How to resolve conflict in the workplace

A 2 minute read written by Ken August 28, 2014

vector illustration of a tug-of-war with two opposing people at each end

We all know that conflict is inevitable. The truth is a healthy workplace is not one devoid of conflict, but one where people have learned to disagree in constructive ways.

In fact, the lack of conflict might indicate a workplace where people are afraid to disagree or express their creativity. So learning how to respond to differences is an important skill.

Here are a few things I’ve learned in my experience with conflict in an office environment:

1. Find the right approach

In a disagreement, two parties usually start with different positions on what they think is the right thing.

There are three typical approaches to conflict:

  • Avoid: for some people, avoiding conflict at all cost is their strategy.
  • Win-lose: others may move to win every argument, while the opposite response is to simply capitulate and give in whenever a difference emerges.
  • Win-win: the best approach is to work toward finding a solution or response that meets the needs of both parties. While this may take a bit more time and may involve some compromise, it usually has far better long-term results.

2. Respond, don't react

Anger is a common emotion when someone does or says something another person finds irritating. The anger cycle fuels a reaction that can escalate the situation. If you can, when someone does something that irritates you, take a second to listen to both the other person and yourself and get curious about what is happening between you.

Then try to respond rather than react to the situation. Speak for yourself: “I am feeling confused by what you just said’, instead of “You are making me so angry”. Create “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Your tone of voice, body language, eye contact, expressions and gestures are all part of your communication, as well as your words.

3. Discover a common ground

It is important to look beyond the other person's stated position in a conflict. While they might have stated a demand or condition that meets their needs, there are inevitably a complex cluster of interests behind their position that represent their needs, hopes, expectations, assumptions, values, fears, beliefs, and priorities.

Ask open-ended questions that provide an opportunity to understand some of those interests (both the other person’s and your own). You will likely discover common ground that will lead to resolutions you hadn’t thought of at the beginning.

4. Communication is key

The basics of conflict resolution include developing good listening and communication skills and finding out what interests motivate each party as they assert different positions.

These same principles of communication and response apply wherever you are, both at work or at home. Develop your conflict response skills – you’ll be happier for it.