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Confrontation in the Workplace

By Vicki Meade

Style Plus article in the March 13, 2001, edition of the Washington Post

Excerpt

When the woman called me a liar, I froze. I couldn't breathe. The whoosh of the espresso machine and the chatter at nearby tables became thunderous and seemed to ricochet in my head. I stared at her, unable to speak.

I had just taken over as president of a loosely organized—and usually congenial—statewide arts group and was running my second board meeting, in a large bookstore cafe. I'd initiated a discussion of "why we volunteer,'' to discover each person's interests and motivations, when suddenly one woman barked, "I have no idea why I'm here, and if you keep micromanaging, I won't stick around."

The words she spewed were thickened with input from her neighbor, who spat the "liar" line. My fingers, gripping the table, turned chalky. How, I wondered, can I politely get these women to be quiet? To stop embarrassing me? How do I reassure the others that I'm no liar? I looked around, and the dozen other faces at the table were strained, hands fidgety.

I kept my composure, I'm told, and after the women vented, I brought us back to the agenda. But inside, I was a brainless automaton, going through the motions of running a meeting. I mostly remember how my legs shook when I stood up, and later, how I sobbed.

Of course I've had unpleasant encounters with people before. Who hasn't? The landscape of personal interactions is full of boulders and prickly vegetation that can never be avoided entirely, no matter how good one is at managing conflict. But this was different. I was in front of a group and, supposedly, in charge...