Everyone dreads handling conflict at work. Personality clashes, disagreements on project directions, tensions rising during a deadline crunch — there are many reasons that conflict may arise. However, if a business is going to be successful then its employees must understand how to manage and resolve conflict.
Managers can teach basic conflict management skills to their employees which will better prepare them to handle tricky internal situations. If you're not sure where to start, below are 10 tips for handling conflict that can be used in any workplace.
How to Handle Conflict at Work
- Talk Privately
- Listen to the Other Person
- Acknowledge Your Similarities
- Admit Your Mistakes
- Focus on Behavior, not Personality
- Be Selective
- Set a Positive Example
- Consider the Bigger Picture
- Avoid Escalating Tension
- Use a Mediator
1. Talk Privately
Conflict management starts with sitting down and talking things out. Being an effective communicator is a valuable soft skill particularly during times of tension and strife. It may be tempting to jump into a disagreement with a colleague immediately as it occurs, however, most people are more receptive to conflict management if you plan a time to talk privately. This decreases the odds that pride or showmanship will influence anyone's decisions.
Rather than calling a teammate out, sit down with the person, just the two of you, and ask them the following questions:
- What went wrong (think actionable items, not personality clashes)?
- What is an ideal outcome when a disagreement arises?
- How can we do better next time?
This creates a neutral environment that will foster productive conversation. Participants feel more comfortable when speaking privately which makes them more likely to come to an agreement.
2. Listen to the Other Person
Listening to the person you're in conflict with is hard. They might be a bit of a bully, intent on belittling you and your contributions to the team. However, going toe to toe with them in a verbal wrestling match is only going to aggravate your problems and make things more tense.
Conflict resolution starts by listening to what the other person has to say and empathizing with their point of view. Be an active listener and try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Listen to what they have to say and continue to be the bigger person in arguments.
Active listening begins with repeating what the person has said to let them know you have heard them. Then, ask them questions to clarify their points and to show that you're trying to understand their perspective. Finally, don't interrupt them until they have finished their thought. These guidelines can help you better understand the situation and prevent petty arguments.
3. Acknowledge Your Similarities
No matter how you define conflict, you can probably agree that the result can occasionally be productive. Conflict comes from passion, big ideas, creative risk-taking and the occasional butting heads in the process.
Instead of focusing on what you disagree about, try shifting the lens of the conversation onto the things you can both agree on. You both care about the company, your reputations, and your project, so there's bound to be some common ground.
Try asking the following questions:
- Do we have any of the same goals or areas of focus (e.g. landing a big account, increasing sales, or nailing a marketing pitch)?
- Do we have any of the same concerns (e.g. resource management, cutting down on budgetary expenses, or impressing a supervisor)?
Uncover the ways you're similar and build off of that.
4. Admit Your Mistakes
This is a tough one. No one likes admitting that they were wrong and someone else was right. But stubbornness just adds fuel to the fire when it comes to workplace conflicts. Think of it this way: if you don't admit to being wrong, someone else will have the opportunity to call you out instead.
Denying fault only prolongs the conflict by dragging it out. It's okay to be wrong and it's a sign of maturity to be able to admit it. If you do find yourself having to admit a mistake but are not quite sure how to say it, here are a few examples:
- "After talking to you about this, I see your point of view and would love to give your ideas a try. How can I best help?"
- "I'm sorry that I said (or did) X. In hindsight, I can see that it came across wrong. In the future, I will try not to let my emotions get the best of me."
- "I want to apologize if I stepped on your toes at all. I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work and it's something I am learning to work on."
5. Focus on Behavior, Not Personality
What happened? What were the results? Focus on the actions and events of a particular conflict, not what you like or don't like about the other person. There may just be certain personality traits that you find grating, however, telling the other person to fundamentally change who they are will not go over well for either of you.
Instead, focus on actions. "X talks too much" isn't a particularly useful criticism. Instead, be laser-focused on the issue: "X interrupted me five times during the morning meeting today. Can we implement a system where people are allowed to finish our thoughts before we move on?" This approach addresses the issue without directing blame towards the other person.
6. Be Selective
Handling workplace conflict means knowing when to fight and when to back down. If everything becomes a battle, you're going to exhaust yourself running in circles every day.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics are just one of the many causes of job burnout, which can result in decreased productivity and low moods. Before engaging in the conflict, think, "Why am I doing this? Is it vital to the success of my team or project? Or am I just arguing because so-and-so rubs me the wrong way in meetings?"
If it helps, imagine that you have a limited number of "conflict points" per week and must cherish them like limited resources. Should you engage now and waste a point? Or save it for something that matters more?
7. Set a Positive Example
Handling team conflict gets tricky when all eyes are on you. Maybe you're a leader to your team, a supervisor in the workplace, or just a frequent contributor to meetings and brainstorming. This might mean you're in the spotlight and people are looking at you as an example of how to act.
Not sure how to do this? Focus on positive emotions in the workplace. Develop them and build on them. Consider how things like gratitude, altruism, elevation, cheerfulness, and confidence can be used to enhance your work ethic. Also, compliment other people when you see these traits in them. Reward good behavior and you'll see it repeated.
8. Consider the Bigger Picture
Chances are you and whomever you're in conflict with have similar goals. You both have a desire to see yourselves, your project, and your team succeed. That means that even if you have different ideas of how to accomplish this, your end goals are pretty much the same.
If you can reframe each conflict as two points-of-view trying to accomplish the same, or similar, things, you might be able to understand where the other person is coming from and work out your differences productively.
Don't be afraid to point this out to the other person, too: "It seems like we both want X. How can we both use our strengths and ideas to compliment one another rather than clash?"
9. Avoid Escalating Tension
Knowing when to remove yourself from a tense situation is a powerful way to prevent escalation. There comes a point when you have to take a step back to avoid making a conflict worse.
Just say, "I'm feeling a little wound up right now, do you mind if we break for an early lunch and come back at this problem with a clear head?" If possible, take some solo time to calm down. Go for a quick walk. Listen to calming music. Anything that can help you see through the fog of rising emotions and look for a realistic solution.
10. Use a Mediator
Some conflicts require a mediator. Mediators act as a neutral party who help facilitate a productive conversation. This may be a supervisor, someone from HR or an external party in extreme cases.
When all else fails and you have done all you can on your own, or when the conflict has escalated to a point of harassment, it's time to bring in a neutral party. There's no shame in asking a higher up for help when you need it. And having a fresh pair of eyes and ears on any workplace conflict might help you see things that you missed or misunderstood the first time around.
Conflict resolutions skills must be developed and worked on overtime. Once you master them, you'll find that you are happier and more productive in the workplace. These tips can get you started, the rest is up to you.
For more information on managing conflict, read about different conflict management styles.