Conflict in the workplace is inevitable, and it’s one of the thorniest issues managers have to deal with. Put it off, and the problem can fester. Reach a poor, unfair resolution, and resentment can linger. The conflict can also spread to other parts of the office and have a damaging effect on morale, cohesiveness, and productivity. And if you’re the one involved in a conflict, you may have to deal with any of those troubling consequences directly and on a personal level — e.g. you may be the one whose morale takes a hit. For these reasons and more, every worker, from intern to CEO, should have a firm grasp of the most important conflict resolution techniques.
There are experts around who specialise in helping people manage and resolve conflict. There may be times when just such an expert may be needed to sort out a particular conflict. But you don’t need specialist training to resolve minor conflicts.
Below you’ll find guidelines and advice to help you resolve basic conflicts. Anyone can use these tools. Should you want to take your skills to the next level, take a look at the last section of this article.
Before you try to resolve any kind of conflict
Below, we’ve laid out distinct conflict resolution strategies and techniques that will help you resolve any kind of conflict. But before you get started, there are several things you must bring to the forefront of your awareness:
- Think about the kind of person you want to be. Keeping this foremost in your thoughts will help you take actions that are consistent with who you aspire to be.
- Remember we are all different. The people you’re communicating with may not have the same lived experiences. They may not think like you. They may not feel the same way as you about a great many things. Those differences are key to the survival of the human race, so embrace them and appreciate them.
- No one is happy all the time and we shouldn’t aspire to be happy all the time. Without difficult feelings, we cannot be truly happy and cannot grow as people. Resolving conflict is not about making people happy. It’s about ensuring everyone is treated well, looking after each person’s health and wellbeing, and getting conflicting parties to have cooperative conversations and begin working together to achieve shared goals.
- Every one of us can choose how we respond to difficult thoughts and feelings and when our ‘buttons are pushed’. We won’t always make the right choice, but we can always choose to make amends when we make the wrong choice. And when we understand our values, practice mindfulness, and are psychologically flexible, we’re far more likely to respond to difficult thoughts and feelings in a way that’s consistent with the person we want to be and the values we stand for. Always, it’s our actions that count.
- Sometimes we take action on a feeling or thought before we’ve even noticed it. Learning to consciously notice and then pay attention to all our thoughts and feelings is vital if we’re to have the time to stop and choose a response that’s consistent with our values when we experience particularly strong emotions. When attempting to resolve conflict, not only must you notice your own feelings and responses, but you must also help the (other) parties in the conflict to notice theirs as well. You might be surprised by how many serious conflicts arise almost entirely because one or both parties react to and act on their emotions without even realising what it is they’re feeling — or, at least, they act before they’ve processed the emotions and had time to realise what they are and what they mean. (Sometimes people realise after the fact and by then feel it’s too late to do anything about it.)
You may find it helpful to mentally summarise this as:
- Be aware of your internal thoughts
- Strive for high-quality relationships
- Be mindful of the cultural agreements we create and have to follow as a society and which people from other cultures may not be aware of
And one last thing before you get started, be truly aware of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Recognising that empathetic responses rarely, if ever, start with ‘at least’, may just change the course of your relationships for the rest of your life.
Conflict resolution strategies for mediators and arbiters.
When using these workplace conflict resolution strategies, keep in mind you may have to go through many of these steps with each person individually, as they may not start out ready to go through this process together. But if you follow this process with an open mind, you should be able to resolve most workplace conflicts amicably.
1. Listen actively
Hear each person out. Get the full perspective of each person. Be attentive.
Each person needs to feel they’re being heard, so conflict resolution begins with truly listening.
2. Tone down the emotions
Each person talking has to come from a position of calm even when the underlying emotions are strong. Shouting doesn’t win anyone over; nor do accusations and name-calling. These kinds of behaviours are ultimately counterproductive even if they can feel satisfying in the moment to someone who’s suffering.
But even when many of your colleagues know this logically, some will not yet have the skills to act calm in the heat of the moment. So, when you’re mediating a conflict, you’re often going to be faced with the difficult task of staying calm yourself in the face of violently strong emotions.
There’s more to it than that though. You may have more in common with one party in the conflict. You may come in with some preconceptions about what happened or about what may have led to the incident. You may even have conflicted with someone involved in the incident in the past. But you have to acknowledge all that and then push it aside. Your job is to be a neutral arbiter and it’s hard to do that if you let your feelings about any of those involved interfere with any one part of the process.
