The essential tips for handling workplace conflict: a staff manager’s guide

Aug 1, 2018
minute read
Handling workplace conflict arising from: words that should not have been said, faulty assumptions about why someone has behaved the way they have, disagreement about decisions made, differences in personality, beliefs and backgrounds, unmet needs, or ambiguity in role and direction is never easy, especially if you are a party in the conflict.

However, a conflict that is on-going and not addressed soon after you become aware of it may lower the productivity and morale of other team members. Whether you are personally involved, or members of your team are in dispute, there are just a few factors that you need to consider.

1. Conflict almost always evokes an emotional reaction

Sometimes our emotions get out of control and we are afraid of them. Many organisations discourage emotional expression because of a belief that emotion reflects weakness, makes us appear vulnerable or allows our opponents to seize an advantage. Ask yourself: can you acknowledge your emotion and the emotions of the other parties in the dispute?  Would you give into your emotions and express them without reservation, thus risking alienation? Would you close up and withdraw?  Or would you try to relax, re-frame and express your emotions and be willing to show your vulnerability, thus learning from them and perhaps becoming closer with your opponent?

2. Parties may react with a ‘default’ style when confronted with a dispute

A default response arises because parties have not reflected upon or been trained in how to respond otherwise.  Instead, they may ‘react’ in any of the following ways: avoiding the issue in the (unlikely) hope it will disappear; acting aggressively with the intention of intimidating the other party to back down; accommodating the ‘demands’ of the other party at the expense of feeling dissatisfied with the outcome (you have lost; they have won); compromising to find a middle ground (that may not satisfy either party); or initiating and engaging in a collaborative process between all parties to help find a win-win for all solution.  (Adapted from Thomas and Kilman’s Conflict Mode Instrument, 1974).

3. Developing self-awareness and self-regulation are key skills in preparing yourself for conflict resolution

Conduct a conscious, critical, but non-judgmental examination of your emotional history and repertoire of conflict responses and ask how you might shift or ‘re-frame’ your attitude.  Choose how you might respond. Adopt a positive attitude and centre yourself on what really matters, i.e. understanding the other and the issue at hand.  Mindfulness is an effective means of centring yourself.

4. Agree on some ‘rules of engagement’

After sitting down together, set rules for handling the conversation, e.g. treat each other with respect; don’t interrupt when the other person is talking.  Use ‘I’ statements to facilitate ownership of emotions and release yourself from being controlled by them

5. Ask questions, listen attentively, acknowledge and empathise with the party’s perspectives and paraphrase appropriately

Frame questions carefully. Ask the other party what outcome they want to achieve from the meeting. Then listen with intent and an open mind.  This will enable recognition of the profound, poignant, vulnerable moments in the conversation, a deciphering of cryptic signals and an unveiling of meaning.  While listening, also turn your body wholly towards the other party to show that you value them and want to understand their perspective.

6. Remain impartial and do not judge

People can get defensive and start the ‘blame game’.  Remain calm, respond thoughtfully and do not take things personally.  Check in with the other person from time to time and ask how they are feeling.

7. Explore possible solutions together, i.e. ask “what can we do about this?”, and cooperatively agree on a solution

Allow equal time to suggest ideas for solving the issue.  Put everything ‘on the table’ then shortlist and evaluate each solution one by one using questions such as: “is this practical and/or realistic?”, “what constraints might apply to implementation?”, “how would we overcome these constraints?”.

8. Create an action plan

When a solution is reached, create an action plan by undertaking a SWOT analysis and setting goals complete with names and timeframes against each action item.  Discuss how you will both know the plan has succeeded and how often you will meet to evaluate progress and re-set goals.

Shifting our attitude and redefining how we view problems and difficult people as challenges to address and opportunities to learn, grow and build relationships, it is possible that we may transform not only ourselves but also our workplaces.  Surely, these are goals worth aiming for.

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