10 Tips for Managing Conflict in the Workplace

Workplace conflict is extremely common, but it needn't boil over into counter-productive frustration or violence.
Workplace conflict is extremely common, but it needn't boil over into counter-productive frustration or violence.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Workplace conflict is an unavoidable consequence of professional life. Some people are magnets for conflict, while others manage to avoid at-work tangles with co-workers for years. But eventually, everyone has run-ins with someone on the job.

Conflict is anything but rare. Some sources indicate that human resource managers spend 25 to 60 percent of their time working through employee conflicts [source: Zupek]. And a University of North Carolina study showed that more than half of workers said anxiety about a past or present conflict with a co-worker cost them time while they were on the clock. More than a quarter of workers said they were less productive because they spent time trying to avoid a confrontation with a co-worker.

What's more, violent confrontations are increasing. A Society of Human Resource Management study found that more than half of workers said a violent act had occurred at their workplace [source: Zupek].

Of course, work-related conflict should never manifest itself in those kinds of extremes. Understanding how to deal with tense work situations will help you avoid rare violent outbursts. You'll also better understand how to navigate office politics and become more successful.

There are multiple styles of conflict resolution. The different styles aren't necessarily better or worse, but they are very different. Experts have pinpointed five primary conflict resolution styles -- avoid, accommodate, collaborate, compromise, and confront [source: Gatlin, Wysocki and Kepner].

Supervisors generally default to one or two primary conflict resolution styles. They can afford to leverage their position to use their chosen style of resolution. Lower-level employees may need to use more styles of resolution in order maintain productive relationships and a comfortable work environment.

How well you understand conflict resolution can have as much or more impact as your professional job skills in determining the trajectory of your career path. Berate or belittle your opponents and you'll encounter enemies at every corner -- earn the respect of co-workers and you'll find limitless opportunities.

In this article, we'll address 10 ways, listed in no particular order, to help you deal with conflict when it arises at work.

10
Count to 10...or 100
Don't let your emotions get the best of you. Take your time when responding to a potential conflict.
Don't let your emotions get the best of you. Take your time when responding to a potential conflict.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Frustrating work confrontations can easily erupt into an exchange of angry shouts. Perhaps the worst mistake you can make during a confrontational situation is to lose your temper and say things that you'll regret later. At best, you'll appear emotionally frail or weak in times of adversity -- at worst, you could lose your job.

When an emotion-laden conflict emerges, take some time to look past any immediate feelings or reactions and identify the real issue that's causing problems. If necessary, disengage from the immediate situation, take a break and a deep breath, and analyze the situation before responding.

Setting aside emotions and being objective will help you resolve the bulk of small workplace confrontations without anger or lingering resentment on either side. You'll also project a deliberate, thoughtful manner that your co-workers will respect far more than a raging tirade.

9
Let Everyone Speak
Your ears are one of the best tools you have in resolving conflict quickly and with minimal anxiety.
Your ears are one of the best tools you have in resolving conflict quickly and with minimal anxiety.
Nick White/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Some people use aggressive, non-stop verbal attacks to silence their opponents during a workplace conflict. Supervisors might be able to get away with that style of communication, but it won't score any points for your reputation as a tactful professional.

Merely silencing a co-worker or refusing to even consider the situation from his or her perspective rarely leads to a lasting resolution. So don't turn a basic conflict into a one-sided monologue. Take the time to listen and try to learn something from the situation.

Let the other person clarify his or her perspective and opinion on the issue. It may be helpful to apply a time limit to the discussion. Doing so helps each person speak about the issues that really matter and reduces tangential (and emotion-fueled) conversational clutter that has little bearing on the conflict.

8
Choose Your Battles
Come out with guns blazing in every conflict and you're likely to find yourself surrounded by a lot of unsympathetic co-workers.
Come out with guns blazing in every conflict and you're likely to find yourself surrounded by a lot of unsympathetic co-workers.
Hemera/Thinkstock

In an environment where people work together on important projects, conflicts are bound to happen. Once there's tension between you and a co-worker, there's a temptation to become overly defensive with every type of interaction you have with that specific person.

