Priya Nalkur

At its simplest, conflict is a difference in perspective between two or more individuals. This means that conflict is surprisingly common — it’s one of the most human things to have a different perspective from someone else. 

The CPP Global “Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive” report found that US employees spend 2.1 hours a week involved with interpersonal conflict, which amounts to about $359 billion in paid hours, or the equivalent of 385 million working days. 

Yet despite how often we encounter conflict, there’s a common misconception that conflict is bad. Rather than fight against it, I believe we ought to embrace it and recognize it for what it is. Conflict is actually a gift. It’s an opportunity to get closer to that other person, clarify our relationship with that person, and understand who they are more holistically.

Learning how to deal with conflict is important because relationships matter so much in the workplace. If we have solid relationships, we can influence more, get more done, and be more productive. But we can also be more fulfilled — better connections with other people create more intimacy and trust, which creates a more collaborative and better work environment. Research from Gallup shows that psychological safety — a climate in which employees feel like they can be and express themselves openly — leads to higher engagement and better business results.

In my course, Mastering Conflict Management and Resolution at Work, I cover the essentials of conflict management in the workplace.

Here are 5 ways to improve you and your employees’ approach to conflict management.

1. Approach conflict with the right mindset

Mindset is our attitude or approach to any given experience. We can be grateful, resentful, enthusiastic, or disgusted. Often we think emotions are a reaction to our experiences, but if we choose a mindset first, it will inform how we approach a situation. There are a few mindsets that are really effective to manage conflict well.

2. Find the balance of strong and kind

Conflict is inflammatory. It often triggers an emotional response, which can be different for each person. Some people dig their heels in and get defensive. Others become quiet and passive aggressive. On the other side, some people get what I call “crazy and loud,” where they’re screaming and shouting and their behavior may appear irrational. 

I believe that the best approach is the middle ground between all these extremes, which I call “strong and kind.” It’s the best of both worlds — it’s being able to be really direct in a warm way while not minimizing the message. In fact, the warmth amplifies the message. For example, if there’s a person who’s habitually late, you can say, “When you’re late, the team loses trust in you.” Your tone shouldn’t be angry or defensive — you’re simply being honest in a warm way. The strong and kind approach is not about trying to win — it’s about communicating clearly.

3. Don’t get defensive

Sometimes we feel like we have to explain and defend our position, but this gets very exhausting for the person who’s listening to us. This is a natural instinct for many people, but what really works is the opposite approach. Instead of explaining more, make an effort to ask open-ended questions like, “What’s really important to you?” “What’s preventing you from getting what you want?” “What does success look like for you?” 

Taking the time to ask others about how they’re feeling and why — and really listening to their answers — helps us move toward resolution.

4. Understand relationship outcomes vs. task outcomes

Every time we engage in an interaction with someone else, we yield either a relationship outcome or a task outcome. A task outcome is something like, “We planned our meeting for Monday” or “We’ve set a goal to make $1 million by May 2020.” Relationship outcomes are a lot softer and more intangible. They’re things like, “I left the meeting feeling like I really trust this person and we built a connection.” Or, “I left the meeting wondering whether this person liked me or gave me their approval.”

When we’re in a conflict situation, many people tend to over-index on the task outcome. They want a result, they want to win the argument, and they want to be right. However, we often do that at the expense of the relationship outcome. But when we sacrifice the relationship outcome, it makes it harder for us to work together in the future, even if the conflict is resolved. 

What we want to do is try to balance relationship and task outcome. So every time we say something that yields a task outcome, we should balance it with something that yields a relationship outcome. It may be being grateful or expressing how we feel or providing or expressing feedback.

5. Sharpen your listening skills

The funny thing about listening is we all think we know how to do it and it turns out it’s not so simple. In fact, it’s one of the hardest skills. While we dedicate about 60% of our communication time listening, we only retain about 25% of what we hear.

There are three main ways we listen. First, when we listen, we’re attempting to relate the information to our own experience. For example, if you’re talking to someone who says they’re from Canada, you hear them, but you’re also thinking about your own experience growing up in Canada. We listen to relate the experience to our own selves. 

Second, we listen as though someone is giving us instructions or data and we need to memorize it. For example, if someone is giving you instructions on how to find a room in a building or how to perform a specific task, you’ll listen in a particular way to gather the information you need.

The third type of listening is when we listen to what’s not being said — the speaker’s tone, body language, energy, and sub-text. When we do this type of listening, we have to use more than our ears. This is a more empathetic and global way to listen and we can access more information this way. This third type of listening is also the most effective style when we’re in a conflict management situation. It’s tempting to listen in the first way — because we want to be right in a conflict — but if we can absolve ourselves of that need to be right and approach it with curiosity, we’re more likely to listen in the way where we can listen to what is and isn’t being said. 

If you’d like to improve your ability to do this type of listening, my advice is to check in with the other person when you think you’ve understood a signal they’re sending to see if you’re right. For example, if you’re seeing the person is nodding, you can say, “I see that you’re nodding and I interpret that to mean that you’re following along with what I’m saying. Have I got that right?” Then you give them the opportunity to respond. This also helps us be connected and feel better understood. 

Also, keep in mind that after the resolution process, there are a lot of things you can do to take care of yourself. It’s important to not just let the conflict go because it’s been resolved. You can choose to forgive yourself or the other person. You can choose to apologize to yourself or the other person for a misunderstanding or something that went wrong. You should take care of yourself and build your resilience because conflict is going to happen again. It’s worth reflecting on what you’ve learned and who you’ve become in the process and what you did that contributed to the conflict and the resolution. Conflict doesn’t just end when it’s been resolved — there’s still more work to be done afterwards on ourselves.

Check out my course Mastering Conflict Management and Resolution at Work to learn more about managing conflict in the workplace.

Page Last Updated: March 2020

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