How to Handle Conflict at Work

Conflicts between people are a normal, natural and inevitable part of life – at work, at home and in all our relationships with others. Unfortunately, most of us don’t really accept this fact and we still get surprised and distressed when it’s clear that a conflict has emerged.

As long as everything is going along smoothly, it’s easy to be considerate and respectful of another person’s needs. They are in no way interfering with our own. But the emergence of a conflict can change all that – now we can feel threatened, anxious and angry. The same person whom we enjoyed working with yesterday now seems like an adversary. That’s because of our vast, past experience with conflict, most of which was negative.

handling conflict win lose people leadershipWe have a negative attitude toward conflict primarily because we haven’t learned constructive ways to deal with it – in fact, the converse is true: we have learned destructive ways of handling conflict. As children, as students and as employees (and too often as spouses) we have experienced losing in a conflict because parents, teachers and bosses use/d their power to win at our expense. Even though we know the feelings of resentment, anger, dislike, even hostility that we experience as a result of losing, the win-lose posture is deeply ingrained and when we get in positions where we have power over people, we often choose to win at their expense.

A great deal of research shows the damaging effects that win-lose conflict resolution has on interpersonal relationships. It creates distance, separation, dislike, even hatred. It’s the main reason people leave their jobs for new ones, marriages break up and parent-child relationships are strained.

Viewing Conflict as Constructive

How conflicts get resolved is the critical factor in any relationship. In fact, it is the most critical factor in determining whether a relationship will be healthy or unhealthy, mutually satisfying or unsatisfying, friendly or unfriendly, deep or shallow, intimate or cold.

As most of us are aware, there is an alternative to the win-lose posture and most have us learned this in some leadership training program along the way. It’s often been called ‘win-win’ or ‘ no-lose’ because the goal is to find a solution to the conflict that meets the needs of both people. Resolving conflicts this way requires three important attitudes and behaviors: 1) the attitude that conflict in general presents the opportunity for constructive change; 2) the willingness to engage in the process of mutually searching for a solution that meets the needs of both people; 3) the communication and problem solving skills that it takes to make this win-win method work. Too often, people want to resolve conflicts this way, but either are not truly willing to work for a mutually-acceptable solution or do not have the skills required to work together to find one. When this occurs, the no-lose method is doomed to failure.

‘Let’s Keep Talking’

When you’re in conflict with a team member or another person, you both are usually aware of it at some level. There’s a sense of disruption, unease, something is not right. The communication between you might change, perhaps becoming superficial or terse. Or there’s silence.

Once you’re aware that you’re in conflict, what you do next really matters. Acknowledge that a conflict exists. Very often, we decide not to acknowledge this hoping that the conflict will somehow go away or resolve itself. That rarely happens. Only when conflicts are brought out into the open, do they have the chance of being dealt with effectively.

Dealing with conflict effectively requires skills — skills that are proven to work, sometimes like magic. When you have these skills, the idea of facing conflicts with others is not nearly so daunting, and in fact can be stimulating and energizing. (There are very few intractable problems to which there are no mutually acceptable solutions.)

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