3. Establish the facts
A discussion goes nowhere if people are operating from different sets of ‘facts’. Get to the bottom of what actually happened in a way that doesn’t suggest judgement or bias. Separate out those ‘facts’ from how people feel about what happened. That step comes later.
4. Give praise that’s even and warranted
Find good things to say about both people. Tell them what they do well and why you value them. This helps calm them and lets them see you as a neutral party trying to resolve a dispute, not take sides. Even better, try to get each person to say one positive thing about the other. It’s a
demonstration of good faith and that they have a conflict, not that they’re enemies.
It’s always beneficial to notice when someone has made a wise decision and to praise them for it. However, there are few times when it’s more important to do this than when you’re helping someone face difficult feelings.
5. Find the root cause of the problem
Sometimes conflict mediation can turn into a never-ending cycle of allegations, but with careful questioning, and with everyone in a calm place and committed to the facts, you can usually get to the root cause of the conflict and then begin working from there.
6. Practice nonverbal communication
How you present yourself can help set expectations and trust in either direction. Maintain an open posture and keep eye contact with both people when they’re speaking or you’re speaking to them. Body language tells a lot, and if you seem disengaged, your workplace conflict resolution strategies are less likely to be effective, no matter how good they usually are.
7. Exercise emotional intelligence
Once you’ve ascertained exactly what happened, to the best of your ability, ask each person involved in the conflict how they feel about what happened. You don’t want to hear things like “he’s always belittling me and he makes me feel like dirt” no matter how true they are. People with those kinds of challenges will need further help from a skilled therapist to help them resolve those feelings — you simply don’t have the training required to unpack that — and while they may seem relevant as contributors to the situation, your job is to resolve what actually happened in that single incident and then refer affected parties to a professional for some evidence-based therapy to allow them to resolve the more deep-seated issues.
Encourage both parties to say things like “Jef said I was just a woman and couldn’t be trusted with that kind of work. I feel angry that he judged me based on my gender rather than what I can actually do. And I feel humiliated that he said that in front of everyone in our team”. You might encourage that kind of sharing by:
- Using your emotional intelligence to make an educated guess about what each person is feeling and why
- Stating a specific fact about what happened that’s likely to be a big contributor to the conflict
- Asking the affected party/ies how they felt as a result of what happened
In this example, you likely don’t have the training to stop Jef from constantly belittling anyone. But you can point out that it’s not fair or productive to make assumptions about a person based on their gender. And it’s well within your capabilities to point out that the woman (let’s call her Nissa) has X, Y and Z skills and has completed similar tasks in the past, so you can see no reason to think she wouldn’t be able to do this specific task. In this scenario, it would be a good idea to ask Jef if he has anything he wants to say, even if you think there’s no possible justification for what he’s done. It might be that he’s seen her fail to do something similar or that he was taking revenge on something hurtful Nissa had said to him previously. That, of course, would not excuse his choice of words, but it may help the pair start to work through their challenges and begin to move forward in their valued directions.
You might start by saying something like “it sounds to me, Jef, like you’re feeling …”. Then you need to stop and listen. Don’t try to fix the issue or ‘fix the people’. Simply sit and listen and validate how each party is feeling.
This is often easier said than done. With practice, you’ll get better at it!
If you have the authority to do so, you could then assign the task to Nissa, perhaps with some training support if there is a legitimate reason to think she might not be able to do the task. And if Jef’s response warrants it, you might also temporarily remove task assignment responsibilities from him until he’s had the training and/or counselling he needs to be able to assign tasks fairly and without bias.
Obviously, the way you approach this part of the process will vary between cases, but hopefully you can see how this could be applied to the incidents you encounter.
8. Seek compromise
In most workplace conflicts, there is no clear case of one person being fully or mostly in the wrong. Conflicts usually arise from different opinions and perspectives. As a result, compromise is key. Both sides have to make concessions.
Instead of framing it as not getting what they want, frame it as a win-win. Look for commonalities in the values and goals of each party in the conflict and find ways for them to work together toward those goals and in alignment with those values. This can help all parties walk away satisfied with the resolution and with a new understanding that may prevent future conflicts.
Conflict resolution when you’re part of the conflict
Being able to objectively resolve conflict between other parties is one thing. Doing it when you’re part of the conflict, well, that’s really going to test your conflict resolution skills.
The above process is a good place to start, but it needs some tweaking when you’re not just the arbiter or mediator of a conflict.
