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A Workplace Conflict Turns Into a Positive Relationship

By Jack Hamilton, Ph.D., Coauthor of "Conflict - The Unexpected Gift"

From someone who used the Ladder of Assumptions to resolve a conflict at work:

"I am an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Safety Supervisor at a Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. I work the graveyard shift from 11:00 PM to 7:30 AM.​ Here is the Ladder of Assumptions I climbed about a fellow employee."


The Ladder of Assumptions is an easy conflict resolution tool.

The setting is the SNF building where I am employed. Between my regular late evening and early morning rounds, I walk through the SNF building at approximately 1:00 AM to make sure that everything is in order there.

The facts are that, as I walk through the building, I look every SNF staff member in the eye and say, “Good morning,” to them. Each staff member I greet in that manner looks me in the eye and says, “Good morning,” to me, except for one, a woman who is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She doesn’t look me in the eye and walks past me without speaking to me.

I interpreted the woman’s behavior as unfriendly, disrespectful and rude.

The motives I attributed to her were that she was preoccupied with matters known only to her, and that she didn’t want to have a relationship with a security officer whom she didn’t know.

I stereotyped her as a woman from an East Indian culture, where people typically have serious looks on their faces, keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves and rarely show any interest in relating to people from different cultural backgrounds than their own.

My actions were to continue looking directly at her and saying, “Good morning,” whenever I saw her on my walk through the SNF building. But I questioned whether I would ever get a response from her that would help me go back down the Ladder of Assumptions and resolve this conflict.

One night when I was on my rounds, the woman looked me in the eye and said, “How are you?” I was startled by her question, because it was the first comment I had ever received from her. It led to a minute or two of small talk between us.

As I got to know her a bit better each night, she finally confided in me that her husband had passed away eight months earlier. She told me that since his death, she has had so much anxiety that she no longer wants to be at home at night. That is why she works the graveyard shift in the SNF building. She said she is even looking for a weekend job at nights, so that she won’t have to be at home alone at night on the weekends.

The fact that she has confided in me about her anxieties has been a turning point in our relationship. Now, she smiles at me whenever I see her on my rounds. One evening she even walked after me to get my attention so she could give me a smile and say hello.


Now, I try to listen to her carefully, as she tells me about the problems in her life. She has one adult child and one teenage child. Her parents live in India, but her in-laws live in this country. Her family members have noticed how anxious she is, and have told her they would try to get some professional help for her.

Recently, I came to work with a migraine headache. I still was in considerable pain as I made my rounds in the SNF building. When the woman saw me she instantly realized that something was wrong with me. I told her that I had a very bad headache. She told me that if I were to sit down, she would give me a massage. I sat down and for five minutes she massaged my neck, head and shoulders.

Afterwards I felt a great deal of relief from the severe pain. As we both started talking, she opened up and told me that her husband had taken his own life. Tears came down her cheeks as she told me about what he had done. She said that since his death, her faith in God had helped her get through the difficult challenges of each day.

Now, when we see each other, we refer to each other as “my friend.” I still can’t pronounce her first name, and she has difficulty remembering my name. But, this doesn’t bother us because we both have a new friend—each other—and it doesn’t matter that we can’t speak each other’s name. “My friend” has become a term of endearment for both of us. I can see it in her face that she has found a good friend in me. And I feel the same way about her.

Exercise in Self-Reflection

Use the Ladder of Assumptions as an Exercise in Self-Reflection

1. Write a Ladder of Assumptions that you went up about someone with whom you had a recent conflict or with whom you currently are experiencing a conflict.

2. Write a Ladder of Assumptions that you imagine the person in your conflict went up about you.

3. Select the conflict from #1 that best fits your situation and study carefully the extent to which you think the assumptions in your Ladder are valid, and the extent to which you think the assumptions are valid in the other person’s Ladder, as you imagined them to be.

4. Determine in your own mind the assumptions in each Ladder that are totally invalid, somewhat valid or completely valid.

5. Decide, in all honesty, which of the two Ladders played the biggest role in causing the conflict between you and the other person.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you!

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