How to manage interpersonal conflict in the workplace


This article was first published in the Irish Times on 12th July 2019

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

One in four Irish employers experiences a workplace dispute each year. That’s according to data from the Adare Human Resource Management HR Barometer. And it says the average employee in Ireland spends 3.3 hours a week dealing with workplace conflict. Conflict in itself is not inherently negative, but when conflict becomes destructive, there can be deep financial, emotional and physiological costs.

As a certificated mediator, I’ve seen first-hand the results of destructive workplace conflict. So what skills and techniques can help us tip that balance towards a more healthy and useful form of conflict so that we can all get better at working with conflict?

Understand your conflict style

Do you enjoy conflict, or will you do everything in your power to avoid it? There are tools that allow you to explore your own default responses to conflict. And knowing that is useful for managers in terms of allowing them to frame their own strategies.

It also helps people to reflect on what conflict style their staff or work colleague might have.

Our responses to most conflicts is directly connected to both the nature of the relationship we have with the other person, and ultimately what we want to get out of the interaction itself. How aware are you of your own conflict triggers?

Sit down for two minutes and list the things that trigger you most in a professional work context. These will change over time, are dependent on our level of emotional resilience and the particular context we find ourselves in. However, the more aware we are of our own emotional triggers and our own responses to conflict, the more likely we are to be able to navigate towards a more constructive response to conflict.

Get into the other person’s world map

We don’t see things as they are. Each of us see things as we are. We can forget this in the heat of a workplace conflict. Perception is everything in conflict. One key skill is then to meet people in their map of the world.

The next time you are have difficulty in work with a colleague or staff member, take a few minutes and ask yourself: what is the problem from their point of view? What might their intentions have been? What might they be feeling? What is their perception of you?

Going to the balcony

William Ury explored this concept initially in the early 1990s in his classic Getting Past No. It’s a technique that, for me, parallels with first-aid training.

This first thing we are trained to do as a first aider is to take a step back when we come across an accident (so as not to become another casualty of an accident ourselves). The same principle applies to conflict. Imagine you are on a stage the next time you are having a workplace conflict or difficult conversation, now imagine yourself climbing on to a balcony overlooking that stage.

The balcony is a metaphor for a mental attitude of detachment. How we do this will differ from person to person but the more we do it the more it becomes part of our muscle memory.

Respect reciprocity

Our need for reciprocation is a powerful one. When you do something physical for someone, such as helping them with a task or lending them money, they want to pay you back by reciprocating in some way. We have a deep psychological need to “be even” with others. If a person does something for you, we feel a need to get even by doing something nice in return.

The reverse is obviously also true in that, if you do something that hurts others, they will feel the need to hurt you back as well. Before you send that next email regarding a difficult staffing issue keep in mind the power of reciprocity. A simple tip: if you use Gmail switch on the “undo send” feature to allow you 30 seconds to undo any email, to give you a little more time to reflect on how that email will be received and responded to, particularly when you’re angry.

The impact v intention gap

The gap between what people intended by an action/email/phone call and how that action/email/phone call actually impacted a work colleague is a key concept in helping us to get better with conflict. The larger this gap the more possibilities there are for destructive conflict to fester and grow.

Regularly checking your own assumptions is one of the concepts explored in detail in the Harvard Negotiation Project’s excellent Difficult Conversation; How to Discuss What Matter Most.

Don’t undervalue autonomy

Daniel Shapiro, the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, talks about autonomy as one of the five core concerns in any negotiation. I’ve come to believe that a lack, or denial of autonomy is one of the most common underlying causes of workplace conflict.

Adopt his simple ACBD model: Always Consult Before Deciding. Before you make a decision that really matters to someone else in your company, genuinely consult them. You can learn from their thinking, they now feel included, and you still have power over the decision.

The power of small things

The old cliche still holds true that people may forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Think about the last time you felt genuinely listened to by your boss or work colleague. In the fast pace of the modern workplace, it’s the small things than can make or break a work environment.

Turing off your monitor when someone comes to your office for advice, not having your mobile phone on your table and turning off the data connection in your smart watch when you next have a line management meeting can help you be genuinely present for your member of staff the next time they really need to talk with you. The ability to listen, even when we don’t want to, is a key conflict-resolution skill that we can learn to be better at.

The ability of managers to make their staff feel that they are genuinely being listened to is one of the most overlooked, and yet fundamental, ways to de-escalate a conflict.

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