A huge amount of unpleasant feeling is generated by conflict. That’s of course why we have courts and alternate dispute resolution measures in our legal system, but what about those conflicts in the workplace that create so much stress?
There are seven practical techniques to dispel the bad side of conflict in the workplace and achieve effective results.
1. Stick to the facts
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Begin by calmly drawing up a list of the facts and the chronology of events with the affected parties, as best you can. They must agree at the outset to your role as arbiter in this dispute and agree at the outset that each person will state what they were doing, etc. Ask them not to bring their emotions into it at this point (there will be a time to vent later). This may assist people to calm down a little (especially if each is pointing the finger at the other), and to establish what happened, where, how and when.
2. Look at yourself
Think about yourself and how you manage/avoid conflict. Identify your own personality style in a conflict situation. Maybe you are someone that sweeps everything under the carpet but fumes later – you know this does not resolve conflict. Nor is being passive and non-assertive; there are times when a person must stand their ground. Aim for cooperation in solving and resolving the issues of disagreement. Say things like: “Let’s work together to fix this” or “let’s do what we can to work this out now”. Emphasise that the aim is to determine a solution in the interests of everyone.
3. Consider the style of communication
Try and work out what people are really expressing beneath the rhetoric and hurt feelings. Consider appropriate ways of responding. If they are avoiding dealing with the issues (and their role in exacerbating the problem), ask questions and probe. If they are being loud and aggressive, avoid arguing back. Instead show empathy (in a firm but carefully modulated voice) and try to understand why they are so upset and angry. If you’re dealing with a quiet and non-assertive person, gently encourage them to articulate issues. Get as much as you can out on the table.
4. Listen and develop rapport
One of the most important things to do in any conflict is to build rapport. Rapport building means eye contact, nodding, using “we” and “us” words. Avoid “touchy-feely” tactics; at this stage, people need emotional, often physical space to consider their own reactions. Each must allow the other to speak without interruption. Make sure you are listening carefully – regularly summarise/recap what has been said. For example: “So, it sounds like you are annoyed about…” “Would I be right in thinking that you…” Avoid kneejerk assumptions about what a person means, or cutting the other person off. Display flexibility – offer creative suggestions for alternative ways to do things. Encourage the participants to observe the same behaviours (be alert to subtle put-downs or hostile eye exchanges).
5. Use reflective questions
Throw to the other person/s for ideas. Use open questions like “How?” “Why do you think this is the case?” “Can you explain/describe this to me a bit more?” This ensures active involvement and, above all, encourages ownership of possible strategies to fix the situation.
6. Acknowledge and encourage
It’s very important to acknowledge suggestions, ideas and emotions. Praise a good idea or positive suggestions and acknowledge attempts to do the right thing. Encourage people to not only express how they felt, but what outcome they would like (within reason). Praise attempts at fairness and seeing the other person’s point of view (empathy). Use humour when you judge it’s appropriate to do so (a good laugh at the right moment can help clear the air).
7. Seek a stepped agreement for resolving the problem
You need to achieve clarity on the differences between you, and spell them out clearly. Choose an appropriate strategy to meet each other’s needs. This could be a stepped agreement where you agree to the first small step, then when that is achieved, you move to the next step. You may need to consider getting more information to be able to resolve the issue then and there, or perhaps consider whether others can assist. Staying calm and logical will role model the others to be and do the same.
There’s actually sound reasons why it’s important to forgive and forget. This doesn’t mean mindlessly blessing your enemy, or pretending things never happened. I think of forgiving as more a conscious process to allow people the space to be different while agreeing to a course of accepted behaviour and collaboration in the future. Forgetting or ‘parking the problem’ is literally ‘letting go’ in your mind and emotions so that your stress levels and aggravation ease, enabling better emotional and physical health. You are not control-deleting your boundaries; you are mending fences, giving some, taking a little in return and, above all, generating a better way forward.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.