Workplace conflict: 8 tips for cooling things off

The expression “let sleeping dogs lie” speaks to a desire to avoid conflict in the hope of maintaining harmony. Especially in the workplace, we may refrain from talking about our discomfort with others. Does avoiding acknowledging conflict really make it go away? My experience tells me unequivocally no. I have seen formerly harmonious and productive workplaces rapidly become so tense that not only the disputants, but other employees, vendors and customers avoid being around the “bad vibes.”

Unexpressed feelings can result in building something I recently heard described as an “enemy image” – a negative mental picture of an individual that becomes the lens through which we view that person’s actions. Rather than interpret that person’s behavior as reasonable, we tell ourselves – and often others – stories about how “bad” the other person is; we question motives and expect the worst. Negative feelings may soon be reciprocated and tensions build.

In addition, suppressing disagreement may result in a good idea never coming to light. Disputes may arise from one employee suggesting a fresh approach to a vexing problem and having the idea dismissed by others. Ensuring that these kinds of conflicts are aired in a safe, structured and collaborative way may result in discovering a better way to do work.

What can business owners do?

Create an atmosphere that encourages employees to speak out respectfully, acknowledge one another’s  perspectives and seek resolution.

Here are some suggestions if you find yourself in conflict:

  • At the first sign of internal discomfort, take a minute to get in touch with what you are feeling. Keep in mind that occasionally all of us have a bad day when we’re more apt to take things personally that really aren’t meant that way.. If that’s the case, give some thought to what unmet need in yourself is making you uncomfortable; maybe it was all about you and had nothing to do with the other person.
  • If you had a strong emotional response – like anger or hurt – it might be best to wait until that abates. Make a note (either mentally or in writing) to revisit the incident with the other individual at a later time.
  • Attempt to resolve conflict quickly, rather just hope the issue will go away. Arrange to speak privately in some neutral setting – a coffee shop, a conference room or other mutually-convenient and comfortable space – to reduce tension.
  • When you air your concern, be specific; consider explaining what you felt when the person did whatever s/he did to make you feel uncomfortable. Ask to hear their recollection of what happened or ask if you might have missed something. Listen without judgment. Misunderstandings are common. One person may believe what he or she said was entirely neutral, but what was received was anything but. In that case, uncovering mismatched perceptions may resolve the issue.
  • Try to get in touch with feelings and unmet needs on both sides that may have triggered the dispute. Keep an open mind; listen to the other person’s perspective.
  • Once both parties are comfortable that the issues have been fully explored, rather than make a demand for different action, state your unmet need and make a request.
  • Seek clearly stated, mutually agreeable resolutions. Restate agreements to ensure that both parties understand it the same way and agree.
  • If tensions have escalated, it may be necessary consider involving a neutral third party – someone both agree will not take sides, but instead facilitate a fair resolution.

By demonstrating your own ability to successfully resolve conflict, you can create an atmosphere that encourages constructive discussion of different points of view and benefits from those having diverse perspectives instead of being derailed by them. Your employees will take notice and follow your lead.

*Thanks to Ike Lasater and John Kinyon for sharing their conflict resolution model. For more information on conflict resolution, visit:  http://www.johnkinyon.com/ and http://wordsthatwork.us/site/.

Since 1991, Laurie Breitner has assisted organizations with operational improvement, organizational development and strategic planning. Learn more at http://www.breitnerandassociates.com.

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