How to Respond to Workplace Conflict

You might think talking about conflict is not very motivating, especially to kick off the week. However, Monday is the perfect time to talk about workplace conflict because we all have to deal with it. I’m not referring to full-blown, yelling at each other. Every day, we can face conflicting views, opinions, approaches to a project, or differences about when to host an event. This is an important skill to develop for any individual who has to work with others.

What’s really interesting to me is that we tend to say a particular person is difficult. Often, they are just being themselves. Just like you act like yourself. What is actually happening behind the scenes is we have “conflicting” views, opinions and thoughts. This stands in our way of being productive.

As more companies embrace collaboration, you must learn to work with other people and truly become a team player to get the work done and help your organization be more competitive.
Conflict can hold you back from being your best and giving your best. You don’t feel confident or happy when you are in conflict with co-workers or even a customer. Maybe right now you think of someone you work with whom you are in conflict. It doesn’t make you feel good, does it? It may be uncomfortable enough that you dread going to work. As long you come in contact with others, however, you will experience conflict.

Here are 14 strategies taken from my flagship administrative training program, The Star Achievement Series®.

Listen carefully in order to understand the other person’s point of view. Block out your own thoughts, judgments, and priorities and listen to the other person’s concerns and feelings.

Solicit Ideas from Each Other
Ask the other person questions like, “What do you think the problem is?” “How do you see us working better together?” “How can I help you accomplish your goals?”

Define the Problem
Are you clear on the real issue or conflict or is it just your perception? Ongoing communication helps clarify each person’s perception of the situation, ensuring that the problem is clearly defined.

Use Facts Only
Stick to the facts when confronting someone. You will get more positive results when you deal with the facts than with the emotions around them.

Acknowledge The Other Person’s Strengths
Objectively look at the situation and acknowledge the other person’s good points. Keep them in mind while dealing with the issue.

Maintain Each Other’s Self-Esteem
It’s harmful to belittle others and diminishes your professional image. When confronting colleagues, make sure you communicate in a way that allows them to save face.

Talk To Each Other; Not About Each Other
Make every effort to approach the other person directly. Don’t talk behind someone’s back. Have the courage to talk to them. This gives you an opportunity to work on solutions.

Listen For Underlying Issues
Sometimes what we think is the problem, really isn’t. When the other person is speaking, listen for any hidden issues. Try to get to the heart of the conflict so you can deal with it.

Be Open and Honest, Don’t Hint
Use assertive communication techniques. Go directly to the source, be direct and specific. Let the person know what you find acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Take Charge
Having an “attitude of taking charge” is not necessarily the same as the “skill of taking charge.” It starts with having the attitude, then developing certain skills. When you develop this attitude and fully subscribe to it, you will see others differently. You want to develop the skill to take charge in a way that you will get cooperation. People will want to do what you ask because they like and respect you, not because you bullied them into it.

Seek Help from an Outside Source
There may be situations where you are too close to the problem and too emotionally involved to use good judgment. Consult other whose judgment you trust.

Widen Your Circle
Don’t confine yourself to this one individual to set your value or be your friend. Build a wider networking circle and remain balanced in your at-work relationships and interactions.

Keep Your Perspective
When conflicted it’s easy to think everything is negative and terrible. It isn’t! Keep a gratitude list, put a favorite happy photo on your cube wall, take a walk at lunchtime or grab a coffee with a friend.

Walk Away
Sometimes you may find none of these strategies work; despite your efforts, the other person will not work with you to resolve the problem. There are times when you should not negotiate but instead, you must walk away.

• Individual is highly competitive
• Individual is unethical or illegal
• Either party is too stressed to attempt reconciliation

Wishing you the best of luck this week and in the weeks to come!

Joan Burge

Share your questions or comments regarding workplace conflict for Joan below.

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24 thoughts on “How to Respond to Workplace Conflict”

  1. Gloria von Gesslein

    This is a hot topic that never goes away and we always need reminders and refreshers on it. I started my Gratitude Journal because of Joan’s book and have created a celebration jar as a spin off. Every good thing that happens is written down and put inside a jar. I’ll read them on New Year’s Eve to recap the year.

  2. A few weeks ago I would have said this topic doesn’t apply to me but, sadly, it does now. I found out that a coworker (and friend) whom I see infrequently has been mad at me for months and I had no clue. She never said a word, and that’s the problem. I just thought she was moody and unhappy and never dreamed she was intentionally snubbing me. Now I have to confront her to resolve this and I’m dreading it. This could have been avoided if she talked to me when she was first offended instead of silently stewing about it until I finally noticed.

    1. Jean Weaver, CAP-OM

      It’s too bad more people don’t subscribe to maintaining open and honest communication. With it, conflicts can be avoided or resolved early on before they fester. Situations are viewed in a different light when there is mutual understanding of positions. Conflicts resolved through calm and respectful communication can actually build stronger relationships. It’s not too late to communicate and clear the air.

