Careers advice

Dealing with workplace conflict: a guide

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Whether it's your mates, your family or your co-workers, conflict is never fun. However, it’s a fact of life, and something that professionals need to learn how to deal with properly .

In this article, we’re going to explore the best ways to deal with conflict in the workplace, so that you have some techniques to fall back on if such situations arise. Importantly, we’re not going to talk about coping with workplace bullying or workplace harassment – these are very serious issues that require their own article.

The types of conflict we’re going to discuss here are the more day-to-day stuff – clashes of personalities, ideas and actions.

Let’s dive in.

Dealing with conflict in the workplace: strategies

1. Address the issue as soon as possible

We know it’s uncomfortable, but sitting on growing resentment is only going to make things more awkward in the long run. That doesn’t mean that anytime you have a clash of ideas with someone you need to arrange a meeting – that would be a OTT, but you’ll know if you’re experiencing a recurring pattern of conflict with one particular co-worker.

Discussing disagreements in person is far better than over the phone or a video call.

When having these conversations, it’s crucial to:

  • Find some privacy: book a meeting room, or find somewhere you know you won’t be interrupted. This is key to allowing both you and they to speak openly about what’s going on.
  • Meet in person: in our COVID world, we’re all used to Zoom and Hangouts meetings. But don’t slip into these habits for conflict resolution meetings. Arranging a face-to-face meeting not only shows that you’re serious about building bridges, but also reduces the chance of body language in remote calls being misinterpreted.
  • Listen: the only way this is going to work is if both you and the other person feel they have the opportunity to voice your respective feelings. Give them a chance to talk, uninterrupted, before you have your say.
  • Keep emotions out: when it does come to your turn, make sure you’re talking from your head, not your heart. While it’s important to put your opinion across, you need to do this in a measured and calm way. Whatever you do, don’t use your turn to simply rebut everything they’ve just said in their turn.
  • Be solutions focused: both of you having your say is important, but that’s not the end goal. Ultimately, you’re working towards building a better professional relationship, and finding ways around your disagreements. You don’t have to walk out of there as best friends, but you do both need to commit to trying different approaches.

While no one wants to be the person who’s known for ruffling feathers, don’t shy away from conflict just because it makes you uncomfortable. By approaching it head on, but in a calm manner, one of two positive things can happen:

  • You persuade the other person: this isn’t about ‘winning’, but when you’re right, you’re right. If you can make the other person see that, this time, perhaps their approach/reaction to something wasn’t perfect, they’ll have learnt a valuable lesson.
  • You learn: it might be that, after talking to the other person, you actually find that they were seeing things you weren’t, or that your behaviour was the root cause of the issue. If this is the case, you’ll have grown as a person, as well as a professional by taking this on board.

2. Don’t talk to other coworkers about it

Again, this advice would be very different if you’re experiencing workplace bullying or harassment. But, in instances of personality differences, gossiping or trying to get people ‘on your side’ is a really bad idea.

Not only is it unprofessional, and actually bullying, to gossip about co-workers, this will look terrible to your managers if the disagreements become so obvious that they need to step in.

You’re much better to refer to our first point – talk directly to the person involved and try to resolve your differences between the two of you. No one else in the office needs to know.

Avoid gossiping with other colleagues about any disagreements you've had with co-workers.

3. Know when to take things further

If the conflict moves up a gear from personal and professional disagreement to bullying or harassment, you need to know when to speak to someone.

HR departments, if your organisation has one, are often a good first port of call. Alternatively, your manager should know how to deal with these situations.

4. Learn from it

As we’ve said, disagreements happen all the time, in all sorts of different circumstances. And, in fact, learning how to deal with conflict in the workplace is a crucial skill to evolve.

So, once the immediate issue is resolved, take some time to reflect on what has happened, the steps you took, and the results that you saw. Did that relationship improve quickly, or would you do things differently next time? While conflict is never fun, at least next time it happens (and it will!) you’ll have some tools at your disposal to help navigate the situation. And you’ll be able to add it to your soft skills when you’re next in a job interview.