9. Set a time to talk
Politely ask the other person or people to choose a convenient time to meet. Set that time aside and make sure you can meet uninterrupted. This gives you all time to cool down, reflect on your values and approach the problem with a cooler head.
10. Address the specific incident/s
Don’t generalise. Describe specific occurrences. Make it less personal by, for example, saying things like “When this occurs…” rather than “Whenever you do this…” And state exactly what happened, how it made you feel and why it made you feel that way.
In cases where someone has seemingly been deliberately hurtful or counterproductive, this may even be enough for the other person to want to make up for their actions. Afterall, sometimes people say hurtful things purely because they don’t realise they’re hurtful.
And in other cases, if the other person is upset with something you’ve done, it may help them realise why you did what you did and may act as a launch point for a meaningful and heart-felt mending of your relationship.
11. Hear the other people out — let everyone have their full say
Let the other person or people say what they have to say. Don’t interrupt. Don’t rebut. Don’t roll your eyes or make other gestures that say you don’t take the person seriously. Then when they’ve finished, restate what the person said to verify that’s what they wanted to convey, show you were listening, and show that you understand what they said.
12. Discover where you agree and disagree
Make sure you are all clear on and have verbally acknowledged the points of agreement and disagreement. Do this as long as you have to in order to get through all the issues involved. It creates the starting point for the remaining steps and is a vital part of determining your mutually shared values and goals.
In a minor dispute, it might be easy to know what to address. If the conflict has deeper roots, is more complex or is more significant in another way, you’ll need to prioritise the order in which you address each aspect. You can’t resolve everything at once in a more complicated conflict.
14. Make a plan
For each part of the conflict, starting with the ones you’ve decided are the highest priority, talk about how both of you can mutually work on doing better going forward. Look for common values and goals and find ways to work toward those. Emphasise that this is about working together and having cooperative conversations, not just tolerating each other. Agree to have follow-up meetings to assess how things are going.
15. Follow through
Few things make conflict worse than failing to keep a promise that’s supposed to be part of the resolution. And if you break your word, future conflicts will be that much worse and that much harder to resolve. So, it’s really important you do what you say you’re going to do.
Also, if you’re a manager or in another position of power that’s higher than those of the others involved in the conflict, be aware that the other parties may be expecting you not to stick with the plan, to pay lip service to your promises, and to basically just let things carry on the same way. Be a great leader and show the other parties that you meant what you said. You’ll see a more concerted effort on their end to do their part as a result.
Learn to use these conflict resolution strategies consistently and with purpose and you’ll excel in any endeavour you put your mind to.
There are all sorts of reasons conflicts occur in the workplace, and it would be impossible to list them all. There are different personalities at play, competitiveness, jealousy, misunderstandings, and so on. Sometimes a person is going through a personal crisis and the stress spills over into the workplace. Sometimes two people just don’t get along that well. And if you and your workers (if you’re a manager) are going to lean into uncomfortable feelings like these, so you can all work together toward goals you share, you will all need good conflict resolution skills.
Conflict resolution skills are critical for any good leader. Workplace conflict is going to test all those skills, so they need to be up to the task. With good conflict resolution techniques, you’ll be promoting effective workplace communication, helping with stress management, and improving job satisfaction.
And whether or not you’re a leader, you’ll find strong conflict resolution skills and strategies to be one of the most important focuses for your self-improvement efforts. With them, you can build beneficial relationships and achieve the most amazing accomplishments because you’ll be able to move beyond conflict in the directions you value most.
Your conflict resolution strategies may not produce a perfect outcome all the time, but if you can reach the point where all involved feel they’ve been heard fairly, that their concerns are going to be addressed, and that you all have shared goals you’d like to work towards, you’ll be richly rewarded.
We hope these conflict resolution examples will help you navigate challenging situations going forward. If you would like to take your conflict resolution skills to the next level, we can recommend two options:
- Dedicated conflict management training — this is a good option if you’d like to pursue employment as a conflict resolution specialist
- Prosocial @ Work training and facilitation — this is a good option if you’d like to develop your conflict management skills beyond what you can accomplish without training and would also like to understand the tools and techniques you can use to prevent conflict and improve group productivity
And when you find yourself in a situation that’s beyond your level of skill, we hope you’ll let us help you learn to be more psychologically flexible, to notice what you’re feeling and thinking, and to move towards who and what is important to you.
AUTHOR Michelle Trudgen, Clinical Director, ACT Curious.
CONTACT US 📞 0438 922 979 (Australia Wide) email: email@example.com
DISCLAIMER The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
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