Dear Dr. Brady: What to do when workplace ‘water cooler’ chatter turns to conflict?

Sign Up For Our FREE Daily eNews!


clarity art

Send in your confidential reader question. Just click here.

Dear Dr. Brady,

I work in an open office and am seated in a high traffic area where several people gather regularly to chat. Some of my colleagues will engage in contentious arguments in front of my workspace. I am not senior to these people, and in fact some of my work effort is to support them so I don’t feel comfortable asking them to go somewhere else. Do you have any advice about how I can handle other people’s work conflict, when it isn’t about me but is in front of me?


Monkey in the Middle


Dear Monkey in the Middle,

It sounds like you have a real challenge in getting colleagues to get along, or at least move along, when it comes to convening in front of your desk to fight their battles. It would be easy to suggest a “No Barking” sign be posted right in front of your workspace, but from the sound of your letter I suspect you are looking for something a little more subtle.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 11.59.01 PM
Not my circus; not my monkeys.

When it comes to managing other people’s conflict I heard a great line this week: “Not my circus; not my monkeys.” While this is a cute mental image it reminds me that the conflict other people have rarely has anything to do with us, even when they try to make it about us.

So how can you bring out the best in those around you when they bring their conflict to your doorstep?

Any conflict is often about needs. One way to de-escalate the conflict someone is having is to hear and validate what those needs are. So, Diana keeps turning in her TSP reports late? And her lateness puts you behind on your deadline? What can we do to create a deadline for Diana that works, even when she is late? The power to empathize with the core challenge and then to encourage active problem solving in the person dealing with the conflict can help bring the conflict to a quicker resolution.clarity

Maybe you don’t want to be the listening ear for those around you. If you need a break from that role or don’t know the players well enough to feel helpful, moving your body is a huge help in managing other’s conflicts? Why don’t Zebras get ulcers? If you have read the book you know the answer is that Zebra’s deal with a specific stress (lions) and they deal with is in a specific way (running) and when it is done they are either safe or dinner. With humans it is a bit different. Most of our stressors can’t effectively be dealt with by running (no matter how rich a fantasy we may have about that option). Even so, the stress impacts us physiologically just like it does a zebra; we get flooded with glucocorticoids (stress hormones) which linger and build up in our system until they are burned off. How, yep, by running, or exercise, or any physical activity that helps our physiology process the hormone.  We each respond to conflict happening around us by building up stress hormones. Rather than staying put at your desk and soaking them up, try taking quick walking or stretching breaks.  Plus, nothing signals to others arguing in front of your desk that you are not their audience like leaving them to it without you.

If empathy and exercise don’t feel like the most effective tools you have there is always setting clear boundaries. How? It depends on the players and the situation. If there is a distracting conversation happening in your work space signal to those in the conversation that you can’t focus on your work with their conversation happening and suggest a location they could move to in order to continue the conversation. If this seems too “above your paygrade” you might try the “important phone call” technique “Excuse me, I know you just began your conversation but I have a call coming in a few moments with H.R. and I will need to hear them clearly.” These limits are called “stop actions” and can help redirect people who are engaged in conflict, at least for the present moment.

There are lot’s of great things about workplace conflict, you really wouldn’t want to work in a setting where no one ever disagreed with anyone, since lack of disagreement usually leads to stagnation, groupthink errors, and lack of innovation or change. But if the conflict playing out in front of your desk isn’t well timed, well directed, or resolvable it’s best to deflect and redirect people to the location where such free exchanges can more appropriately happen. Want to laugh a bit about all this, then may I suggest the classic Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch? I find it’s also great to illustrate the difference between “Abuse” and “Argument”, and to put some of the workplace silliness we experience into perspective. Enjoy!

Alright, it’s your turn. I hope you’ll join me in seeking clarity for the shifts you are navigating.

clarityReaders of Manchester Ink Link seek relevant, local, and pragmatic reporting. Carol Robidoux provides layered reports that allow all of us to feel not only part of the story, but partners in resolution. My hope is that this column will serve as a compass for readers seeking clarity in the chaos of their businesses, personal lives, or relationships. From time to time we will have guest columnists offer their insight on a challenge. This information is simply opinion, but I hope you will share your stories so that others can gain clarity for themselves. Questions are powerful. We hope you will share yours here

Loretta L.C. Brady
Loretta L.C. Brady

Loretta L.C. Brady owns BDS Insight a culture, crisis, and conflict management firm in Manchester.  She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Anselm College. She, her husband Brian Brady, and their 5 children live and work in Manchester.






The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. This column, its author, the newspaper and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady, clinical and organizational psychologist, offers her and guest columnist opinions on a variety of current event and reader submitted subjects. She and they are expressing personal and professional opinions and views. Manchester Ink Link and Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady are not responsible for the outcome or results of following the advice of this column in any given situation.

email box

You’re one click away! Sign up for our free eNewsletter and never miss another thing

About this Author


Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!