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How to deal with conflict at work

Dr. Elizma van der Smit August 2017

· Work,Relationships,Life Skills

“Don’t fear conflict; embrace it - it's your job.” While you can try and avoid conflict (bad idea), you cannot escape conflict. The fact of the matter is conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it or not. The ability to recognize conflict, understand the nature of conflict, and to be able to bring swift and just resolution to conflict will serve you well – the inability to do so may well be your downfall. (Mike Myatt)

Let’s examine these 2 major causes of conflict:

  • Communication: Conflict at work results from a lack of information, poor information, no information, or misinformation. Clear, concise, accurate, and timely communication of information will help to ease both the number and severity of conflicts.
  • Emotions: letting emotions drive decisions causes workplace conflict. For example, placing the need for emotional superiority ahead of achieving your mission or throwing a fit of rage and draw the regrettable line in the sand in the heat of the moment? If you have, what happened was a person indulging their emotions rather than protecting their future.

The following tips will help to more effective handle conflicts in the workplace:

1: Realize that conflicts are inevitable at work

Whenever people are engaged, committed and fired up, conflict and disagreement is bound to happen. This doesn’t mean you have to revel in conflict or create trouble just for the hell of it, but it does mean that when conflict happens it’s not the end of the world. The fact that you have a conflict at work does not reflect badly on you – it mostly means that you care enough to disagree strongly.

2: Handle conflict sooner rather than later

This is the single most important tip to successfully resolve conflicts: Do it now! It’s very tempting to wait for a conflict to blow over by itself, but it rarely does – in most cases it only gets worse with time.

3: Ask!

In the early stages of a conflict the most powerful tool to resolve it is simple: Ask! If somebody has done something that made you angry, if you don’t understand somebody’s viewpoint, if you don’t understand their actions – ask!

4. Pick Your Battles.

It is also important when asking questions to remember to Pick Your Battles. Human nature makes us want to be right, even to the point of being defensive or arguing points that do not matter in the big picture. It is even fair game to ask the other person, "On a scale of one-to-10, how important is this issue to you?" If an issue is a five to you and a nine to the person you are talking to, it is best to give that point up and use the same scale when an item is really important to you.

5. Avoid the Blame Game.

Assigning blame is only helpful in one instance in problem solving - if you assign it to yourself. Figuring out whose fault something is does not do any good. The trick to resolving clashes is to focus on problem solving, rather than pointing fingers. Focus on the Future, Not the Past.

6. Understanding the WIIFM Factor

Understanding the other professionals WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) position is critical. It is absolutely essential to understand other’s motivations prior to weighing in. The way to avoid conflict is to help those around you achieve their objectives. If you approach conflict from the perspective of taking the action that will help others best achieve their goals, you will find few obstacles will stand in your way with regard to resolving conflict.

Practical steps to resolve conflict at work:

  1. Talk with the other person
  • Ask the other person to name a time when it would be convenient to meet.
  • Arrange to meet in a place where you won't be interrupted.
  1. Focus on behavior and events, not on personalities
  • Say “When this happens …” instead of “When you do …”
  • Describe a specific instance or event instead of generalizing or attacking the person.  Do not blame.
  1. Listen carefully
  • Listen to what the other person is saying instead of getting ready to react.
  • Avoid interrupting the other person.
  • After the other person finishes speaking, rephrase what was said to make sure you understand it.
  • Ask questions to clarify your understanding.
  1. Identify points of agreement and disagreement
  • Summarize the areas of agreement and disagreement.
  • Ask the other person if he or she agrees with your assessment.
  • Modify your assessment until both of you agree on the areas of conflict.
  1. Prioritize the areas of conflict
  • Discuss which areas of conflict are most important to each of you to resolve.
  1. Develop a plan to work on each conflict
  • Start with the most important conflict.
  • Focus on the future.
  • Set up future meeting times to continue your discussions.
  1. Follow through on your plan
  • Stick with the discussions until you’ve worked through each area of conflict.
  • Maintain a collaborative, “let’s-work-out-a-solution” attitude.
  1. Build on your success.
  • Look for opportunities to point out progress.
  • Compliment the other person’s insights and achievements.
  • Congratulate each other when you make progress, even if it’s just a small step. Your hard work will pay off when scheduled discussions eventually give way to ongoing, friendly communication.
What if all of this doesn’t work?

There is no guarantee that the method described here will resolve your conflict at work. It may or it may not. But even if it doesn’t work you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve tried. You have risen above the conflict for a while and tried to address it positively and constructively. No one can ask more of you.

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This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.