Don't raise your hackles every time you pass this person in the hallway. Pick the issues that you simply can't compromise on and let other things slide. Being generous in compromises with your co-worker will make it easier to win on the issues you really do care about.

Absolutely avoid anticipating conflict. If you do, you may be feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy in which tensions escalate higher and higher for no good reason. Try to approach interaction with this co-worker with a sense of objectivity, rather than building a sense of hostility or defensiveness beforehand.

Realize that trying to get the best of this person every time you interact is probably not a good strategy. Doing so is time consuming, emotionally draining and completely counterproductive.

7
Avoid Gossip
Workplace gossip can lead to bad blood and lot of unnecessary office anguish.
Workplace gossip can lead to bad blood and lot of unnecessary office anguish.
Getty Images/Goodshoot/Thinkstock

Professional relationships are incredibly important to productivity. Workers who communicate in a personal fashion develop more trust and chemistry with their peers. But it's a risky venture when you cross the line from friendly conversation into gossip and rumor mills.

Gossip and rumors often poison entire offices. When fueled by rampant gossip, one half-truth or perceived slight can breed mistrust and hard feelings between co-workers and supervisors.

Keep in mind that, by its nature, gossip is often misleading or totally false. Participating in gossipy circles, then, just perpetuates problematic interaction that can hamper a whole group's effectiveness.

The good news is that you don't have to contribute to the problem. When other employees try to share gossip with you, politely change the subject or remove yourself from the conversation. Doing so doesn't mean you have to totally avoid informal topics with a wide range of people at work -- it just means refusing to participate in damaging or disparaging conversations that have no positive purpose.

6
Use Business-like Language
Exploding with anger and harsh words is a sure way to make a bad situation even worse.
Exploding with anger and harsh words is a sure way to make a bad situation even worse.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Conflicts at work can easily intensify emotions in both parties. For many people, it's very easy to slip up and use attacking words that make the other person feel threatened. For example, an agitated co-worker might say something like, "You always miss important deadlines," or "Is this project too hard for you?"

Obviously, these statements are unlikely to foster a helpful conversational space. Attributing one part of a person's personality or work history to their entire performance is bad professional form and probably says more about you then it does about them.

What's more, overly general, judgmental language immediately puts other people in a defensive mode. And sarcasm just worsens confrontation and breeds resentment that can last far longer than the anger of the immediate conflict.

Instead, stick with objective, professional language. If you feel more agitated during the conversation and feel emotion-laden words welling up, you may need to leave the meeting and return to the topic later.

5
Don't Personalize or Internalize Disagreements
Just like you, other people have bad days and say things they don't mean. Don't take every criticism or disagreement as a personal attack.
Just like you, other people have bad days and say things they don't mean. Don't take every criticism or disagreement as a personal attack.
Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Thinkstock

Don't take it personally. No, really -- don't take it personally. Try not to take someone's conflicting opinion as a negative assessment of you as a person or as a co-worker. It's natural for co-workers to have different feelings about projects. If someone has a different perspective, it isn't necessarily an indictment of your abilities as a human being or even as a worker.

Be open to constructive criticism, and keep in mind that turning a conflict into a learning situation may greatly benefit your career. However, if the other party is clearly making personal attacks on you, it's best to walk away from the situation.

You could, of course, respond with a personal attack of your own. Doing so is not only unprofessional but could escalate the situation to uncomfortable heights with long-term negative consequences. If the attacks on you continue, document them and consider reporting the situation to a manager or the human resources department.

4
Repeat Your Opponent's Words Aloud
If you listen carefully to the person you're arguing with, you may find that you identify with some of the challenges they face.
If you listen carefully to the person you're arguing with, you may find that you identify with some of the challenges they face.
Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

When you're actively engaged in a conflict, what you want is for the other person to really understand your position on the subject at hand. It's easy to forget that the other side wants the same thing -- for you to listen and really hear what they he or she has to say.