  3. This is a topic I have been reading a lot about along with investigating myself and my triggers. I especially appreciated Joan’s advice to seek an outside person whose judgment is trusted. It can be surprising to find others from the same working environment who gladly seek a relationship. Conflict can lead to good outcomes or confirm that one indeed needs to “walk away.” Thank you, Joan for saying that so affirmatively!

  4. Really good advice. I especially liked two points. First about acknowledging the other person’s strengths. That has worked well for me in a situation with a co-worker and I believed it has helped us both to develop mutual respect for each other.

    I also agree that sometimes you just have to walk away. When my executive and I moved into a new role in the organization there was an executive assistant who felt threatened by the move. I believe she felt that we would be taking away work (which we were but that was her executive’s decision) which for her I believe also meant taking away control/power. She took out the majority of her frustration on me but it was also apparent to the executive I supported since she was less than helpful nor cordial to him. I tried working with her and eventually tried sitting down with her to talk things out. The conversation did not go well and I had to walk away. I remained professional and cordial but decided that I couldn’t change the situation. Her behavior did not go un-noticed by her boss who was the CEO and she was eventually removed from the position.

  5. Jean Weaver, CAP-OM

    Great tips for conflict resolution! Reminds me of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits…seek first to understand. A sure path to a win-win!

  6. As always, you hit the nail on the head. I have found taking a step back and asking WHY I am feeling frustrated or upset with a co-worker is so helpful. Going for a walk gets in some exercise for the body and the mind!

  7. I love the idea of a gratitude list. I always keep a mental list in my head, but to have it within plain sight will truly remind you daily. I always make an attempt to stay impartial and not stick with one person in the office. I generally avoid conflicts. I had a negative person in the office, and I never took anything personally, I just accepted that it was just her personality. I used the tactic, “kill them with kindness.” I was always polite to her, no matter what she said to me, because I needed to work with her and solve issues for my department, which was our objective, and was bigger than the both of us.

    1. My tactics exactly: “killing with kindness”! It works every time in getting the job done……And, not taking anything personally in the workplace is key.

  8. Good Day and Happy Monday!!!
    Workplace Conflict is more prevalent than we are aware. Some even refer to it as “Workplace Bullying”.
    It can feel just like in school. The most important thing is to talk about it, discuss it till the cows come home. As long as you bring it into the open the resolution is half-way there. We spend a lot of time at work, so let’s make it our happy place.
    Have a good day.

  9. Excellent advice as always! This would have been so helpful several years ago when I was dealing with a co-worker who was determined to submarine my career. I had finally gotten tired of the snide remarks and subtle snubs and I ended up writing an email. Big Mistake! She took my email and sent it to several different co-workers with her scathing comments. Fortunately for me, all of these people had known me for a long time and my reputation managed to hold, but I learned a very valuable lesson. Never put things in writing that you don’t wish others to see. Also, take a deep breath, sit back and take time to think about the situation. Now, if I find I am in conflict, I work to address the situation with calm, well thought out face-to-face communication. In almost all situations this has turned out to be the best way to resolve any issues I may have with fellow workers.

    1. Hi Becke! You are absolutely right in that a person should never put anything in writing when they are hurt, upset, angry or frustrated. It will come back to haunt us.

  10. This is good, good stuff, Joan!!! Thank you for taking time to share this advice with us! I am grateful to you!

  11. I love these suggestions, and will be keeping this article for future reference. Listening, defining the problem and sticking to the facts are so critical!

    In the past when I came under what felt like unwarranted and aggressive attack while being proactive in an attempt to solve a problem, I found it necessary to release suspend the need to defend my point of view, and listen carefully what the other party was bringing to light. It was tempting to dismiss and badmouth my colleague, because several other people cc’d on the communication came to me directly to express their shock at the unprofessional and inflammatory tone of the other party’s response.

    Instead, I redirected all attention to the actual issues at hand. By focusing on the CONTENT of the message and ignoring the inappropriate manner in which the issue was raised, I was able to respond with a proposal to fix the issue my colleague had accurately identified, and quickly get back to the bigger picture issue I was trying to resolve.

  12. Katherine Margard

    I really appreciate the 14 strategies, Joan. The common theme seems to be listening, communicating and attempting to reach a win-win situation. I’ve always found that it’s helpful to assume good intent on the part of person that I’m in conflict with – particularly at the beginning of a new working relationship.

    1. Hello Katherine! Good analysis. I find listening works best for me. I’m not saying I always do it but when I do, it works! I just need to do it more often.

  13. Thank you Joan for providing the daily blog and giving us professional inspiration and guidance.
    I’m so glad I have become an Office Dynamics follower. I know when I feel in doubt, I can just look at one of the blogs, video, etc., I become re-inspired.

  14. I really enjoyed this article, there is some great advice in it!

    I would add one more thing to the “Walk Away” section. Sometimes one is not able to walk away and must work with the “difficult” person. If your difficult person tends to give you “left handed compliments,” or uses other such questionable verbiage (“Did he/she really just say that to me???”) go ahead and ask, “What did you mean by that?” If the comment did not have negative intent the misunderstanding will be cleared up immediately. If the comment did have negative intent this little question will usually shut the difficult person down, and make them less likely to speak that way to you again in the future.

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