You can’t avoid conflict. That’s a fact of business. If you put two people together, they will, at some point, have a problem with each other. It happens even in the best of environments and the happiest of marriages. It’s inevitable.
The word conflict can conjure up mental images of people shouting and arguing at each other at length until someone wins or gives up. But that’s not healthy conflict. Healthy conflict is just two or more people working together to arrive at a solution to a problem. It’s just a conversation, even though sometimes it can be an uncomfortable one to have.
Although you never know when you’ll need to have an uncomfortable conversation, try to keep in mind that a) you will have to have to them eventually, and b) you’ll be better off if you’re prepared for them.
Here are some guidelines that should help make conflict a productive process, rather than some ugly thing that should be avoided.
Identify the source of the conflict
The first step in resolving conflict is for everyone to get on the same page. For example, are you upset that an employee took a personal day off from work, or are you upset because they didn’t clear it with you beforehand?
This is important for you to understand, because you have to be able to voice it clearly to the other party. The two examples in the paragraph above may seem very similar, but they’re actually just different enough that each one requires a unique resolution.
Only once both parties are crystal-clear on the problem, can they begin to work toward a solution. The key here is to help the the other person understand your perspective without making them defensive.
Be open to new solutions
Healthy conflict shouldn’t be about who can make their point the loudest, or who can hold their ground the longest. If you enter into conflict with an open mind, you’re far more likely to find common ground.
Let go of the mental energy that is keeping you fixated on your side of the conflict. If you’re only listening to the other person in order to formulate an argument that helps prove your point, then it really isn’t a two-way conversation.
The only way to settle a dispute or solve a problem is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying. If you’re willing to really listen, they may actually surprise you with a point of view you hadn’t considered before.
Keep a level head and don’t lose your temper
When we have disagreements with family or with friends, things can get heated and emotional. But in the workplace, we don’t have the luxury of letting our tempers get the best of us. It will only serve to escalate the conflict and cause both parties to dig in to their position.
It could also earn you a reputation for being a bully, which can limit your career prospects and alienate you from coworkers.
Be direct, but not too intense. This isn’t about assigning blame, but working to find a solution. Don’t let yourself become provoked by the other person’s words or tone.
Listen as much as you talk
A big part of what makes conflicts ugly is when we feel like the other person just doesn’t understand our point of view. This doesn’t mean that you have to automatically agree with the other person, but if you can let them know that you understand where they’re coming from, you’ve already started to build a bridge.
Active listening is a great way to engage with someone in a way that reassures them you’ve been listening. Active listening involves paraphrasing or restating the message back to the speaker, in different words, and usually in a shorter form.
If a coworker is expressing their view on a matter, a passive listener might just nod their head absently. Or they wouldn’t acknowledge anything the speaker said, and immediately proceed to take over the conversation. An active listener would actually paraphrase the speaker’s message by saying something like “Let me see if I’m clear on this”, or “When you said ______, what did you mean?”
More than anything, just be authentic and genuine when giving people your attention. When people know you’re fully listening to them, they’ll be much more willing to listen to you in return.
Every conflict needs a clear resolution. What action plans will you both put in place to prevent this problem from arising in the future? Healthy conflict shouldn’t be about winning or losing — it should be about finding the best solution and moving forward.
Sometimes though, the solution may be that both parties agree to disagree.
At my companies, we have operated under a Disagree and Commit principle. Employees are free to respectfully disagree with leadership decisions, and I welcome their input. Sometimes I’m swayed, other times I’m not. But once the final decision is made, we all commit to it fully.
Bonus: Use the GROW model
If you aren’t sure how to have a sit-down disagreement with your coworker, the GROW model can be a lifesaver. It’s an extremely effective, non-threatening formula for laying out the problem and arriving at a resolution together.
GROW is an acronym that stands for:
The meeting starts by identifying the Goal you’re trying to reach, contrasted with the current Reality of the situation. The next step is to collectively identify the Options that can help you reach the stated goal. Finally, all parties agree on exactly what Will be done, and by when.
My organizations have used the GROW model extensively for years, and I’ve seen it work wonders for scenarios that could have easily turned into ugly arguments.
I believe resolution can be found where there is a genuine desire to do so. However, when all else fails, resolve the issue not by playing favorites, but by doing the right thing. Empathy, professionalism, active listening and forgiveness will help you build a strong rapport with your people, and move forward without grudges being held.