While some conflict can be healthy for a workplace, too much can be a distraction and lead to dysfunction. Due to miscommunication or mistakes, conflicts that can threaten the harmony of a workplace will inevitably arise between team members. No one likes tension or aggression in the office, whether they’re directly involved or simply bystanders. Keep the following conflict management strategies in mind when trying to navigate or resolve interpersonal conflict to help you defuse them with a minimum of drama and unpleasantness.
Proactively Prevent Conflict-Related Issues
The first and most obvious step is to avoid negative conflict in the first place. This doesn’t mean ignoring the problem, it means creating the conditions for a healthy workplace. Avoid passive-aggressive behavior and be on the lookout for domineering behavior in yourself and others, and work to structure your team so that the people who can productively work together have a chance to do so.
Creating healthy boundaries, personally and professionally, is an important part of making sure that everyone in the workplace gets along. Be clear about what’s acceptable and encourage team members to state clearly as well what their preferences are. Learning to proactively set boundaries is a key part of maintaining workplace harmony and dealing with difficult colleagues.
Nurture Conflict Management Skills Among Your Team
Even if you’ve set up the right conditions for a harmonious workplace, conflict is going to happen. It’s not possible to avoid entirely, and to manage the results you’ll need the right skills. Tools in your conflict management toolbox include, among others, empathy and self-regulation, and these are key elements of preparing your team to manage conflict productively. Everyone has the right skills in some measure, it’s just a matter of finding ways to bring them to the surface.
So what are the skills that you should encourage to ensure that the conflicts that your team engages in are the right kind? Here are a few:
Encourage your team members and especially leaders to think about how their behaviors affect others. Make sure everyone stops from time to time to ask themselves, “Am I dominating the conversation? Am I taking up too much time in this meeting?”
This means learning how to tactfully steer a meeting or conversation back in the right direction. If one person is taking up too much time or driving toward a conflict, practice bringing everyone back to center. A simple “Great point, Jim. What’s everyone else’s take on this?” can work wonders.
Sometimes you’re going to need to take someone aside and deal with their behavior. Do this in private, when possible, and cultivate the awareness that you need to make sure these interactions are successful. Avoid being aggressive with people who will respond poorly, but similarly, don’t be too passive when a strong position is warranted.
This is most useful for managers when trying to mediate a conflict, but it is something that everyone on your team should try to engage in. When listening to someone talk, remember that your goal is to understand, not simply respond, and use your body language to indicate that you are paying attention and invested.
While you can create good conditions for limited conflict and conflict management, it’s essential not to avoid it entirely. This will only breed resentment over the long term.
Good Communication Is Key
Many disputes spring from miscommunication or assumptions that aren’t necessarily grounded. When sitting down to resolve or mediate conflict, whether between coworkers or managers and the rest of the team, have everyone involved calmly, politely, and firmly state their point of view. Remind everyone that they are there not to attack one another but to resolve the issue.
Reminding everyone involved to use “I” language (rather than “you” or “they”, which can come across as accusatory) can help defuse tempers and avoid escalation. It also encourages team members to take ownership of their feelings and involvement in the conflict.
If you are working toward a compromise or trying to steer the team back toward collaboration, it can be a good idea to write down a plan for how to accomplish your goals. Think of this as an informal contract of sorts that can be referred back to if communication breaks down again. It may even be beneficial to have a weekly check-in with the involved parties to see what areas could be improved on in your goal plan.
Keeping a level head and refining your communication with coworkers can help remove the interpersonal conflicts that are a barrier for success not only for yourself, but for the people around you and the company as a whole. Be measured, be honest, and be clear!
Leia Weathington is a writer and artist living in Portland, Oregon.