Every day, in my job as an anesthesiologist, I am called upon to manage conflict. Sometimes, it’s between two members of my team, sometimes it’s between coworkers, and many times it is a conflict I may have with my own co-worker or peer.
Whether it’s because someone I supervise is chronically late or underprepared, I have to go head-to-head with a surgeon for delaying their case, the expectations of the operating room manager don’t quite match my staffing levels, or when my expectations for my staff are not met – conflict is an inevitable part of everyday life. And yet, each individual handles it differently. Some of us are better at managing it than others. Through my years in leadership in clinical medicine, I have seen effective and not-so-effective ways of handling conflict resolution.
For years, I fell in the latter camp. I thought it was just the way I was. I am a soft-spoken, introverted physician, and I hated conflict. I would avoid any situation that could cause conflict by swallowing my anger and frustration or react to it when it was unavoidable by becoming defensive. This led to a buildup of resentment, unresolved tension, frustration, feeling taken advantage of, and anger towards myself because I thought giving in would show weakness. Consequently, this damaged my relationships.
I remember how seemingly small conflicts escalated over time and took a toll on me. Like the colleague who was chronically late despite my attempts to tell her “nicely” that she needed to show up on time. I didn’t want to jeopardize our work relationship. I wanted to be liked. I would avoid confrontation. And so, when she would show up late yet again, I would be internally fuming, while externally acting as if it was no big deal. And any small thing she did would irritate me, which would spill over into other parts of my day.
And bigger conflicts like a surgeon yelling at me for delaying their case would make me cringe, even when I stood my ground. I would let such behavior stand without calling it out. And for the rest of the day think about what I should have said and done.
Have you noticed such patterns in your day-to-day interactions?
Recognizing that I wasn’t managing conflict in my life effectively, I took leadership courses on effective conflict management, which helped me discover conflict resolution strategies such as practicing active listening, communicating directly, creating a “win-win” situation, and so many others. However, it was difficult to determine which tactics to apply on the job, and I knew others still might not respond in the way he/she was “supposed” to. It felt like I was putting a band-aid on a facade that never truly felt right.
So, I continued to seek out other ways to become better at conflict resolution. It was only when I started exploring coaching for completely different reasons that I found the solution for me. I had hired a coach to learn how to improve my negotiating skills. Then, unbeknownst to me during coaching, we started getting to the root causes of my conflict-related behavioral patterns. Why did I keep quiet during a conflict? Why did I become defensive?
I was able to identify that I tended to be an “avoider” and an “accommodator.” My ways of managing conflict were avoidance, defensiveness, reactiveness, giving in, and blaming. Understanding that this was not just the way I am, but an automatic pattern of learned behavior throughout my life, was eye-opening. When I began to recognize and understand my emotions, triggers and thought patterns in conflict situations, it helped me look at past and present conflicts through a different lens.
The process of self-awareness that started with coaching then helped me identify patterns of behavior in other areas of my life that were not serving me well. The next step was developing the ability to manage my emotions. Through practice and continued coaching, I was able to learn to manage my emotions in the moment and respond rather than react. As I became better at this skill, I was able to read other peoples’ emotions and hear them out better. Unknowingly, I was practicing active listening and empathy. Then finally, using these combined social-emotional skills, I was able to start responding to others in a constructive manner and build better relationships.
If you’re familiar with the concept of emotional intelligence, you may recognize the four pillars I just described: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management. Through the coaching process, I was able to build and develop these skills without even knowing what emotional intelligence was.
Eventually, I took my skills to the next level by training to be a Positive Intelligence coach. As I practiced and applied the techniques, my conflict resolution skills improved exponentially at work and in my personal life. Additionally, my stress levels dropped as I no longer dreaded having to deal with what I used to think were “problem” colleagues. My relationship with my team improved, and I became a calmer and better leader and manager. I also applied these skills to my patients and was amazed to see that trust was built more rapidly and patient satisfaction improved.
Through coaching, I became a better physician leader and a better physician. Although physicians may be offered coaching through their hospital systems, most often it tends to only be offered to those in executive leadership positions, or for remedial coaching for “problem physicians.” Finding a coach is usually a personal endeavor, as it was for me, fueled by a desire to learn new skills and be a more effective physician leader. Many physicians want to excel and are on a constant journey of self-improvement, they just might not know where to start.
So, consider how health care could be changed if hospitals and health care systems invested in coaching for all of their physicians and they learned these critical social-emotional skills. We would have a nation of physician health care leaders who are more self-aware and have a greater understanding of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and therefore, the ability to communicate effectively and make better decisions. They would be better prepared to navigate the challenges of the changing health care landscape. Our hospitals would have a more positive work environment, and we would be able to deliver better patient care.
On a personal level, coaching could help physicians reduce their stress and anxiety levels and have greater job satisfaction, leading to less burnout. Happy and fulfilled physicians lead to a happier and safer health care environment. A true win-win situation.
Asha Padmanabhan is an anesthesiologist.