How should you handle conflict in the workplace?

older man sits in office pod while younger man and lady with red dress on lean over

Conflict in the workplace needs to be managed carefully, but it doesn’t have to be a big problem. In our conflict-averse world it can feel like any disagreement is a bad thing, but conflict is actually a natural part of working with other people.

The key is in knowing how to deal with it, and treating it as a learning experience. Conflict management is a key skill to master and the more you practice it, the better at it you will become.

Conflict can also be an opportunity to innovate and find new solutions to problems, and that’s also good for business.

The different types of workplace conflict

The best places to work aren’t those that are conflict-free but those that handle conflict well and understand the difference between destructive and constructive conflict. Destructive conflict happens when problems are not acknowledged or dealt with and start to fester under the surface.

To avoid destructive conflict, always address problems even if they start out small. If you have an issue with something that has been said or the way that you have been treated, find a way to address it. That doesn’t mean lodging a formal complaint, it means finding a way of constructively communicating how you are feeling to your line manager or the person directly involved. A good manager will take any conflict seriously.

Here are six top tips for managing conflict successfully and productively:

1. Avoid coercion and intimidation

Emotional outbursts or threatening behaviour may send a strong message but will never solve a problem in the long term. Uncontrolled behaviour is more likely to compound the problem than solve it.

Try to stay calm and rational about the issue, however angry you may be feeling.

2. Tackle the problem, not the person

When dealing with the other person, try to depersonalise your language. Talk about how it made you feel rather than what the other person did. People are much more likely to be defensive when accused of something. If they understand the impact their actions had they are more likely to be sympathetic.

“I was left feeling….” will get you further then, “You shouldn’t have done…”

3. Keep communication lines open

When we’re experiencing conflict it can be tempting to do anything to avoid the other person involved but by continuing with communication there is a much better chance the situation will be resolved.

If you don’t feel comfortable communicating directly, ask your line manager to see you both, either separately or together, to allow a more structured communication.

4. Focus on the future

Rather than focusing on what went wrong or who should have done what, the secret to dispute resolution is to treat it like problem solving. Focus on what can be done next. Language like “I’d appreciate it if you could…” is likely to be much better received than “When you did this…”

5. Be creative

Don’t be scared to suggest unusual solutions. You may be surprised how well they are received. If you have had difficulties working with someone perhaps you could have some joint coaching or be given a project to do together? It may seem counter-intuitive but trying to tackle a problem together could help you develop your working relationship.

The best solutions to conflict come from those involved rather than being imposed from the outside. Talk to the person you are having issues with and suggest ways of doing things differently.

A key part of finding a solution is listening to what the other person has to say. Understand their perspective. You may learn valuable lessons about yourself and your working style.

6. Seek support

You should never have to deal with workplace conflict on your own unless you are happy to.

Talk to your supervisor if you need to and if they are not dealing with the problem properly, talk to someone else.

A good manager will always want to resolve conflict.

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