Workplace conflict isn’t the necessary evil it’s made out to be. Yes, conflict can be an economic drain, fostering resentment and ruining productivity, but only when it’s ignored or neglected.
Addressing the issue directly will prevent the conflict from snowballing and can be beneficial in that it encourages new thinking, raises questions, builds relationships and prevents stagnation.
Conflict resolution is easy if you use the right approach. Download this cheat sheet for a handy summary of five effective conflict resolution strategies.
In this guide, you’ll learn the steps you need to follow to resolve workplace conflict in a positive way. You’ll also learn proven strategies for opening the conversation, finding understanding and reaching a solution.
Conflict at work is inevitable and it may be tempting to ignore it when it’s minor, irritating word battles or when it occurs covertly at the senior level. Still, any conflict that disrupts the workplace or threatens staff wellbeing needs to be addressed.
Begin by separating the conflicting parties and giving them time to cool down. Explain that this is only conflict, not a competition and that there will be no winner or loser.
While everyone is taking time apart, evaluate the information available and draw up a rough outline for the next steps. Should you wait to address the issue or should you acknowledge it and fix it now? How clear is the path to common ground?
Document the issue using an Employee Complaint Form Template for reflection later on in the conflict resolution process.
A too-quick decision can do more harm than good, so take some time for yourself too.
Think about it objectively: are you the right person for this job?
What skills are needed to resolve this conflict and do you possess them? Are you too close to the situation? Could this familiarity affect the outcome? A mediator who’s biased will have a difficult time resolving the conflict as their view will be clouded by preexisting feelings or thoughts.
If you’re not the best person for the job, acknowledge and accept it. Call in an external mediator with the right skills and an impartial view of the situation.
If you’ve decided you’ll be the mediator, now it’s time to pick an appropriate medium to deal with this conflict. Would an in-person chat be possible? If not, should you set up a video call to maintain formality? Is either option necessary?
Some experts advise against resolving the conflict over email, but it’s harmful to make a blanket statement like that when conflicts vary so drastically. Depending on the conflict, an email may suffice. In fact, sometimes resolving an incident is easier via email or chat, if those involved are better able to explain themselves when they can plan and edit their responses.
However, let the intensity of the conflict decide: the higher the emotion, the more formal the resolution.
The most important part is that the resolution must be done privately. Even if the incident occurred in public, move the next steps to a private arena. Conflicting parties deserve the right to express themselves in a safe environment without intrusive bystanders.
Now that you’ve decided on a medium, begin the resolution by acknowledging that a problem exists. At first glance, you may be inclined to think that those involved are making a mountain out of a molehill. Instead, consider that something seemingly insignificant to you may be a huge issue for someone else.
Is this a conflict or straight up harassment? Download the 11 Types of Workplace Harassment Cheat Sheet for a better understanding of harassing behaviors.
Shift the lens through which you view the conflict. Try to adopt a positive outlook on embracing conflicts of all sizes and complexities and then share this newfound perspective. Identify this not as a burden, but as an opportunity for everyone involved to develop, learn and grow.
Use this beginning stage to establish guidelines too. Explain that you all are about to work toward a solution where everyone will benefit in some way and that if they break these rules, the meeting will end until they can participate properly. Some common rules include:
- Express yourself calmly
- No yelling, threatening or cursing
- No passive-aggressive comments
- Try to understand other points of view
Open the lines of communication for conflicting parties to have their say without interruptions or outbursts. Allow the parties to talk informally, but monitor the discussion to ensure each party has adequate time to speak.
Don’t let one person monopolize the conversation and don’t begin sharing your own viewpoint until both parties have had an opportunity to express their thoughts, concerns and feelings.
There is bound to be a lot of emotion in these conversations, meaning they can easily stray off course, hindering any progress. The intensity between the conflicted parties can quickly push the dialogue into a toxic place.
A skillful mediator will continue to remind them that the conflict occurred and that the purpose of this discussion is to attack the conflict, not each other. These strategies can help you keep the dialogue on track:
Listen for threats, intimidation, aggression or coercion
Be attentive and listen for threats or ultimatums, aggression, intimidation, bullying or scare tactics. If you find the discussion is becoming aggressive instead of assertive, help the speaker communicate their position. Threats and coercive offers might halt the problem temporarily but they are rarely a long-term solution.
Focus on the topic
Keep the conversation focused on the problem, not the person. Conflicting parties may feel compelled to attack each other, but try to refocus back onto the conversation’s primary goal.
Keep your own pre-conceived attitudes in check as well. Remember, you are supposed to be maintaining a bias-free perspective. Sometimes the person really is the problem in a conflict, but that’s usually the last place you should look.
