I am a big believer in the power of constructive conflict, especially in the workplace. I don’t think conflict has to be inherently negative or uncomfortable. When handled well, it can lead to more dynamic discussions, more innovative problem solving, and better decision making. But that doesn’t mean it’s always necessary. Sometimes, conflict is just conflict. It’s not going to lead to anything new or better; it’s just going to waste time and emotional energy.
There are many times when the smartest course of action is to simply let things go. Minor irritations and petty grievances don’t truly matter in the long run. People aren’t perfect and they’re sometimes going to upset us. But some things should just be released without confrontation. And I mean fully, whole-heartedly released. Don’t stew on it. Don’t ruminate. Don’t silently hold resentment.
Just let it go.
But how do you know when to address an issue and when to let it go? Some things absolutely warrant a conversation; some can’t be moved past without reassurances that something will change. I’m certainly not suggesting you should be a doormat.
Sadly, there are no hard and fast rules about this kind of thing, but I can offer a few considerations. If you’re wondering whether something is worth a confrontation or if you should just let it go, mull over these questions first.
1. Are you willing to address the situation productively even if it’s uncomfortable?
Sometimes, we’re not really willing to do the work required to address the issue, but we hold on to it anyway. We hold grudges and replay the situation over and over, having imaginary conversations. If you’re not willing to confront it, you have to let it go. It’s not fair to yourself or the other person otherwise.
2. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does this matter? Will this matter a week from now? A month? A year?
Some situations feel important in the present moment, but (with a more long-term perspective) become inconsequential. Situations that have the potential to create long-term negative impacts (on the work or the relationship) are more consequential and thus, are more deserving of a conversation.
3. Is there a true business impact to the situation, or is it just hurt feelings?
Hurt feelings sometimes ARE worth addressing, but sometimes, it’s just a normal consequence of a lot of humans with different personalities working together. If all you’re looking for is an apology, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. Can you, instead, simply apply the most generous interpretation to the person’s actions and forgive them silently?
4. Is this a pattern or a one-off situation?
Anyone can have a bad day. Give your collogues the benefit of the doubt. If the behavior you’re seeing is totally out of character, maybe give them a little grace. Negative patterns of behavior (repeated offenses) are more worthy of discussion.
5. Will addressing it change it?
The past is done. What do you hope to accomplish by addressing it? If there is nothing that can or should be done to fix the situation (and/or possibly prevent similar situations in the future), then a conversation might not be necessary.
6. Will not addressing it harm your self-worth?
Don’t give people more power than they should rightfully have…but also, don’t let yourself be walked on. If not addressing a situation will make you feel like you’re being unfairly silenced, you owe it to yourself to speak up.
7. Will addressing it (or not addressing it) harm the relationship, and are you willing to live with the consequences one way or another?
I believe it’s possible to address pretty much anything and, if you do it in the right way, the relationship will survive—and possibly even grow as a result. But people can be unpredictable. On occasion, I have looked back in hindsight and said, “I didn’t address this and maybe I should have.” I’ve also said, “I did address this, and in hindsight, it probably wasn’t necessary.” In both cases, I have learned something valuable.
The primary point I want to drive home here is that avoidance is often discouraged when we discuss conflict management strategies. But it’s a worthwhile option in some cases! It’s not always the right solution, but it shouldn’t be flatly ignored or considered weak. Sometimes the risk of confrontation outweighs the benefits. Sometimes letting it go is the smartest thing you can do.
You have to use your good judgement. These questions are a good start, but you may also want to discuss the situation with a trusted advisor or mentor. They can often provide valuable perspectives that you simply can’t see on your own.
Is there anything else you would add to this conversation? Connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know what you think.
If you’d like some support with addressing conflict constructively, the Career Success Library can help. We have an entire training session on this topic and some digital downloads as well. Learn more and sign up here.