight.” He worried about having to defend his feelings, whether he could make a strong enough case, whether he’d come out of the meeting looking like a fool or a crybaby. Faced with the potential of more friction, Dean resigned himself. “I’m just going to keep my head down. It’s not worth it.”

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I’ve encountered this theme again and again. Negative employee experience, but the feeling that it “wasn’t worth it” to address the problem for fear of exacerbating an already fractious situation. 

It’s not a weakness nor a failing. Rather, these employees express a desire to maintain harmony, even at personal cost. Organizations attract different personalities. Not everyone is comfortable with conflict. Direct intervention doesn’t have to be the only method for resolving internal strife. 

People with more passive or accommodating personalities should have an avenue to address conflict that doesn’t come at the cost of their personal well-being. Rather than expecting people to step outside of their comfort zone, accommodate them. In a moment where the world of work is increasingly focused on creating inclusive spaces, leaders and HR professionals have an opportunity to address employee experience and well-being for the conflict-adverse.

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Passive intervention

The nayami sōdan works off the premise that conflict management does not necessarily need to be direct in order to be effective. While a frank conversation between two parties can bring about a quick resolution, fear of confrontation and being “put on the spot” can also pressure more amicable individuals to downplay or deny their experience. Being too direct can achieve efficiency at the cost of silence. 

A slower, lighter touch may be better. A strategically-positioned individual, moving with empathy, can passively create organizational change without bringing the conflict to a pitch. 

Companies don’t need their own Buddhist priest. Here are some methods I’ve seen for effectively building an environment that accommodates indirect intervention.  

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Maintain office hours. Create a space for employees to drop in and talk. This approach can, and I think should, be inclusive of not just a space to talk about negative experiences, but of sharing positive experiences as well. While it is often easier to share positive sentiments directly, engagements can still serve as a valuable venue for collecting employee experience data. 

Make use of remote meetings. If you walk into HR’s or a manager’s office and close the door, everyone knows what that signifies. Protect employee anonymity by taking meetings online. 

Practice active listening. Sometimes, all someone needs to do is blow off steam. Often during a nayami sōdan, the priest would say relatively little, offering no advice and responding to villagers’ monologues with nods or quiet, “I see.” The temple was a safe place to vent. As the priest put it, better here than drunk at a bar.

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Empower employee agency. After listening and processing an employee’s conflict, let them plan the next steps. Asking questions like, “How do you want to handle this?” and reminding them that whatever route they want to take, be a one-on-one meeting or no action at all, is okay.

Cultivate an atmosphere of openness. This can take a number of forms. Host regular retrospectives on issues that impact employee experience. Invite guest speakers with diverse perspectives who specialize in conflict management. 

Be the change

Passive forms of mediation can serve as a means to gauge experience, address conflict, and cultivate interpersonal harmony. However, these initiatives are ultimately dependent on dedicated, involved leaders who are ready to roll up their sleeves.

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Every organization is unique. Every employee is different. Every conflict is complex. Like the Buddhist priest, leaders must leverage their intimate knowledge of workplace dynamics to resolve conflicts in a way that promotes employee wellness.

Cultivating holistic employee wellness can be a significant advantage in the scramble for talent. In managing conflict, slow and steady really can win the race.  


Aaron Delgaty is a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer specializing in crisis, work, and resilience. He is also a market research specialist at The Starr Conspiracy and a teaching assistant professor of Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill.


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