Scientific Experience | On the Bench

5 Creative Ways to Resolve Conflicts in the Lab

Conflicts are an inevitable part of life, and the lab is no exception. Lab members share spaces and equipment and can frequently run into disagreements over resourcing sharing and collaboration. These initial disruptions, if left unresolved, can spiral into much larger problems and a very unhealthy work environment, which affects mental health and scientific progress.

To help scientists and lab managers more effectively resolve conflicts in the lab, we put together this list of 5 surprising tips for negotiation and collaboration rooted in core principles of psychology.

We all know that listening first is a key part of building strong relationships and especially of resolving conflicts, but often times in our annoyance, anger, or stress, we *think* we are listening when we are actually just selectively hearing and preparing our own responses while the other person is speaking. To avoid this mistake, take the listening test: listen not with the intent of responding with your perspective right after but rather with the goal of articulating your understanding of the other person’s perspective. Instead of sharing your argument, respond by saying things like “I understand you are upset about Y” or “I hear that X has created additional roadblocks for your project.”
In this way, you a) force yourself to truly listen, b) show the other person you are coming from a place of understanding, c) infuse empathy in the tone of the conversation, and d) clear up any possible confusions at the outset.

As humans, we all crave empathy and understanding. We want to be heard and validated. As you are listening to the other person’s perspective, give them that validation by saying things like “that’s right” or “I hear you” in a genuine way. While this may at first seem like conceding defeat, it is really a tiny concession, if at all, that places both of you on the path of positive breakthrough. Once the other person feels understood, they let their guard down, including their negative emotions and are more ready to collaborate.

Instead of jumping to accusations or making demands of the other person, articulate your challenge in the form of a question so that the other party better understands your obstacle and is empowered to become part of the solution rather than the problem. For example, if you believe another researcher is consistently taking up too much time on a piece of equipment, instead of expressing your frustration, first label their perspective (“I understand this equipment is very important to your project”) and then frame your challenge as a question (“how do you think we should fairly divide the time with the equipment?” or “how can I also access the equipment for my project?”).

By asking “how” questions instead of making blanket statements or asking emotionally charged “why” questions, you make the conversation about the solution and execution of the solution, instead of the problem. In this way, you a) avoid accusations and the spiral of heated arguments that ensue, b) showcase the problem in a more balanced way, and c) force the other person to place themselves in your shoes. Moreover, when you ask the other person for help in crafting the solution through these “how” questions, you give them the illusion of control and empower them to arrive at a solution they feel ownership over and are invested in.

So often, we are cornered into “yes” answers. Sales people ask us if we want a particular product or if we have a particular problem. Managers ask us if we can take on a particular project. Friends ask us if we can do a favor for them or if we can attend a particular event with them. In all these cases, it is awkward to say “no,” and we are forced to either uncomfortably end the conversation on an ambiguous note, beat around the bush, or reluctantly say “yes.” When people say “yes” without meaning it, they put their guard up. They think they have done you a favor, and they feel like they have made a concession unwillingly. Such emotions are no foundation for strong collaboration. Instead of cornering people into “yes” answers, flip the statement or the question. For example, instead of asking “can you move your equipment?”, gently ask “I assume you cannot move your equipment?”. In this way, you a) empower the other person to say “no,” which lets their guard down and paves the way for a less antagonistic exchange and b) enroll them in the process of seeing corner cases, such as how they could move their equipment without major sacrifices.

Oftentimes, people have deeper wants and desires than what they reveal at the surface of an argument. For example, while the argument at hand may *seem* to be over a simple piece of equipment, the emotions sparking and driving the argument may come from a larger issue around deadline stress. Through listening, articulating the other person’s emotions, and asking questions, you can better understand these deeper motivations. Instead of making a concession over something that is very important to you (such as access to the equipment), you can instead more effectively solve their bigger problem through, for example, an introduction to a researcher friend who can give them valuable advice on their project to better reach their deadline. In this way, you can find more win win solutions.

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The next time you find yourself in a disagreement in the lab, pause for a minute, take a deep breath, and think about these tips before you react. We are all human at the end of the day, and coming from a place of understanding, caring, and cooperation always leads to better and happier outcomes for everyone.

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