Conflict in the workplace: 4 key tips

By Dal Sohal

Photo by Cristian V..

A disagreement with a colleague over an issue at work—big or small—can screech your day to a halt. Just the mere thought of conflict can send stress hormones coursing through your body! Part of the reason is that many of us grew up with the message that conflict is unnatural—and to be avoided at all costs.

The reality is that conflict is normal and inevitable when we are in communication. You want something; your colleague wants something else. When your needs are not compatible, if there are too few resources in the organization to go around, or if people choose to compete instead of collaborate to get what they want, conflict can ensue.

Conflict can lead to better understanding and stronger relationships

The good news is that conflict is not a sign that you have a poor interpersonal relationship. I had for many years tiptoed around potential conflict situations thinking that voicing my concerns or different opinions would weaken my relationships. However, I learned an important lesson—when you look at conflict as a learning opportunity instead of something to be feared, working through conflict effectively can actually lead to better understanding and stronger relationships.

Here are four things you can do to promote understanding:

1) Manage your emotions

Often, the first sign that you are in a conflict situation is a feeling of anger, resentment, fear or frustration. While erupting with emotion may release some immediate steam, it can backfire by closing down communication and leaving the other person feeling attacked. If you feel overwhelmed with emotion and know that you are at risk of an emotionally charged reaction, give yourself a moment to cool off before you try to resolve the situation. Having some time to think through the issue can help you look at the situation from different perspectives and gain control of your feelings.

2) Be descriptive by using "I" language

Describing your experience using "I" language versus "You" language invites conversation without judging the other person or presuming that you know all the facts. For example, "I noticed you raised your voice and that makes me think you are angry" sounds very different from "Why do you have to get so angry?" The "I" statement reveals your understanding of the other person and lets you check if your interpretation is accurate. The "You" statement, on the other hand, shows that you’ve already made up your mind about the other person, and can be seen as accusatory. “You” statements can set the listener up for a defensive response, or even worse, set up a rally of back-and-forth accusations between people.

3) Use effective listening skills

Your intention to fully listen to someone when you are in conflict can go a long way in resolving a disagreement. However, as easy as it may sound, effective listening is hard work. It means tuning out the self-talk in your head, parking your reactions, including your urge to defend yourself, and being fully present to hear the other person without any verbal or non-verbal interruption. The next step is to check your understanding of what you heard. Summarize your perception of the other person’s experience and get curious by asking questions that help you clarify goals and priorities.

4) Look for common goals and generate solutions

Often in a conflict situation, you will find yourself balancing getting what you want and maintaining the relationship that you have with the other person. For example, your boss expresses that he needs you to stay late to finish a proposal, but you need to leave on time to make it to your evening class. Rather than debating whether you should stay or leave, brainstorm many strategies for achieving a solution that both of you can be satisfied with. There may be some compromise if you decide that maintaining a productive relationship is more important than engaging in a tug-of-war.

The best time to handle interpersonal conflict is before it becomes a problem. Get to know your colleagues and build a working relationship that has a foundation of trust so that you feel comfortable raising issues of differences. Mutual trust is helpful when the two of you are looking for commonalities amidst competing interests, priorities and goals.

About the author

For the past 10 years, Dal Sohal has provided consulting services and training to organizations and individuals in the areas of leadership, interpersonal communication and team building. In addition to teaching Interpersonal Business Communication at SFU Continuing Studies, Dal has taught in the communications department at Douglas College (Interpersonal Communication Skills in the Workplace).  Currently, she works as a learning services coordinator and instructor at SFU’s Student Learning Commons.