Have you found yourself in a workplace conflict with no idea how to get out? Read on for constructive options you can use to work through the issue in a way that provides not only a workable solution but also a way of repairing any damage that might have been done to your relationships or reputation.
Examples of Conflict at Work
Before we talk about rectifying the situation, let’s imagine a few likely workplace conflict scenarios. You:
- endorse a different plan from the one your colleagues or boss are supporting
- have opposing priorities and are arguing with a teammate over what to do first
- are frustrated by the way your boss (or co-worker) is treating you
- find a teammate’s behavior infuriating
- are being harassed or discriminated against by someone in your organization
The best conflict resolution strategies
Regardless of the type of conflict you’re facing, there are a few approaches that will increase the likelihood that you get through the argument with the best possible outcomes. The “best possible outcomes” include 1) a plan that works for the organization, 2) trust and engagement among your teammates, and 3) manageable stress for you.
- Try not to fight in the heat of the moment. If you’ve been triggered and can feel your pulse racing or your volume rising, buy yourself some time. If the conflict is happening face-to-face, ask for a moment to collect your thoughts. (There is no shame in showing that you actively manage your emotions. Try saying, “Give me a minute. I want to have this conversation productively.” If the argument has broken out over email or on a Slack channel, type your response into a blank message addressed only to yourself—that gives you the chance to delete it later.
- Speak in concise sentences. Use as few words as possible to buy yourself even more time to breathe and think. Use open-ended questions to get the other person talking. Try saying, “What’s at stake for you?” or “Who are you thinking of?” or “How do you see this playing out?” You’re trying to minimize the time the ball is in your court. Humans are weird; the more the other person is talking, the more positively they’ll feel about you.
- Be transparent about what might not be evident to others. If you’re feeling or thinking something that others can’t see, do the work for them—tell them. Be upfront about how the discussion is affecting you. Try saying, “I’m disappointed because I thought we had already agreed.” or “I’m worried about how that plan would land with my customers,” or “It’s upsetting that you thought my presentation was dull.” This strategy might seem like it makes you more vulnerable, but there’s strength in candor. Conflict is more manageable when you’ve got nothing to hide.
- Focus more on the solution than the problem. Keep the conversation pointed forward, not backward. Find common ground where you can start agreeing with one another. Try “We’re both looking for a way to win this account.” Or “We both want to contribute to the team.” Or “We both want to do the right thing.” If you can find a “we both” statement—a genuine, truthful end state that you both want, start there. That will invoke a problem-solving mindset. Ok, we both want to do the right thing. How do we figure out what the right thing is?
Specific Conflict Resolution Strategies by Situation
As we discussed above, there are different types of workplace conflict. Depending on which one you find yourself in, you can augment the universal strategies above with these tailored approaches.
How to resolve a task conflict
If you’re trying to work through a task-based conflict, such as disagreeing about what to do or how to do it, here are some specific techniques to use.
The most crucial factor in a task-based conflict is who owns the decision. If you own the decision, focus on making the other person feel heard and understood, then choose how to proceed. Don’t let the conflict drag on. If the other person owns the decision, focus on broadening their thinking and exposing risks and then back down once you’ve said your piece. Again, don’t let the conflict drag on.
Regardless of who owns the decision, use the following approaches to create a productive dialogue.
- Form your questions around the criteria for a good outcome. “What would have to be included to make it a workable solution for you?” Then, once you’ve listened and paraphrased their criteria, add in your own.
- Expose different perspectives. “How are you thinking about this differently because you’re in sales?” Again, listen, reflect on what you heard, then share what’s unique about your perspective.
- Ask about stakeholders you don’t understand. For example, “What will the end-users be focused on?” Then, complement their view with the POV of your stakeholders, such as, “I’m thinking about it from the IT and security perspective and what they will need.”
- Tease apart the difference between what you need to do and how you can do it. For example, if the person is signaling that they’re worried about the implications of an action, ask, “How might we do this in a way that minimizes that risk?” (This is particularly helpful in making space for those who don’t own the decision to impact how the decision is implemented.)
When the decision-maker is clear, a task-based conflict should be finite. You disagree, argue, struggle, try to understand, and then the decision is made, and you move on. Don’t be the person who gets to this point and says, “let’s agree to disagree.” More on the problem of letting a task-based conflict drag on here.
How to resolve a personality-based conflict
Many of the unsavory interactions at work are not about the work at all; they’re about how people show up and how they do the job. These personality-based conflicts can be particularly grating.
The most critical factor in a personality-based conflict is whether you recognize it as such. As soon as you can label the issue as, ‘I don’t like how they operate,’ rather than ‘I disagree about this substantive issue,’ you can start to reframe your concerns.
- Speak objectively (almost clinically) any time you speak about the other person. Stick to describing what you see and hear (or don’t see or hear). Even this tiny step of translating your feelings into objective behavior might give you some relief from the annoyance. For example, if you think the person is rude, what would you attribute that to? Are they dropping eye contact, speaking over you, or disagreeing with your points?
- Share what you see as the implications of their behavior. For example, imagine that you’re losing your nut because a colleague is so detail-oriented that they’re nit-picking grammar and typos in what was supposed to be your crappy first draft. You might tell them, “When you focus on typos and grammar on the first draft, I feel like I’m missing your input on the who, what, where, when, and why questions that I want to resolve first.”
- Describe how you’re interpreting their behavior and see if it changes anything. For example, imagine that your boss has interrupted you three times, and you’re only 10 minutes into your presentation. You might be getting frustrated or feeling powerless. If you say, “When you talk over me, I get the sense that you don’t have confidence in me,” your boss might correct you and say, “Oh my goodness, that’s not it at all, I’m just so excited about this!” That might be enough to change their behavior. Or, you could follow up by asking, “How could you signal to everyone else in the room that you have confidence in me and my plan?”
- If you feel like you’ve tried a few of these approaches and you’re not making any headway, you can ask others for advice. Be careful not to gossip or complain, but feel free to share what you’re seeing and experiencing. For example, “Every time I’m presenting, Sam interrupts me. I’m worried that’s hurting the team’s trust in me. Do you think that’s an issue? If so, what could I do differently? What have you seen that works to increase Sam’s confidence?”
Remember, as much as it’s part of our language to say, ‘they make me feel x,’ no one can make you feel anything. You are interpreting their behavior in a way that makes you feel a given way. That also means that you can choose to feel differently.
How to resolve a discrimination or harassment issue
There is an essential caveat to my personal accountability approach to conflict. It doesn’t apply if you are being discriminated against or harassed. You don’t need to own another person’s illegal or immoral behavior. If you are being bullied, sexually harassed, or discriminated against, you need to enlist support from human resources, or in the case of criminal behavior, perhaps even the authorities. Immediately start keeping a paper trail of your experiences, with specific, objective descriptions of what you experience and time and date stamps on everything. Then look for organizations in your jurisdiction that can support you.
Workplace conflicts are unpleasant, and if left unresolved, they’re unhealthy. Use these techniques to work through the conflict. If you’re open to changing your mindset, your approach, and your position as you learn more, you’ll find that conflict resolution becomes a superpower for you.