The Truth About Responding to Professional Conflict

...when you just can't.

Up to now, if I would have referenced this blog as an unfiltered experience of being a woman in business, you’d probably laugh. It’s been completely neutral.   And honestly? That’s been the majority of my experience. But, every now and then, I’m reminded of the sexism inherent in business, the conflict that arises, and how sometimes the best response isn't what we think.

The following post is written by my friend Christina; and it needs to be shared.  Although nothing happened that would be considered egregious or absurd, it’s a perfect example of how biases play out, and how sometimes, we must rely on learned skills to get us through.

Earlier this week, I was in a meeting where 3 out of 4 attendees were male (if you’re good at math, you realize that makes me the only female in the room). The leader of the meeting, and owner of the company, explained how our industry is dominated by women (a notion that at the very least requires an asterisk and context). He then proceeded to describe women:

  • judgmental
  • will help if you ask
  • non-competitive
  • don’t like to think about things too much and need ideas spoon fed to us

I sat in silence, quieting every screaming feminist bone in my body. I wish that I was shocked, but this person, we’ll call him Rick, has very traditional and pre-defined ideas of gender roles and expectations. There was no way I could challenge his ideas in the moment. It would only be met with the defensive statement of “well of course not all women, but in general.”  #notallwomen.

Once the meeting was over, I went to my office to get some work done, when Rick strolled in, commanding his presence be acknowledged and accepted. Closing the door, then sitting without asking if it was a good time or if I had other things to do, he proceeded to rehash the four hour meeting that just occurred.  At some point during that chat, he says the job I have “takes balls” and I “need to grow some balls”.

Really? What do you even say to that? First the meeting and then bam! Slammed with one of the clearest forms of sexism. For someone to use these phrases, they need to have bought into the essential cultural message that men are brave and strong and women are weak and timid. Talk about feeling helpless and discredited. I wish I could say that I turned it around and stood up for the greater cause, but I walked out of work wounded and unsure of what to do. I had so many thoughts  going through my mind, and the whole way home, although I tried to forget what had happened, the storm of feelings only grew more intense.

Being with my emotions is hard for me; it goes against my nature. I was raised with fiercely strong female role models and taught the old-school rule of maintaining a stiff upper lip. But, this time gave in and felt everything I was trying to not feel; anger, helplessness, confusion, and shock. I gave them time and space, until I started to feel better and my rationality returned.

But...Monday was coming. Calling Rick out on his biases was not an option, and really it wasn’t about that.  It was about adjusting his perception of my abilities so I could be successful. So, how was I going to make that happen?Monday came, and I didn’t have an answer, the best I could do was move on to the tasks at hand and show Rick I am more than capable.

Although this is a complicated situation, Christina ultimately handled it using a skill she learned (GPS) in order to reach her larger goals. She didn’t react in the moment and call her boss sexist or even challenge his ideas—it’s highly unlikely that would have done anything productive. Instead, she gave herself time to think about her objective so that she could proceed in a manner she believed to be the most appropriate course of action. 

So often we hear about the importance of being true to yourself when conflict arises, but sometimes, the important piece is to look at the bigger picture to see what's really important. For Christina, her priority was to manage her boss's view of her capabilities, not change a bias he may not even be aware of. 

Often, knowing the outcome you’re looking for when dealing with a complex interpersonal professional situation is difficult. It’s really easy to get lost in an overwhelming situation and caught up in emotions. That’s why I love the GPS skill— it's a simple two-step process with three short questions to ask yourself and direct your next steps to reach your true goals, not goals that arise in the moment.