Fight Like a Toddler

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” – William James

A few years ago, I worked at a chemical’s company in their IT department. I was on a team of highly qualified women who had made their careers navigating a corporate landscape that was dominated by men. I admired each of these women as they all had a unique set of skills they brought to the table.

My skills were not so unique. I had fumbled my way into an IT career with only a few years of experience and no specialty. I could “sort of” do many things but required more attention than the other members of my team as I didn’t know what I didn’t know and sometimes my mistakes were costly and complicated to fix.

My boss was an amazing woman who worked tirelessly from dawn to dusk but wouldn’t think twice about leaving a work meeting to answer a call from her granddaughter. I shared her desire to prioritize family over work, but I did not share her work ethic of working from dawn to dusk. As my boss, this had to be impossibly frustrating.

Here is the scenario:  I had just messed something up which had increased the workload of one of my coworkers. This coworker had the opposite reaction to stress than me. When something required immediate attention, I worked faster, sometimes going too fast making more mistakes, and this coworker worked slower, more methodically, and hardly ever make a mistake but would often miss deadlines.

This coworker was so upset with me that she could not look me in the eye. It occurred to me then that it was not my error that caused so much anger as much as my attitude. I was not upset that I made an error and focused all my energy on fixing the issue at hand. But my lack of remorse was interpreted as indifference. She didn’t want a solution; she wanted me to suffer for my actions. I’m not guessing at this, she said as much.

If we could have just worked together, the issue would have been resolved in the time it’s taken me to write this but since resentment was building, there seemed to be little room to grow and even less room to be productive.  

My boss was very frustrated by the whole situation. She told me that she wished adults in the corporate world could be more like toddlers. When someone does something you don’t like, you can yell at them and stick your tongue out and then be friends again and get back to work. At the time I didn’t have a toddler, so her logic was lost on me, but I felt her sentiment.

This morning her words made perfect sense to me. Conflict happens. If we are truly ourselves, we are certain to come across others that we will conflict with. This is normal. What is not normal is repressing anger until it becomes resentment that eats away at the soul.

The conflict did eventually get resolved between this coworker and me and we were both better people for it. I learned that my attitude matters more than whatever caused the conflict. Fixing the problem doesn’t fix the conflict between two people.

Last night during bath time, my daughter was dumping water out of a cup. My son took this as an opportunity to dump water on her head. My daughter then asked for goggles, I helped her put them on and she resumed dumping water. She was completely unaware that her action of dumping water out of a cup was annoying her brother, and that his action of dumping water on her head was a retaliation for being splashed, but she was keenly aware that she did not like water in her eyes. Goggles fixed the problem but not the conflict. She is her mother’s daughter.

Today, I will reflect on my attitude during conflicts. I will focus on resolving both the conflict and the problem.

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