Principles for Addressing Workplace Conflict
Common and ineffective strategies to deal with workplace disputes include:
- Indirect communication in the form of complaints and/or gossip,
- Emotional reactions
- Righteousness: holding on to positions
Principles to Help:
- Pay attention to your emotions and how they influence you. Realize that emotions are part of the workplace and that negative emotions can fuel the conflict. Acknowledge your emotion and then determine its source. Is it based on a bad experience or a past interaction that may be influencing the current situation? Is it based on something you have no control over? Take the time to deescalate before moving forward.
- Consciously decide how to respond to a conflict situation. Most people remember how you respond to a situation rather than what happened. While you often do not have control of many situations, you can choose how to respond to others to help reduce work conflict and stress. By responding appropriately to a conflict situation, you take responsibility for your actions. Refer to Understanding Conflict Handling Styles to discover the advantages and disadvantages for each style.
- Give yourself time to prepare. You should address difficult issues after you have had time to organize your thoughts. Take the time to understand and be clear about what your real concerns. Ask yourself, “What is the underlying reason or the ‘why’ behind what I want?” Refer to Focus on Interests (Needs), Not Positions (Wants) for more information.
- Listen, Reflect, Inquire. Do you have enough time to listen? Is the setting appropriate? Make good eye contact and keep your facial and body expressions in check. Listening is hard when emotions are high. Cool down first. Do not listen only to hear what you expect the other person to say or to confirm your viewpoint. Listen with an open mind. Help the other person feel heard. Empathize. Ask open ended questions to gather information. Refer to Listening Effectively for tips on how to listen well.
- Use “I” messages to express your concerns in a non-confrontational way. Focus on and clarify your issues, feelings, or opinions. “I feel frustrated when you come in late because I am not able to end my shift on time,” rather than “You are always late.” “I” messages place the responsibility on you and include three components: 1) your personal reaction/feeling, 2) a description of the situation/action, and 3) the impact/consequence from your perspective. “You” messages focus the blame on the other person and they are likely to elicit a negative or defensive response.
- Frame the issue in terms of interests. Frame the discussion by being direct about your interests. Ask powerful questions to better define the problem for the two of you to address together. The best questions are open-ended questions rather than questions that require a “yes” or “no” reply or a short answer. Good questions include “What would that look like?” “How would that work in this situation?” “How do you want to move forward?” Refer to How to Identify Interests for help on questions.
- Focus on what you can change – the future. Discussion about the past and/or arguing about examples may be necessary for understanding, but it is not to convince the other person you are right or to defend yourself. Focus on how you can both work more productively in the future.
- Recognize that other viewpoints are possible and likely. Although you feel differently about the situation, the other person’s feelings are real and legitimate to them. Denying their existence is likely to escalate the situation. It is difficult to find solutions without agreement on the problem. If you do not understand the other person’s viewpoint, you run the risk of not solving the right problem which could make the conflict worse.
- Brainstorm creative options. By involving the other person in resolving the conflict, you gain his or her commitment and develop a stronger working relationship. Being open-minded to solutions expands the universe that can bring you relief.
Source: CDR Associates,Conflict Resolution for Managers and Leaders, John Wiley & Sons, 2007 and Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan,Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, John Wiley & Sons, 2007.
Understanding Conflict Handling Styles
In a dispute, it's often easier to describe how others respond then to evaluate how we respond. Each of us has a predominant conflict style. We can gain a better understanding of the impact that our personal conflict style has on other people. With a better understanding, you can make a conscious choice on how to respond to others in a conflict situation.
Behavioral scientists Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, who developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, have identified five styles—competition, collaboration, compromise, avoidance, and accommodation. No conflict style is inherently right or wrong, but one or more styles could be inappropriate or ineffective for a given situation.
Value of own issue/goal: High
Value of relationship: Low
Result: I win, you lose
Competitors come across as aggressive, autocratic, confrontational, and intimidating. A competitive style is an attempt to gain power and pressure a change. A competitive style can be appropriate when you have to implement an unpopular decision, make a quick decision, the decision is vital in a crisis, or it is important to let others know how important an issue is to you – "standing up for your right." However, relationships are harmed beyond repair and may encourage other parties to use covert methods to get their needs met.
Value of own issue/goal: Low
Value relationship: High
Result: I lose, you win
Accommodators set aside their own needs because they want to please others in order to keep the peace. Smoothing or harmonizing can result in a false solution to a problem and can create feelings in a person that range from anger to pleasure. Accommodators are unassertive and cooperative and may play the role of a martyr, complainer, or saboteur. However, accommodation can be useful when one is wrong or when you want to minimize losses to preserve relationships. It can become competitive – "I am nicer than you are" – and may result in reduced creativity and increased power imbalances.
Value of own issue/goal: Low
Value of relationship: Low
Result: I lose, you lose
Avoiders deliberately ignore or withdraw from a conflict rather than face it. Avoiders do not seem to care about their issue or the issues of others. People who avoid the situation hope the problem will go away, resolve itself without their involvement, or rely on others to take the responsibility. Avoidance can be appropriate when you need more time to think and process, time constraints demand a delay, or the risk of confrontation is not worth what might be gained. However, avoidance is destructive if the other person perceives that you don’t care enough to engage. By not dealing with the conflict, this style allows the conflict to simmer potentially resulting in angry or negative outbursts.
