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Overcoming conflict in the workplace

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Lankton-Rivas
May 14, 2008

It's not uncommon to face conflict in the workplace. Today's concerns about a recession are adding to the level of stress, which can lead to more conflict. Left alone, conflict can build and intensify, but fortunately there are many ways that you can turn the problem around.

Conflict can come in many different forms. You might, for example:

  • Be tired of dealing with a difficult relationship at work and find it easier to avoid or limit interactions with the person.
  • Get frustrated because a co-worker or boss does not care whether you have a differing opinion and always wants to do things his or her way.
  • Feel like your co-worker doesn't participate and makes you do all the work.

While these feelings might seem like just a personality conflict and not seem work-related, they often have a big impact on the effectiveness of your collaboration, exchange of ideas, and information sharing. The following are eight tips for handling conflict effectively in the workplace - regardless if it's with your staff, peers or management:

  • Approach conflict with an open mind. Recognize that conflict is not about one person being "right" and another "wrong" - but rather, it's about different people with different perceptions. Try to understand the other person's point of view and how he or she arrived at it. Resolving conflict involves coming to a mutually satisfactory relationship rather than one person giving into another.
  • Consider what might have caused the conflict. Is it a difference in styles, opinions, etc.? Evaluate how your words or actions may have contributed to the situation. It's hard to look at yourself objectively, but try to place yourself in the other person's shoes. Consider how you might be able to handle the situation differently.
  • Be respectful of differences. Workplaces today are more diverse than ever, with employees of different ages, cultures, background, etc. What one person might consider acceptable behavior might be insulting to another. Look into attending or sponsoring a diversity program in your workplace so you can learn to work effectively with a diverse workforce.
  • If the conflict is in early stages, you could ask your co-worker if you did anything to upset him or her. Communicate your willingness to talk about this and see if together you can solve the issue.
  • Listen carefully. Try not to jump to any conclusions. When the other person talks, acknowledge his or her feelings, and paraphrase back what you are hearing. Make sure you understand the issue fully before responding.
  • Carefully consider the type of language you use. Use "I" statements, such as, "I feel as though the relationship might be strained." Give some examples of why you feel that way. Try to communicate this without placing blame on the other person, e.g., "It seems like there may be some tension between us."
  • If the conflict has progressed, get some help. Ask a manager you respect for feedback on how you might handle the situation. You could ask for help from your manager, a human resources professional, or a manager in a different department.
  • Be sure the problem is resolved. The fact that you feel better about a situation may not be enough. Make sure your co-worker similarly feels that he/she has been heard and that the issue has been resolved. Also, set guidelines about what you will do if there is conflict in the future. You might say something like, "Let's commit that you will let me know right away if I do something that upsets you, and when you bring it to my attention, we will stop what we are doing to address it."

Conflict in the workplace can be demoralizing, but you can turn the situation around. By understanding the issue and taking positive action, you can help solve the problem and make your office a place where you really want to be.

Susan Lankton-Rivas is a practice leader at Insight Performance, Inc., a strategic human resources consulting firm that works with small and mid-sized companies. She can be reached at webmaster@insightperformance.com or at 781-326-8201.

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