Accusations, blame and getting past 'the lie'

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In any conflict situation, there is always three sides to the story: the versions of the sides involved and, somewhere in the middle, the truth

As an HR professional you may have been asked to smooth over or intervene in disputes at an informal level where two highly-respected members of staff have very different accounts of events. Both versions may sound very convincing but, unless it is taken to a grievance and formally investigated, how do you help them get past this unhealthy place?

That does not mean those people are necessarily lying, but that their recollection of events differs, sometimes quite dramatically. When people are stressed, upset or angry something called the ‘Amygdala Hijack’ takes place where a part of the brain literally hijacks all emotional common sense and prevents any semblance of reasoning to prevail. It makes our response to a situation disproportionate to the actual event. We see red mist, we hurl inflammatory remarks, there is finger pointing, we get confused with details, we don’t want to listen and, more importantly, we are unable to hear anything the other person is saying. We therefore assume the other person must be lying.

As a workplace mediator I have heard some compelling stories where HR has tried, with well-meaning intent, to placate both parties and to help them resolve their issue but unfortunately only inflamed the situation. Suggestions have included both employees ignore each other, they ‘grow up’ and ‘get on with it’, and, perhaps the most damaging option, to be judge and jury and decide who was right or wrong.

This common mistake can leave one party feeling bitter, angry, resentful and worthless.And the other party feeling vindicated, blameless and proud as punch. No prizes for guessing who will return to work more productive.

So how do you remain impartial and help them get past ‘the lie’? One of the most common factors in conflict, as explained above, is that neither party really listens to or hears the other person’s point of view. Nor can they reflect on their own behaviour. They are caught up in their own reality. Suggesting they settle down and have a chat isn’t going to cut it.

Giving each of them individually the opportunity and space to share their viewpoint and be heard (possibly for the first time) will allow them to calm down. This in turn will quiet that disruptive ‘Amygdala’ and it is then, and only then, that the real work can begin.

Once they are in a less agitated state it would be useful to explore if their dispute or conflict is actually about ‘the lie’ or if it is really about something deeper. Is there more at stake for them? Are they concerned about their damaged ego, their dignity or lost credibility?

It might sound like a strange question and that you are stating the obvious, but asking why it is so important for them to know the truth will give you an insight into what is so important to them as a person and the values they live by.

For example, if being trustworthy and having integrity are high on their list of important values, being defined as a liar in this conflict will not sit well with them and they will do whatever it takes to protect their values and morals. They may be concerned about their reputation being tarnished, the respect of their peers and their self-worth.

Once they have really understood what they are protecting and why, it unlocks the door for a more open and honest dialogue. It allows them to consider the other person’s perspective, their own behaviour and to take some responsibility and ownership of the part they have played in the dispute. It also gives them the opportunity to renew their professional relationship from a place of understanding and trust.

This will take the focus away from the toxic ‘lie’ and allow them to ‘let go’ and start to think outside the box in a more collaborative, conciliatory and constructive way.

In many cases, the presenting inflammatory issues are not what the true conflict is actually about. ‘The lie’ is often the straw that broke the camel’s back and is the culmination of many other issues that have been festering for a while.

The purpose of this process is more about trying to open up a healthy dialogue to move forwards and less about uncovering the truth. Encouraging employees to engage in a more collaborative approach to conflict will be far more effective than an adversarial, hostile and hot-headed method, and help take the sting out of ‘the lie’.

Nicole Posner is an independent workplace mediator specialising in the psychology of conflict, conflict management and helping to resolve inter-relational disputes and conflict in the workplace

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