Value of own issue/goal: Medium
Value of relationship: Medium
Result: I win some, you win some
Compromisors are willing to sacrifice some of their goals and persuade others to give up theirs too–give a little, get a little. Compromisors maintain the relationship and can take less time than other methods, but resolutions focus on demands rather than needs or goals. The compromise is not intended to make all parties happy or find a decision that makes the most business sense, but rather ensures something just and equitable even if it causes a loss for both parties. Power is defined by what one part can coerce or get the other to give up. To split the difference game playing can result and the outcome is less creative and ideal.
Value of own issue/goal: High
Value of relationship: High
Result: I win, you win
Collaboration generates creative solutions that satisfy all the parties’ concerns and needs. Collaborators identify the underlying concerns, test assumptions, and understand the views of others. Collaboration takes time and if the relationship among the parties is not important, then it may not be worth the time and energy to create a win-win solution. However, collaboration fosters respect, trust, and builds relationships. Collaborators address the conflict directly and in a way that expresses willingness for all parties to get what they need.
In any conflict ask: "Is my preferred conflict handling style the very best I can use to resolve this conflict or solve this problem?"
Source: Thomas, K. W. and R.H. Kilmann, Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument
Focus on Interests (Needs), Not Positions (Wants)
Understanding people's interests is not a simple task, because we tend to communicate our positions – things that are likely to be concrete and explicit. Try to recognize the difference between positions and interests to assist in creative problem solving.
- Positions are predetermined solutions or demands that people use to describe what they want – what the person wants to happen on a particular issue.
For example: "I want the report."
- Interests define the problem and may be intangible, unexpressed, or not consistent. They are the main reasons why–the motivation behind the position. Conflict usually exists where these motivations/needs are not understood or mismatch in some way.
For example: "I need to receive the report by Friday, so I can have time to review and edit before the due date next Wednesday."
Remember that figuring out your interests is just as important as figuring out their interests.
How to Identify Interests
To identify interests of the other person, you need to ask questions to determine what the person believes he or she truly needs. When you ask, be sure to clarify that you are not asking questions for justification of their position, but for a better understanding of their needs, fears, hopes, and desires.
Using open-ended questions that encourage a person to "tell their story" helps you begin to understand their interest. Open ended questions are opposite of closed-ended questions, which require a response of "yes" or "no." To illustrate the difference, consider the following example:
- Did you have a good relationship with your supervisor? (closed-ended)
- What is your relationship with your supervisor like? (open-ended)
Examples of open-ended questions:
- What’s your basic concern about …?
- What do you think about …?
- How could we fix …?
- What would happen if …?
- How else could you do …?
- What could you tell me about …?
- Then what?
- Could you help me understand …?
- What do you think you will lose if you …?
- What have you tried before?
- What do you want to do next?
- How can I be of help?
It is not uncommon for you or the other person to have multiple interests.
Problem solving based on interests leads to more creative and successful resolutions.
Source: Fisher, Ury, and Patton. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Houghton Mifflin, Second Edition, 1992.
Problem solving requires effective listening skills. When you listen effectively, you help calm the other person’s emotions so they feel heard. Once emotions are deescalated then both parties can use cognitive problem-solving to generate options.
Pay attention to your listening behaviors. Be cautious of:
- Assuming that you know what the speaker is going to say next
- Thinking about what you are going to say while the other is talking
- Preoccupation with your appearances or trying to impress
- Judging or being critical of the speaker
- Trying to look interested, but not hearing what the other person is saying
- Tuning out because the information conflicts with your ideas and beliefs
- Interrupting so you can argue your idea or find holes in the other person’s argument
- Tuning out because of how the speaker is talking – too loud, unpleasant or because the speaker is monopolizing the conversation
Check out this Ted Talk on 10 ways to improve conversations
We filter information through our biases, values, emotions, meaning of words, and physical frame of mind. Be cautious of:
- Hearing what you want to hear and not what is really communicated
- Past negative experience coloring what you hear
- Attempts to hear something that fulfills your wishes or desires
- Forming an opinion about the value of what is being said, i.e., too boring, too complex, nothing new, unimportant, wanting the speaker to get to the point
- Emotionally charged words used in communication like absolutes, assumptions, and demands: "you should," "you have to," "you lack," "you never," "you always," "you fail to understand," "every time you," "you are confused," etc.
- Low energy and how this impacts listening and responses
- Assuming your own meaning of words and expressions is the same as the speaker
How to Listen Effectively
- Prior to the meeting, recognize and understand the emotions. Are you nervous? Are you angry at the other person? Are you frustrated about something? Ask yourself what is causing the emotion. Are you carrying the emotion over from one issue to another? Are there personal problems from home that are interfering with work?
- When meeting, pay attention to the speaker. Resist distractions. Put down your pen, make good eye contact, and lean forward to show your interest. Don't interrupt. Jot down notes if it helps.
- Listen with an open, curious mind. Do not judge what the other person is saying as "wrong." Clarify meaning by asking questions to get additional information. Try: "Please help me understand …" or "How did you say that happened?"
- Don't react to emotional outbursts. Talk to the other side about their emotions. Talk about your own emotions. Acknowledging emotion proactively will stop it from dominating the discussion. Examples of what you can say "You feel that…" or "It must have been frustrating to have …"
- Reflect and clarify on meanings. After the speaker is finished say "Did I understand you correctly that you are saying …?" "Let me see if I have this correctly, …" "From you point of view, the situation is …" Try summarizing, mirroring, or reframing.
- Summarize to bring the discussion and check progress on moving forward.
- Conflict Management Bibliography (PDF) - Read more about how to handle conflict in the workplace; understand aspects of communication that reduce conflict such as managing emotions and having difficult conversations; and learn more about mediation, negotiation, and facilitation skills.
- Thomas, K. W. and R.H. Kilmann, Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument