Workplace conflict can conjure up feelings of apprehension and dread. But consider defining it in a new light to soften its edges. One way to do this, particularly in the workplace, is to see conflict as “differences with tension” or “activated differences.”
Consider the everyday commute to work and the different drivers, degrees of experience, and skill levels that you encounter. You likely don’t think much about these differences until there is activation or tension. Perhaps you are cut off by another driver – the potential for conflict exists here. But the reality is that conflict is EVERYWHERE. And how you respond to it determines the outcome – conflict can either be destructive or constructive, depending on your response.
In the workplace, the conflict source is often communication, and the type of conflict is information- or relationship-based.
There are many sources of workplace conflict that exist on a spectrum. At one end is communication and at the other are values. The latter is deeply entrenched conflict that you often see on the evening news and can take generations and a multitude of resources to resolve. In the workplace, the conflict source is often communication, and the type of conflict is information- or relationship-based – it presents as misunderstandings or disagreements. The good news is, these types of workplace conflicts are the easiest to resolve.
A miscommunication/misunderstanding often involves a lot of assumptions. An assumption is something “that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” When we see or feel an action, we often assume the intention behind it. We assume the person meant to affect or impact us the way they did, which is where the danger lies.
Here are four steps to resolve workplace conflict:
- Pause: There is emotion in conflict. Pause and breathe to calm the emotional brain and engage the logical brain.
- Ask: Rather than make assumptions about intent, communicate clearly:
- “I noticed when you entered the room, you said hello to everyone except me.” or
- “What did you mean when you said…?”
- Listen: Listen to the response to gather facts and seek clarification.
- Describe: Describe the effect it had on you:
- “I thought you were ignoring me.” or
- “I thought you were saying I was lazy.”
When we see or feel an action, we often assume the intention behind it. We assume the person meant to affect or impact us the way they did, which is where the danger lies.
It’s possible that some workplace conflict is harder to resolve because the viewpoint (i.e., position) of another individual, department, or team is strong! The longer a disagreement ensues, the stronger the positions can become. If this happens, the conflict focuses only on the positions, and nobody remembers what the actual issue was.
The issue is the problem we disagree on – the thing that needs to be solved. Behind the position taken is an interest. To resolve disagreements, the sweet spot of “common interest” must be determined. Common interests in the workplace can include:
· Job security
Similar to resolving misunderstandings, you can start to resolve a disagreement by asking about interests. To do this, try these simple open-ended questions:
- “What is important to you about that?”
- “What are your concerns?”
- “What are you afraid might go wrong?”
When we share interests and needs, we change the trajectory of the conversation, the focus, and the outcome.
The longer a disagreement ensues, the stronger the positions can become…the conflict focuses only on the positions, and nobody remembers what the actual issue was.
The sometimes difficult and uncomfortable part of workplace conflict is acknowledging our own part in it. To recognize your role in a conflict, ask these reflective questions:
- What assumptions have I made?
- What effect has my behaviour had on the other person?
- What can I take responsibility for?
- What can I apologize for?
People usually don’t expect the “other” party in a conflict to acknowledge their part. But when we do, it opens up the possibility for the other person do so the same.
Workplace conflict can be resolved by strengthening your conflict resolution skills, learning to pause and reflect, and asking about what’s going on to get at the heart of intentions and interests.
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