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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

3 Ways To Manage Conflict In The Workplace

Scrabble letters that spell "conflict"
If you experience conflict in the workplace, you’re not alone: As many as 85% of employees experience some kind of conflict.GETTY

If you experience conflict in the workplace, you’re not alone: As many as 85% of employees experience some kind of conflict. The cost of unhealthy conflict in the workplace is high: Employees at U.S. companies spend approximately 2.8 hours each week involved in conflict, according to Pollack Peacebuilding Systems. This amounts to around $359 billion in hours paid that are filled with—and focused on—conflict instead of on positive productivity.

Conflict can be a challenging part of our personal and professional lives, whether it’s a disagreement about strategy, political issues, or who to invite to the meeting. Conflict under the surface is really about our relationships, our identities, and the things that matter to us. The truth is that conflict can trigger uncertainties, but “those uncertainties are trying to tell you something about a problem that needs attention,” says labor organizer Jess Kutch. We all know what happens when we don’t address a problem: It boils beneath the surface, and then tends to erupt.

Why can situations where we are in conflict backfire so quickly? It’s because conflict triggers a fear response in our brains, where a perceived threat is registered as being in physical danger. This sends us into fight-flight-or-freeze mode. Our instinct to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.

This is evolution’s way of safeguarding us from a perceived threat, such as being chased by a predator. The problem is that having a “triggered” response doesn’t serve us in this modern era where we aren’t going to be physically harmed in the moment.

How you handle conflict depends on so many variables, including your own internal compass, unique experiences, and position of power. While acting out in anger can do irreversible relationship damage, leaving conflict unaddressed in order to preserve a relationship or your own status creates a wall between you and the other person, and is likely to come out in passive aggressive or other damaging ways.

Of course, there is no quick fix for learning to productively address conflict head on in the workplace—it requires ongoing practice and habit building on a personal level, as well as the presence of a larger “speak up” culture (the cornerstone of psychological safety).

While conflict feels deeply uncomfortable, it can also serve as an opportunity to uncover solutions to problems, and be seen as a source of energy that—if properly channeled—can lead to transformation in certain instances. Here are some ways to put some healthy conflict resolution into practice:

Recognize what the conflict is really about.

All too often you may not even realize that you and the opposing party aren’t agreeing on what exactly the problem is. A workplace example might be a manager who feels like a member of her team just isn’t delivering. The truth may be the team member feels there are unrealistic expectations, a lack of clarity about his goals, or doesn’t understand the process needed to achieve them. While you may see the conflict as a lack of delivery, the problem itself may be that more clarity is needed or a new process is required.

If you’re experiencing a conflict, you might spend some time digging into all the possible root causes of the conflict you’re currently dealing with that may be different from your initial perception. In writing down the possibilities or alternatives, you just might find that the conflict you thought you were struggling with isn’t what the conflict is actually about. This is an exercise to get to the heart of the matter, because we can’t solve for what we don’t even realize exists.

Identify where you are stuck.

Justification is often what keeps us stuck in conflict, according to conflict and collaboration consultant Cair Canfield. Conflict can keep us stuck if our egos want us to remain blameless, like we don’t have any part in the problem and so we don’t have to change. But it doesn’t really serve you, because you’ll keep doing the same thing in the same way, rather than be able to move forward productively.

The next time you’re experiencing conflict, try listing out the ways you may be justifying your actions or point of view in the conflict you’re working through. Examples of justifications may be:

  • You think you have more experience than the other person.

  • Your way is simply the “right way to do things.”

  • Telling yourself the other person will never see your point of view.

  • The only way to “win” is to hold your ground without budging.

Justification may be momentarily gratifying, but it won’t move you forward. Listing out your possible justifications will help you identify where your ego may be getting in the way of finding common ground or brainstorming creative solutions so you can start to make progress.

Stay curious in the face of difference.

Instead of immediately shutting down an idea because you disagree with it, ask questions. You might ask, ‘What in your life has shaped your viewpoint?’ Being curious about why the other person sees things the way they do helps your brain to stay open to new information, while being defensive can make you less open minded.

Also try asking for clarification in regards to the opposing viewpoint. This makes it easier for you to listen to understand, and therefore, find a solution you could not come up with by only listening to people to respond.

*Article originally published in Forbes


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