Of course, if you dislike another person's personality, it's very easy to develop an us-versus-them mentality. With that kind of approach, conflict becomes a routine problem, and it makes it unlikely that you'll really listen to any valid grievances or ideas that person might have.

So, when the other person is trying to explain his or her perspective on a subject, force yourself to pay attention, and reaffirm that effort by paraphrasing what the person says. Carefully and thoughtfully rephrase their ideas aloud so that they know you hear what they say.

Not only will the other person appreciate your attention, but by repeating their words you may very well gain a better understanding of his or her position. Ultimately, your conversation will be more useful, and in the end, the two of you may develop mutual respect that pays huge dividends in future interaction.

3
Be Open to Compromise
Be willing to compromise and you can get away from the hassles of arguments and back to productive work.
Be willing to compromise and you can get away from the hassles of arguments and back to productive work.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Holding desperately to a dogmatic grudge isn't likely to yield many benefits in a workplace conflict. And presenting a conflict as a black-or-white, right-or-wrong situation heightens tension and ensures that your co-workers will become exasperated with you in a hurry.

Stubbornness also signals to the other person that you have no intention of listening to his or her side of the story. Don't approach a meeting with this kind of take-no-prisoners mentality.

Instead, show that you are willing to give up ground on certain aspects of a disagreement. Your willingness to compromise demonstrates that you aren't letting negative emotions dictate your behavior or hamper professional objectivity.

If you have a hard time respecting your co-worker's viewpoint, remember that your position is unlikely to be the best overall solution to the situation, regardless of what you might think. Your infallibility on a contentious issue is even unlikelier to objective observers. In short, a win-win compromise is the best solution for everyone involved.

2
Find a Mediator
If your efforts to resolve the fracas fail, you may need to bring in a third party.
If your efforts to resolve the fracas fail, you may need to bring in a third party.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Some workplace clashes turn into intractable battles worthy of a war movie. If you find yourself locked into a fight with one person, it may be time for the two of you to bring in a mediator.

You can introduce the conflict to a mediator formally or informally. An informal meeting with an objective person who both parties respect can help you talk through problems without the formalities (and potential subsequent consequences) of a formal mediation.

If an informal meeting doesn't put the issue to rest, you may need to contact a supervisor for help in resolving the conflict. If you choose a formal mediation, be sure to be on your best professional behavior. Don't attack your opponent. Present the conflict in objective terms and not as an emotional reaction to someone who happens to have an opposing viewpoint.

In a formal mediation, expect enlightenment. A third-party observer may be quick to point out failings in your argument that you just could not accept from a co-worker you dislike. And that's the beauty of mediation -- it helps bring the conflict to an objective, level playing field that's fairer for everyone.

1
Expect Conflict
Conflict management skills are vital to your professional survival. Shake hands with your competitors and move on to more important subjects.
Conflict management skills are vital to your professional survival. Shake hands with your competitors and move on to more important subjects.
Hemera/Thinkstock

A conflict-free workplace would be a beautiful place indeed. However, it's just not possible to avoid conflict entirely. You have to learn to expect that conflict will become a part of your work life at some point.

The real imperative is learning to deal with conflict in a productive way. Don't let disagreements gather momentum and turn into major crises. Instead, address them as soon as possible. Resolve them instead of letting them fester.

Of course, for many people, avoidance or passive-aggressiveness is a more course of action. But fearing or avoiding conflict tends to make edgy situations much worse.

As you work to manage the problem, make sure that the conflict is totally resolved for both sides. If you feel triumphant but your co-worker is deflated and upset or convinced that the outcome was unfair, there's a good possibility that the problem will flare up again. Learn better communication skills, though, and you'll be a better overall employee and a happier person, too.

For more information about workplace life, visit the links on the next page.

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Sources

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