Strategies to resolve workplace conflict

MANAGERS spend about twenty percent of their time trying to manage conflict.  How about you?

Do you hate it or love it?

Imagine if you could reduce the time you spend in conflict, leaving you more time to focus on more important tasks that will improve growth and profitability?

You can. All it takes is a little understanding, knowledge, practice and self-discipline.

There are five myths about conflict.

Office oneConflict Myth #1 is that all conflict is bad. In fact, conflict can cause us to look at why we hold on so tightly to our view. It can also help us try to find ways to live more peacefully with other people. Some workplace conflict can also cause us to question old ways of doing things, resulting in improving systems. It is one of the things that gives us innovation.

Conflict Myth #2: all conflict can be resolved. As much as we don’t want to admit it, all conflict cannot be resolved. There are some deep seated beliefs and feelings that cannot be changed. However, when differences cannot be resolved, you can always show kindness and respect to others.

Conflict Myth#3: all personality conflicts cannot be resolved. The fact is that you can learn to understand other people’s personality styles better, you can understand your own personality style, and you can adapt to get along with anybody. In our leadership program we run a fascinating module that focuses on identifying and managing different personality styles. Understanding others helps a lot.

Conflict Myth#4 is that conflict is about everyone winning. Fact is sometimes you have to yield your position and sometimes you need to do what’s best in the interest of other people.

Conflict Myth #5 is that conflict resolution is an innate, natural ability. In real life situations, we must learn to set aside our natural desire to want things our way, so that we can focus on resolving conflict.

In one of our conflict resolution modules, we note that there are three basic types of conflict.

The first type of conflict is your own conflict. In our research conducted in Bangkok among mid to upper level managers, we ask participants to “pick one of four words that best reflects your most important core value.” The four words are:  Honesty, Kindness, Determination, Peace. The sample was roughly 50/50 Thais and foreigners.

In every group of managers we found the vast majority of respondents claim their core value to be “honesty!”  On further discussion most admitted that sometimes they were not always honest. There are many situations where most of us will sacrifice a degree of honesty to be compatible… just think about that! There was no nationality bias.

Only a very small percentage of them claimed Kindness, Determination and Peace as their important core value.

The lesson from this little exercise is that we need to be prepared for tough situations that challenge our core values, so we know where we will, and where we will not, compromise!

The second type of conflict is interpersonal conflict. This is the most common type that most of us must address in the workplace.

The third type of conflict is group conflict. This is the sort of conflict that arises between such groups as management and labor unions, or between departments. These conflicts cannot be ignored or avoided. Group conflict is probably the most significant and serious type of conflict facing the world today. In this article we will not comment on religious or racial group conflict!

So now let’s get down to how we can handle conflict in the workplace.

Perhaps we can start by considering how we can overcome six barriers to conflict resolution:

The first barrier is that we have a natural tendency to get defensive.

The second is that we often tend to dismiss the issue as unimportant. For example: “you’re making too big an issue of this.”

The third barrier is jumping to conclusions without having all the facts! In mediating, you must get both sides of the story. And all the facts.

The fourth barrier is mentally preparing a response instead of listening carefully.

The fifth barrier, is the inability to empathize. The person speaking to you needs to feel you are listening to them, even if you don’t feel the same way.

The sixth barrier is to stay calm!  Some of us find this particularly difficult. Do not raise your voice and lose control.

According to Dr. Kimberly Alyn, there are six skills you can practice and develop to help resolve conflict.

The first is to listen carefully to what the person is telling you.  Do not interrupt. Do not succumb to the temptation of planning your comeback whilst the person is explaining their point of view.

The second is to repeat what you heard. This technique usually helps contain the person’s anger. It also shows the person that you were listening and that you put value to what they said. That you want to understand them correctly.

Thirdly, ask for more. This will confirm that the other person has shared all their issues, or it allows them to vent or share other details. Again this usually has a calming effect if the person is emotional.

Fourthly, validate the person’s feelings. [e.g.: “it makes sense that you would feel that way.”] This does not mean that you agree with them on the issue, just that you understand how they feel.

That leads into the next step which is to empathize with the person. “I would also imagine you feel like…”

Finally the sixth step is to respond . Sometimes the other person will interrupt. If that happens you may need to ask the other party for permission to allow you to continue.

Remember to develop your communication and engagement skills. Seven percent of an overall face-to-face communication is made up words. About 38% of our message is attributed to our tone of voice and 55% is communicated via our facial expressions and body language. This is particularly important in the Thai cultural environment.

Some negatives to watch for: Staring at the floor. No eye contact. Fidgeting. Scowling. Crossed arms.  Some positives: good eye contact. Leaning forward. Taking notes. Nodding. Both feet on the floor with arms open (not crossed).

If you take time to think about what we have discussed in this article, and practice some of these skills and ideas, you will start to become more adept at resolving conflict.


TOP: Employees at this company seem to be working harmoniously but when conflicts break out it’s not all bad. Photo: Buzz Paradise, CC-BY-2.0

INSET: Senior staff of a company attending a meeting. Photo: Jamal Fanaian, CC-BY-2.0

By David Bell

Managing Director

Crestcom-Rakahng Associates



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