We will all face conflict at some point in our lives. Dealing with conflict is never easy, and it can be particularly difficult in the workplace. Fortunately, there are certain tips and tricks that can help
Conflict exists at work, at home and in the world at large. How you deal with it will impact your effectiveness and your success in work and in life, as well as your happiness and wellbeing as a person.
Many people dislike conflict and can find it especially tricky to handle when it arises with a colleague, as the workplace adds extra pressure to resolve it calmly and quickly. But the good news is, there are plenty of techniques you can use to help avoid conflict from arising in the first place, and to resolve it.
What is conflict?
Let’s start with the basics. Conflict is essentially a disagreement between two or more people. Conflict can arise from poor behaviours (for example, bullying, discrimination, harassment, poor performance), misunderstandings (office etiquette, language, politics), differences (in opinion, personality, human, work ethic, ideas) or anything from ego to jealousy.
There are two kinds of conflict. One is a real conflict where you know there is tension, disagreement and differences with another. The second is what I call imaginary or ‘anticipative’ conflict. This is where you assume or perceive or fear there might be conflict, based on thoughts and feelings you are having, before even raising it with the other person.
And let’s not forget, language is very important. It influences us (when we think it) and others (when we say it) immensely. Notice the difference in how you feel and the impact of ‘we are in conflict’ vs ‘we disagree’ vs ‘we have a misunderstanding.’ Reserve conflict for things that are truly that scale.
4 tips to avoid conflict
The way to avoid conflict is to deal with any frustrations or issues early. The expression “nip it in the bud” is apt. If you notice you’re annoyed or frustrated, take time to figure out what the issue is and develop a plan for addressing it (either within yourself or with the other person).
Discuss how to deal with it before it happens
When you start a new job or begin working with someone new it’s always helpful to review goals and roles to agree on expectations, talk about what brings out the best in each other, identify the qualities each of you bring to the working relationship.
Talk about, “What if something’s not working? How do we want to raise it/deal with it?”. By talking about all this overtly, it sets a foundation and gives permission to talk about any deviations from this plan. You can do this with your boss, co-worker, employee or friend at any time.
Listen and ask
Listen to others - both to what they are saying and not saying. Listen for any resentment or frustration with you or others, to identify it early. Ask open questions (the best questions start with ‘what’) to find out what people are really thinking and feeling; what motivates them, what their reasons are for doing what they do, and what’s going on for them. Active listening to understand others can prevent tensions, as people feel seen and heard, and issues can be aired and addressed early.
Make sure you are giving positive feedback and celebrating the success of others regularly, so they know you value their contributions and aren’t just hearing negative things from you.
Share assumptions and their impact
This is a technique I learned in a 10-month leadership course I took. We create assumptions about people, ideas, situations all the time (it’s how our brain works). Often our assumptions about others are wrong as we are interpreting things through our perspective. When we act on those wrong assumptions, it can lead to misunderstandings between you or a negative feeling for you.
When you view someone in a ‘not-so-nice-light’ ask yourself, what am I assuming about them? What impact does that assumption have on you emotionally and intellectually? What underlying belief might exist for you? Doing this reflective exercise might reveal some emotional blind spots you have about yourself.
For example, Joe isn’t doing his fair share of the work on a project. You assume he’s lazy and coasting on everyone else’s effort. That makes you feel resentful and wanting to exclude him. The underlying belief might be that you feel others might think you’re not pulling your weight and you don’t feel good enough.
Learn how to have ‘difficult’ conversations
Many people hate having difficult conversations and therefore avoid them. First, note the language. If you label it a difficult conversation it probably will be, so define what the intention of the conversation truly is: developmental, aligning expectations, giving feedback, clearing assumptions, working better together.
Secondly, learn models and tips for giving ‘negative’ feedback and aligning expectations. Lastly, make sure you are giving positive feedback and celebrating the success of others regularly (five positives to every one negative is the proven ratio - Gottman 2002), so they know you value their contributions and aren’t just hearing negative things from you.
How to resolve conflict
Resolution depends on the situation, the people involved, the severity/duration of the conflict, legalities etc, but here are some tips that can help in most situations.
Acknowledge that the conflict is present. Name the elephant in the room to yourself and those involved. This doesn’t have to be a grand announcement. The words could be as simple as, “I sense some friction or lack of alignment between us that I’d like to clear up.” Ask about their thoughts and feelings. They might be reluctant, so share yours. Say what you’d like to happen, such as, “I’d like us to work through this to be happier and more successful colleagues.”
Put the issue between you both
Literally. If the conflict is about a specific topic or situation then write it down on a piece of paper, sit side by side (this is less confrontational) and put that paper on the table in front of you. This puts the issue more objectively outside of yourselves and the relationship and becomes the focus of resolution rather than blame.
This can also be done virtually by signing into the video conference on a second device and putting the paper/topic as that devices ‘participant’ so the two of you look at it in a third view.
Active listening to understand others can prevent tensions, as people feel seen and heard, and issues can be aired and addressed early.
Strive for the ‘third solution’
Not your solution or their solution. Rather a better, new solution.
I don’t mean compromise. Dig beneath the surface to identify the underlying needs or motivations of each of you. Encourage each of you to find alignment rather than agreement. What can you align on? It might be as basic as agreeing there is a problem between you both, what the worst-case scenario is or what process you both wish to follow to find a resolution. Brainstorm options or solutions together that would satisfy each of your needs.
Have someone facilitate
Ask a neutral third party to help. This could be a leader, HR partner, a professional. Someone looking for a resolution between the two of you, rather than a judge of who’s right and who’s wrong.
This is the start, not the end
This first conversation should be viewed as just that, the first in a series. Check in with each other. How’s it going? You could each rate the effectiveness of the solution or process on a scale of one to 10. What would it take to increase the rating? You might need smaller, more frequent conversations because of the emotional nature of the conflict. Recognise it’s a journey, rather than a quick fix.
Research shows that organisations with diverse people, ideas and solutions are more innovative and successful when well managed. Diversity means differences by definition. It’s not avoiding the differences that are key, it’s managing them for optimal engagement and results.
Learn more about Anne on her website, Directions Coaching. Anne’s book, Soft Skills Hard Results: A Practical Guide to People Skills for Analytical Leaders is available now.
Self-awareness in the workplace is key; this allows you to handle stress, feedback and conflict better - not to mention, you gain a better understanding of the impact you have on others. Read The benefits of self-awareness in the workplace and How to handle negative feedback at work on Life Coach Directory.
If you’re facing conflict in your working life, you may benefit from speaking with a coach. A coach can help you to understand the issue at hand in a new light, as well as assisting you in coming up with a resolution. Coaching can have so many benefits, and it shouldn’t be saved only for those in management or leadership positions. Every single one of us can benefit from additional support.