Use “I” statements
Form the conversation around “I” statements. The keystone of conflict resolution, “I” statements help the speaker frame thoughts around themselves instead of placing blame on the other party. Instead of saying “You’re always late!” say something more like “It was embarrassing that I had to lead the meeting myself.”.
Encourage the use of storytelling for a productive discussion. If the speaker is not careful while explaining their position, it can push the listener to become indifferent instead of sympathetic. With storytelling, the speaker creates a clearer picture that’s easier to not only acknowledge, but also understand.
Listen actively to the conversation and encourage the non-speaking party to listen actively as well. Listen without interrupting but do ask for feedback and clarification to ensure everyone has a clear understanding.
There are many active listening techniques, but these are the best:
Offer your undivided attention
Give the speaker your complete attention, then show that you’re engaged in the conversation. Nod along or offer small encouragements as you listen to demonstrate that you’re hearing (and making an effort to understand) what they’re saying.
Don’t fear silence
Some see silence as awkward, confusing or embarrassing. In difficult conversations, silence is actually beneficial as it gives all parties involved a chance to reflect on what was just said, and plan they will say next.
Let them speak
Do not interrupt. As part of an open and welcoming conversation, everyone must be given the chance to have their say without interruptions or disruptions.
The goal is to reach a complete understanding of the conflict and the differing perspectives. Your job is to make sure everyone is on the same page.
After the bulk of the conversation has taken place and each party has taken turns explaining and listening, investigate, evaluate and analyze both sides. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions.
Repeat the core concepts and restate the issues to give the parties a chance to correct you. Ask clarifying questions if you think that will help.
Attempt to point out any deeper issues that lie beneath the surface. Differentiate between sacred and nonnegotiable values (such as moral code) from pseudo-sacred and circumstantial values (such as casual preferences).
For full conflict resolution, you need to not only acknowledge the issue and any hurt feelings, but also identify and implement a solution that begins to mend previous damage and prevent future harm.
For the resolution to be most effective, you need to be quick. If you’ve gathered the details, had the conversations, listened to the stories and confirmed understanding, it’s time to make a decision and act on it.
Leaving a conflict in limbo and neglecting to make a decision can damage your credibility and make you look insensitive and incompetent. It also allows for further conflict to develop.
A successful mediator will be able to diffuse the conflict and identify the best way to resolve the situation. The five common strategies for resolving conflict are: accommodating, avoiding, compromising, collaborating and competing.
Conflict resolution through accommodation is simply giving one side what it wants. When one party agrees to accommodate the other by accepting their perspective, they are trying to keep the peace. While this can help everyone move forward, it may lead to resentment and envy.
Avoiding the conflict completely is one form of conflict resolution. By ignoring the conflict and pretending it never happened the problem resolves itself. In some cases, this method might actually work, like after the termination of a popular but unproductive employee.
Compromising is one of the more successful conflict resolution tactics. With compromise, both parties negotiate the larger points and forfeit a few smaller points of their position to reach a solution. This strategy prevails when the conflicting parties hold similar levels of power (for example: contract negotiations).
Collaborating is another desirable conflict management strategy. It involves pinpointing areas of agreement between the conflicting parties and finding a creative solution that works for all. It’s not always the best use of resources, depending on the conflict at hand, because it can be time-consuming and tedious.
Another form of conflict resolution is competing or “standing your ground”. With this, the conflicting parties battle it out. Admittedly, it’s one of the less successful scenarios, but competing can be useful in crisis situations (like pay cuts or layoffs). It may result in short-term rewards but the long-term consequences can be detrimental.
At the end of the conversation, thank all parties for participating and acknowledge the progress made.
Follow-up on a later date using the most appropriate method. Based on the conflict and status of the resolution, that might be a private face-to-face conversation, an email or a call.
During this follow-up, restate the resolution and thank them again. If it’s appropriate and you’re in a position to give advice, do so. Let them know you’re available to discuss any future thoughts or issues they have.
You can take all the precautions in the world, carefully screening employees during the hiring process and mandating as much training as possible. But, polished interview responses and full-day workshops won’t guarantee a healthy workplace.
Once the conflict is resolved, start taking the necessary next steps to prevent this type of issue from happening again in the future. Specific steps could be clarifying roles, if that was the issue, or adding a behavioral statement to the code of conduct policy or employee manual.
More generally, begin building a culture that encourages open and honest conversations where giving and receiving feedback is praised, not feared. Encourage transparency so that unpleasant truths can trickle out before they snowball into intense conflicts.