5 Tips For Managing Conflict at Work
It’s no secret that many people dislike conflict and tend to avoid it. This is especially true for dealing with conflict at work. However, by applying specific strategies to conflict management, we can strengthen our working relationships and find better outcomes that meet the needs of both parties.
What Is Conflict Anyway?
Is conflict simply having a difference of opinion or a disagreement? According to Lena Slachmuijlder, Senior Vice President of Programs at peacebuilding organization Search for Common Ground and THNK alum, “No. A conflict is when one person (or group) perceives that they can’t get what they need because of the other person/group. It’s that relationship between parties in conflict that is in fact its definition. And the key to transformation is that often, it’s just a perception. We define conflict as two or more parties that have seemingly irreconcilable goals. Because, when we transform a conflict, we find that people can achieve their goals if they are able to collaborate.”
Common Workplace Conflicts
Whether it’s conflict on responsibilities, work style, disagreement in creative visions, or just conflicting personalities, we have all encountered conflicts in the workplace. Conflicts, big or small, can have a significant impact on the well-being and performance of both the individual and the team in general. Often the task of conflict management will fall to leaders who need to have the right mindsets and tools for managing conflict in a way that supports the needs of both parties and focuses on finding a way forward.
Managing vs Resolving Conflicts
When we talk about managing conflict, we are trying to find ways to deal with conflict so that it doesn’t negatively impact our relationships. When we talk about conflict resolution, we are talking about eliminating the conflict or finding a solution so that the conflict no longer exists. However, both of these approaches to dealing with conflict can set leaders up to view conflict as a negotiation to be won or a deal to be brokered. This is why Lena suggests a different approach.
Instead of thinking about how to resolve conflict or how to manage conflict, Lena suggests we focus on how to transform conflict. In her 25 years of experience working for peace and social change in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Lena believes that empathy, curiosity, courage, and listening are key skills to help transform conflict and move from adversaries to collaborators. With advice from Lena as well as Rosalie Puiman, THNK Faculty member and author of The Mindful Guide to Conflict Resolution, we share five tips below for transforming conflict and strengthening working relationships.
Tips On Managing Conflict at Work
Rosalie explains that “when you’re in a conflict, you often feel triggered by things from your past. You might not even realize the conflict is triggering something from your past.” Instead of reacting right away, take a moment to pause and think about what is truly happening. Most often, the other person is not trying to hurt or offend you, however, we can feel this way based on our past experiences. By taking a moment to pause and evaluate the situation, you can avoid reacting too quickly or in a way you might later regret. However, the ability to pause and reflect requires a high level of self-awareness. Self-awareness is an essential leadership skill in today’s world, and it’s something you can learn and practice in order to build the skill over time. This is one of the best ways to handle conflict.
2. Use a Beginner’s Mind
Rosalie explains that it’s best to approach conflict with curiosity and a beginner’s mind. Take a step back and look at the situation as if it was brand new to you. Be curious about the other person and their perspective. Lena acknowledges that this can be challenging because it requires a commitment to empathy. “By showing genuine curiosity and empathy for the other person, you might have to feel something you don’t want to feel,” Lena explains. However, by showing empathy and curiosity while giving the other person space to speak, you are opening a dialogue that is important if you want to transform the conflict.
3. Paraphrase to Check Understanding
A key skill in transforming conflict is listening. According to Lena, an important part of listening is the ability to paraphrase what you are hearing. By paraphrasing back what you hear the other person saying, you are checking to be sure you truly understand what they are saying. Listening is not always as easy as it sounds and, at THNK, we consider this is a skill that needs to be practiced that helps in managing conflict at work.
It can be easy to allow your own perspective or opinions to influence what you hear when someone else speaks, however, by paraphrasing what you heard back to them, you give the other person a chance to correct you if you are not understanding them correctly. By checking your understanding, you are also showing the other person that you are listening, you are present and open to their point of view, and you are invested in finding a path forward.
4. Focus On Shared Needs
In Rosalie’s experience, too often people approach conflict with the need to be right. It is important to let go of that need if you want to transform conflict. Similarly, Lena explains that most leaders view conflict as a negotiation to win or a deal to broker. But conflict should never be viewed as a win or lose situation with one party being right and the other being wrong, it is the worst way to handle conflict. The reality is that there are different points of view in all situations and often both parties can be “right.” By focusing on the needs of both parties and, most importantly, any shared needs between the two, you can move away from being adversaries and start working together as collaborators.
5. Find a Way Forward
To resolve conflicts, “too often we think we need a solution or someone needs to win. Instead of thinking about how to solve a conflict, think instead about the best way forward,” explains Rosalie. For many of us, this can be a complete reframing of how a conflict should end. By focusing on the shared needs of both parties (see tip #4) and using those to take small steps forward, you can begin to let go of the need to have a winner and a loser and instead find a way to move forward.
To better understand how to put tips #4 and #5 into practice, Lena shares the following example:
Imagine you are dealing with a conflict with your mother-in-law. You know you are right and she is wrong. Typically, to handle this type of conflict, you might try to convince her that you are right and get her to see that she is wrong. She will likely do the same and you end up in an adversarial situation that is difficult to resolve.
In order to transform this conflict, a better approach would be to instead focus on the shared needs you both have. You may have many needs in a situation like this, but one of those needs might be that your child has a good relationship with their grandmother. One of your mother-in-law’s needs in this situation might be that she has a good relationship with her grandchild. This is a shared need that you both have and can focus on in order to find a way forward. However, you have to let go of the need to be right or “win” the conflict, which is not necessarily easy. If instead, you can focus on the shared need of maintaining a good relationship between grandchild and grandmother, you can likely identify a next step that allows you to move forward in a way that works for both of you. By this way, you can resolve conflict in a better way.
Develop Your Leadership
As Lena explains, “leaders are responsible for creating an atmosphere where conflict can be productive.” This includes creating trust, psychological safety, and demonstrating a willingness to openly and publicly handle conflict. In today’s evolving world, more diverse environments will naturally breed more conflict as we bring together people with different backgrounds and different perspectives. It would be unnatural to expect people to always agree and never have to deal with conflict. In fact, conflict can be healthy and today’s leaders need to be prepared to not just manage conflict, but to transform how their teams approach conflict to find new ways forward.